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A College of Magics

by Caroline Stevermer

hardcover edition

What if Jane Austen had written The Prisoner of Zenda? If the idea appeals to you, I strongly recommend A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer, a witty, genteel fantasy set in the early years of an alternate twentieth century.

Faris Nallaneen, duchess of Galazon, has been packed away to finishing school at Greenlaw College by her usurping uncle Brinker. Greenlaw is unusual in that magic is a mandatory part of the curriculum; unlike Latin and deportment, its practice is forbidden to students, but a graduate is entitled to be called a scholar of Greenlaw to her face and a witch of Greenlaw behind her back. Faris vacillates between periods of immersing herself in her studies and ignoring her schoolwork in favor of trashy three-volume novels. (A College of Magics is, of course, a three-volume novel.)

The pacing of the book while Faris is at Greenlaw is episodic; she spends two years at school until a whirlwind of events culminates in her rushing off to save the world, accompanied by her best friend, the excruciatingly English Jane Brailsford. Along the way, they attempt to rescue Galazon from the clutches of her wicked uncle while becoming embroiled in the messy politics of the neighboring kingdom of Aravill.

Faris's Europe in 1909 is not very different from our own, except for the existence of magic and a few extra independent duchies in Eastern Europe. They have motorcars, pistols, railroads, and bombs. It's a wonderful antidote to the current trend of generic medievaloid fantasy. This book may not appeal to those who like constant swordfighting, car chases, and general mayhem, but it will delight readers who enjoy unfailingly clever dialogue.

"Dry work. I'd hate to miss the spectacle but I'm perishing for my tea. Just sit with me for a moment while I drink a cup and then let me come along to watch you murder Menary. Though of course, we'll have to queue up for the privilege. She does love to do an ill turn when she sees the chance."

"Do you speak so highly of all your friends?" asked Faris, coldly.

"Menary doesn't have any friends. She doesn't want any. She's more interested in servitors. I merely asked her a few questions. And don't snipe at me for my shocking geography," Jane added. "If it isn't the Empire, it's all the same to me: Galazon, Aravill, Graustark, or Ruritania. You really can't expect me to keep all those little countries straight. I'm not ignorant, just English. Milk? Sugar?"

A College of Magics has everything: a wicked uncle, an evil blonde, obliging highwaymen, an exploding hat, and attempted murder on the Orient Express. It certainly won't be to everyone's tastes, but it's one of the best books I've read this year.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
June 1994

hardcover edition
Publisher: Tor
Date: March 1994
ISBN: 0-312-85689-X
Binding: hardcover
Pages: 380
Price: US $22.95, Canada $31.95

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Sep 2001 / CMS