Sunday, April 10, 2016
A College of Magics - Caroline Stevermer (A College of Magics #1)
"It seems I have to save the world."
"Oh, dear. Do you have the training for that?" Jane asked dryly.
Faris smiled and leaned back in her chair. "I doubt it. But it seems I am the warden of the north."
So many people seem to have disliked or downright hated this book, which is heartbreaking to me, as it is my favorite book in the whole wide world and has been for more than a decade; I come back to read it again and again and again, far more than I've read any other book in my collection. Much of this hatred seems to stem from the rather unfortunate editorial quote from Jane Yolen (whose works I also like, but whose quote seems misplaced here) claiming that A College of Magics is "A large step up...from Harry Potter." I mean, we don't know what went in the middle of that quote that the ellipses have replaced, but that's not the point. The point is that A College of Magics and the Harry Potter books have very little to do with each other, and A College of Magics actually has very little to do with said college at all. I can see why this would frustrate a lot of people. Similar mis-titles of books have greatly frustrated me in the past. But I still can't help but think that, in their desperate need for something like Harry Potter, people have lashed out at this book for not being Harry Potter, rather unfairly, because it is a complete gem on its own.
If you haven't figured it out already, this is mainly going to be me defending A College of Magics against what I feel are very unfairly leveled accusations, and laying out what is so absolutely wonderful about this book.
"When this place was dedicated to St. Margaret, slayer of dragons, it was already old. It was old when the wardens of the world held court in splendor. It was old before that, when they walked abroad in the world, as free as minstrels. Time sings in the stones here."
A College of Magics is set up in the style of a three-volume novel, rather cheekily, I would say, since three-volume novels are what the heroine and her friends spend so much time reading when they are supposed to be doing other things. It follows Faris Nallaneen, the eighteen-year-old Duchess of Galazon who, despite having the birthright and title, can't really rule her duchy until she reaches her legal majority at age twenty-one. In the meantime, her uncle Brinker rules Galazon, and he has sent Faris off to Greenlaw College, which is placed near St. Malo in France, in order to be finished. Greenlaw is, first and foremost, a finishing school--which is the reason that Faris' eventual best friend, Jane Brailsford, was sent there. But it has a reputation for turning out students who also learn magic, and who are therefore referred to as witches of Greenlaw in the world beyond upon their graduations.
She sat at the heart of the world. Silent and serene, she balanced in the void.
The magic part is another place where I think people get too hung up on this. People looking for a lot of flashy magic and lessons in spells (again, like in the Harry Potter books) are going to be disappointed. The magic here is much more atmospheric and lends itself very much to the maxim that "believing is seeing." Faris is our point of view character, and she doesn't really explicitly believe in magic--and so we don't see much of it. She certainly doesn't outright learn it, because she doesn't think that she can; doesn't, in fact, think that learning it is possible at all. She does eventually set aside her skepticism, but no real embrace comes in its place, leaving Faris as more of a magic agnostic than anything else. And so, while we see magic from others and we know that Faris herself is capable of magic, and has actually accidentally worked it on a few instances, it remains drifting in the background, leaving us wondering whether each of Faris' actions will have some magical repercussion. I love this. Magic exists in this world but it is, as we're told and as we can see, exceedingly rare. But it is there, and sometimes you have to look harder than you would first think in order to see it. They're subtle magics, but when you realize exactly what they are, they're impressive in their own right. They also have their own place in the world, which the magics in Harry Potter do not. Everyone is aware that magic exists, whether they can use it or not, whether they've encountered it or (more likely) not. And so when it does make its appearance, it does, however unusual, belong.
"I know of no one and nothing that can restore that light once it has been extinguished."
Most of the book, however, does not focus on Faris at Greenlaw. It focuses on her after she leaves, and travels to Paris, to Galazon, and eventually on to the other fictional country of Aravill (capital: Aravis) in order to fix a great magical wrong that one of her ancestors committed, and which has left the very structure of the world in jeopardy. On this adventure she is accompanied by Jane Brailsford, a fellow student turned teacher at Greenlaw; Tyrian, a bodyguard assigned to Faris by her uncle to prevent her from leaving Greenlaw prematurely, but sent to him by a much more mysterious source; and Reed, a servant-slash-tennant at Galazon who is loyal to Faris and despises her uncle despite being in service to him, and who will help her take control of her lands at any cost. Along the way, she runs into assassins, highway robbers, old friends, new friends, ghosts in the wings, anarchists, and a king who certainly wants something from her...
