Samuel Lambert is an American sharpshooter who is hired by the Glasscastle College of Magic to conduct tests on a mysterious new weapon. Jane Brailsford is a witch of Greenlaw who arrives in Glasscastle to visit her brother and to call on the new warden of the west. When it becomes clear that someone means harm towards the college, Lambert and Jane must form an alliance to uncover the truth of what’s happening.
A Scholar of Magics (Tor, 2004) is a loosely tied sequel to A College of Magics, which I reread recently. So I thought I’d try rereading this one while the first book was still relatively fresh in my mind. It could probably be read as a standalone book, although it clearly happens after the events of A College of Magics and I think having the context of that book would probably be helpful.
Looking back over my reading history with this duology, I seem to have flip-flopped several times in my opinion about which of these books is better. I can’t say that I’ve made a final & forever choice, but I do know that I found myself significantly disappointed in A Scholar of Magics, mostly because of what it fails to think about or address.
First, and perhaps most importantly, this is a book that occurs at the beginning of the aeroplane, at the beginning of the automobile. Part of the plot is explicitly about the development of new and worse weapons. And not once does anyone stop to think that perhaps this is…a problem. There’s a steadfast looking-away from the results of the real weapons that were in development, in the fact that in a few years the real countries that are part of this world would be embroiled in World War I. It’s a weirdly regressive attitude that was very frustrating to encounter.
But it gets even worse, because the weapon that is being designed and tested (the mysterious “Agincourt Device”) is said to be necessary for the defense of the empire. And look, sure, I understand that Stevermer is to a certain extent replicating historical attitudes. But the British Empire was evil. Its effects were not benign. And the lack of any point of view characters to challenge that attitude, aside from a throw-away line at the very end about an excess of patriotism, is really troubling in a book that was published only fourteen years ago. We have no characters who push back on this, no characters who represent anything other than an upper-class British imperialistic view. Even Lambert, who supposedly acts as the underdog in this story (more on that later) is happy to go along with the whole idea. He never stops to ask who they’ll be using this weapon on.
So, that was all really frustrating and annoying and made me not really like any of the characters very much. And I don’t think this was an intentional choice. I think it was a flaw that historical fantasy often falls into: in attempting to recreate a time and place, the attitudes and prejudices that we associate with that time and place are also recreated, without thought or care for the readers.
Also, there are a lot of stereotypes of Native people in America which made me even more uncomfortable. It’s like Stevermer was writing in tropes and cliches in this book; although she theoretically makes gestures at subverting them, this never comes off. The whole treatment of America was a weird take, with Lambert feeling self-conscious simply because he is American, and Stevermer seeming to vacillate wildly between “we’re more cultured than you think” and “yes of course I should feel inferior to all of you civilized people.”
But also, this book really struggles under the weight of that sensitivity and self-consciousness of Lambert’s. The idea of that thread of the story–that an outsider comes to the college, feeling they don’t have a place and finding one for themself after all–is really lovely. But the fact that Lambert is a straight white man with education and marketable skills who keeps getting cast as the underdog sits uncomfortably with me. If Lambert had been in literally any other demographic, this could have been a lovely & empowering story. I don’t doubt that Americans were often looked down on, especially the non-millionaires. But really! There’s just so little self-awareness here that it made this storyline painful.
So, I think there are a lot of flaws with the parts of the story that go unsaid and operate underneath the surface of the plot (is there a term for this? It seems like there should be, other than subtext which is not exactly what I mean?). But I have to admit that I also just think this is not as well written as A College of Magics, which has truly beautiful passages of prose. I didn’t find that here, although it’s possible I simply wasn’t in sympathy enough with the book to feel them.
I guess it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t a book I’d necessarily recommend at this point. If you like the whole idea of being a scholar of magics but from a marginalized perspective, I highly recommend Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.
Reading Notes: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer
Previously, on By Singing Light
A Brief History of Montmaray (2011)
The Queen of Attolia (2009)