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A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

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.

See also:

Reading Notes: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

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Previously, on By Singing Light

A Brief History of Montmaray (2011)
Pegasus (2010)
The Queen of Attolia (2009)

 

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Reading Notes: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

Reading Notes is a semi-regular feature where I look more deeply at a book I’ve read before. This time, it’s Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics. As usual with these posts, there will be spoilers here, so tread carefully if that’s something you care about!

I first read A College of Magics back in 2010, and then again in 2011. It’s a book I’ve wanted to revisit for a while now, partly because I had a vague memory of the feeling of reading it but almost no memory at all of what happens. And someone mentioned it on Twitter as part of a college + magic discussion. So I’ve finally pulled it off the shelf. It was published in 1994, and a title that I think has largely been overlooked. Interestingly, my edition claims it is for ages 10 and up! I am not sure I agree; certainly it would be possible for an 11-year-old to read it, and even for that someone that age to enjoy it. But I don’t think the full depth is really going to come across unless that reader has also read Austen, Sayers, and Anthony Hope. Not impossible, but a rare child indeed.

This is, quite deliberately, a three-volume novel, all three volumes being contained in the one book. Jane and Faris read three-volume novels, which helps us picture the setting a bit, if you’re the kind of person who knows what they are. And the story does, in a weird way, follow what Wikipedia calls “[t]he particular style of mid-Victorian fiction, of a complicated plot reaching resolution by distribution of marriage partners and property in the final pages.” But Stevermer has also taken that structure and twisted it for her own purposes. Each volume takes place in a different location, propels Faris’s journey in different ways. Each section has a different focus and tone, but by the end we see how they fit together into a whole. It’s an interesting way to revisit an older way of writing and reading books.

A College of Magics starts with one image: a coach pulling up to the gates of a college with a new student. But reading it is like looking at a Bruegel painting by starting at one corner, with one figure. Stevermer gradually pulls the focus wider and wider as we start to understand the setting and personal/political intrigues. She certain does not infodump. In fact, it’s really the opposite of an infodump: a trust in the reader to figure it out. I can imagine this being fairly frustrating to some people; I really liked it. But so much depends on that beginning, that first image of Faris and Greenlaw, to engage the reader until it’s a bit more clear about what’s going to happen.

And what kept me reading and engaged were the contradictions that create tension and friction. We have a college of magics–the title, even!–which doesn’t teach magic (except that it does). And a student who, unlike most other students at most other schools of magic, doesn’t want to be there (except that she does). And who is also  a duchess without power in her own place (except that she has more than she realizes). On the surface, the first section is a rather nice school story, with the requisite scrapes and friends and difficulties with teachers. But you can see all the things that you don’t quite understand yet–the references to people and places, the way magic is both real and impossible, the relationship between Menary and Faris. And the fact that despite Greenlaw not having any classes that teach magic, the students manage to learn it anyway. It’s an accomplished piece of writing, relying on what’s not said, on the inferences characters make that aren’t necessarily spelled out for us.

This section is a bit Sayers-esque in some ways, and I’m sure the book has been described as Sayers, but with magic. This is and isn’t true. There are connections, in the form of the many allusions, the college setting, and an unlikely romance that’s slightly horrifying to the main character. But Faris very much is not Harriet. She’s both more sure of her desires and much younger. She is very much herself: full of duty and temper, stubbornness and loyalty. Moreover, where Shrewsbury is a still center for Harriet, Greenlaw is not for Faris–although that idea is borrowed a bit later on. I do think that people who enjoy Sayers are likely to enjoy A College of Magics, however, so in that sense the recommendation is true.

What’s also gradually established is a kind of slipwise setting. This is our world, Edwardian England–but not. We’re in a college that never existed, a country and duchy not on any map, etc. The geography of this whole idea was intensely frustrating to me, perhaps because I’m a little too literal at times. Mentions of Ruritania as real help set the stage, but when we eventually arrive at Galazon and Aravill, it makes approximately no sense whatever. It seems like it’s supposed to be Eastern European, but everything is filtered through the Anthony Hope-style British-centered romance adventure stories. So the culture isn’t right for Eastern Europe, but it’s also not quite British. I wasn’t nearly as frustrated by this on previous reads, so ymmv as they say.

However, there are some lovely descriptions of the landscape of Galazon, the duchy that’s supposed to be Faris’s inheritance if her evil uncle Brinker doesn’t get his hands on it. Galazon is the geographical center of the book, that everything else turns on. So it’s interesting to note that it’s literally the center of the book as well, with the sections taking place in Greenlaw and Aravill bookending it on either side. Faris’s identity and understanding of herself are wrapped up in Galazon, so much so that she sometimes has difficulty seeing beyond it.

So much of this book is woven through with questions of families and inheritances and duty–in small ways with Jane’s family who give her access to diplomatic information but also ask her to spy on her best friend. In larger ways with the Nallaneens–their history as independent rulers, their sense of pride in their land and their people, their temper. The conflict between Faris and Brinker is complicated by the fact that Brinker truly cares about Galazon. But we see negative effects of this theme most clearly in the  Paganells, the ruling family of Aravill. Menary is the main antagonist of the book, a self-centered and power hungry person who delights in cruelty. The king is vain and weak. And Agnes, his other daughter uses Galazon for her own ends in ways that even Brinker wouldn’t.