"Must I explain it to you, too? Faris, you're the warden of the north."
The back of this book says it's aimed at ages 10 and up, and while there's no sexual content or cursing here, I really disagree with that, because I think most of this book is far above a 10-year-old's head. It's not raunchy or explicit in any way, but it has a subtle humor to it that no little kid would understand. I certainly didn't understand it as a kid, and I have to say that it has improved with age for me--much like Jane's aunt's plum cake. For example, a middleschooler isn't really going to understand quotes from Shakespeare, the topics of Aristotle, references of Menary Paganell's "Pagan" tendencies (sex, guys, it's sex) or even the real menace lurking behind the figures of power in this book. In that way, I think it's much better suited to an adult audience--another way that it differs from Harry Potter. Harry Potter can be enjoyed by all ages, it's true. However, I don't think there's much in it that a middlegrader outright wouldn't get; everything is pretty much put out there at one time or another. You have to think more with A College of Magics, to grasp the pieces that are intentionally left foggy, and thinking seems to be a skill that many readers of this book have been reluctant to exercise, expecting everything to eventually be laid out for them in a Potter-like fashion.
"You may count on me until my last hour, and for an hour beyond."
Even the romance is a subtle thread running through the work rather than an outright plot point. The two romantic interests are, of course, Faris and Tyrian, though it takes a while for this thread to emerge from the background into a place of slightly more prominence. Let me say this: Faris and Tyrian are totally my OTP. I ship them harder than any other characters I have ever encountered, including ones of my own making. Their relationship is slow and subtle. There are two kisses throughout the entire book, and not early on, either. Does the relationship ever really come to fruition? No, not really... But there's such potential there, lurking just off the page, that your imagination can fill in the blanks and guess at where it goes from there. Tyrian and Faris' relationship ties strongly to the climax of the book, and the ending, even though their relationship isn't even close to the core of the story of Faris attempting to restore balance. But, as in all other aspects of this book, Stevermer subtly works it up and in, along with the magic and menace that has been building in the background the entire time, into what is one of the most perfect conclusions I have ever read in a book. Is it happily ever after? No, not at all. In fact, the first several times I read this book I wanted to throw it across the room because I was so upset with how it ended. But as I've read it and re-read it, it has grown on me, a slow burn sort of affection that I now can't put aside. It's not happily ever after with confetti and a bow. But there's this perfect sense of resolution that just fits so well, that I can't say I would have rather had the confetti and the bow and the happily ever after. Stevermer didn't go the fairy tale route with this, but the route she chose just works, and it's the reason I like bittersweet endings in books in general.
"If love were the only thing, I would follow you--in rags if need be--to the world's end..."
A College of Magics isn't big and bright and flashy like Harry Potter. That's not Stevermer's writing style. She's very subtle and very matter-of-fact at the same time. She doesn't spend paragraphs and pages building up characters, but lets small details speak for themselves so we can build a mental picture of that character based off those things, like how Tyrian cuts cake using a knife of alarmingly efficient design, or how Brinker ordered every blossom picked off a family's quince tree to remind them that he owned their land. This, and the way she builds up the magic, always in the background but always there, building its presence through feel rather through tell, is immensely impressive to me. I long to write a book so subtle and yet with such lasting impact. This is a beautiful fantasy, slow and yet sweeping, with a world that is both our own and not. It is not flashy, like Harry Potter. It doesn't really focus on a school story. Instead, it is about Faris coming to terms with who she is and what she must do, not just for Galazon, but for the world, and the sacrifices that must be made to reach that end. It's strikingly, achingly beautiful, and it is my favorite book in the world, and all of the people who hated it because it wasn't Harry Potter completely missed its point.
Above the college rose the spire, and on that height of heights, St. Margaret and St. Michael stood back to back, ready for new battles.
5 stars out of 5.
This book also fulfills the category of "A book that is guaranteed to bring you joy" for my 2016 reading challenge.