The last section of the book is the most magic-filled, and perhaps my favorite. This is partly because all the threads that have been established come together, and partly because of the climax of the story which is beautiful, effective, heartbreaking. I almost always like endings that have a bit of bittersweetness to them (blame my early love of Tolkien) and this one does. Faris gains her power as Warden of the North, but she loses Galazon in the same moment that it’s most hers. Tyrian is saved but at a cost. We see that Faris will have to learn to understand herself in a new way.

But there’s also this moment: “As sure of her own strength as she was of the north wind’s, she sent herself into the heart of the rift. In the heart of the rift, she found the heart of balance, the heart of rest. For a blazing, endless moment, as all pain eased, the world held still around her.” There are these glimpses, woven backward and forward through the book, when Faris finds something deep and real, peace and a center that give her power.

While I like the book as a whole and enjoy the various settings and threads, what has stayed with me is the feeling of the deep magic and Faris herself. This really shows Stevermer at her best: synthesizing and playing with bits of other books, while also making something new and beautiful. I’ve enjoyed revisiting it a lot!

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Where I am

Reading-wise, mostly, though life stuff has an effect on that.

Just finished Caroline Stevermer’s Serpent’s Egg last night. It’s her debut, which I hadn’t read before, and it’s one of those books I find hard to review because I can’t quite figure out what it is I like about it. The characters, for sure–the plot is a bit meandering–but why do I like these particular characters? They are all trying to do the right thing, maybe? That’s often very appealing for me. Plus, there’s political intrigue, which I like in fantasy and historical fiction and that’s about it. At the same time, it’s certainly a debut, lacking some of the assurance of Stevermer’s later books. And there are too many characters, or rather, the book is not long enough to make us care about all the characters (it’s a slight little thing). I am not sure what to do with Chrysafer. That being said, I did certainly enjoy it, and the Elizabeth-inspired setting was lovely.

And now I’m planning on reading Leah Cypress’s Death Sworn. I loved her first two books, so I’m hoping this one lives up to expectations.

I have too many books checked out and I want to read them all, which makes me want to read none and then I get a little stressed out. Hashtag: bookworm problems.

Plus, at the moment my room is a disaster, for a specific reason, which is that I’ll be moving into my own apartment in mid-May and am consequently sorting through all my stuff and trying to acquire more. (The basics like, you know, a table and maybe a chair or two.) So blogging may be taking a backseat for a month or two, while all that is going on. Hopefully not too much, or for too long, but we’ll see.

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November book list

The Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip: A reread of a favorite McKillip. Love Nepenthe and her library.

A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer: A reread. I expected to enjoy it a lot, as I did the first time I read it. Apparently, though, my opinions have switched as this time I liked A College of Magics considerably more!

Icefall by Matthew Kirby: A pleasant read. More here.

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer: Not one of my favorites, but I was in a Heyer mood.

London Under by Peter Ackroyd: This had a fascinating premise: an exploration of the history under London. Unfortunately, the author’s style drove me crazy–a lot of half-baked philosophical ramblings and a lack of cohesive narrative to the book. Huge disappointment.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater: Beautiful, lyrical, and haunting. More here.

The Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson: I really liked the first book, which I found both believable and moving. I was less enamored of this one, partly because it takes place further in the future and so it loses that edge of almost-reality.

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick: Creepy and well-written, but not something I exactly enjoyed.

Chime by Franny Billingsley: *happy sigh* I’m so glad this book held up to rereading! I worry about that sometimes, when I really loved a book the first time.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about this one, and I know of a number of people who have been genuinely moved by it. I don’t know if I read it on the wrong day, or what. I found it well written, and loved the way the text and illustrations tied together. But the ending seemed so obvious from the beginning that I never let myself go fully into the story.

Night Train to Memphis by Elizabeth Peters: I like rereading Vicky occasionally, and this one is definitely my favorite. Peters manages to turn several of her tropes from the previous books on their heads, in a very satisfying way.

The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge: Another one that held up to rereading–and not only that, deepened. I love Hathin and her story, and Hardinge’s beautiful writing, and the way that she talks about colonialism and race and growing up deftly and surely.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin: A classic children’s mystery. I didn’t really remember the solution, but enjoyed the whole thing a lot. It strikes me as interesting, in the midst of this raging debate about age and the Newbery, how adult both this and Mixed Up Files are–not in content so much as attitude.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi: After having read and enjoyed Zoe’s Tale, I thought I would try the first book in the series proper (Zoe’s Tale works well as a standalone, though some things from the series will be spoiled). It had a nice classic scifi-y feel to it, which I liked.

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer: I like this one a lot, but don’t read it very often.

Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming: This gets my vote for best nonfiction book of the year. Seriously. Fleming manages to take a story which everyone knows and make it not only interesting, but sit on the edge of your seat gripping. A fascinating look in to Earhart’s life, her flaws, and her influence on the world at large.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton: I’m sort of a lazy fan of Kate Beaton, which is to say that when I remember I go look at her new comics, but I don’t have the site in my Google Reader (which is my favorite Google feature, by the way). Still, when I saw this sitting on the new nonfiction shelf at work, I grabbed it immediately, and giggled a lot.

Steampunk! ed. by Kelly Link: I have sort of a mixed history with both anthologies and steampunk. I WANT to like them! But with anthologies, so often they are uneven, and with steampunk so often I am annoyed by the ahistoricalness of it. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this anthology! Not only did it seem cohesive and remarkably even, it had a wide range of styles and settings which helped to keep the stories from melting together. I had favorites, but overall, I was happy with the result.

Enthralled ed. by Melissa Marr: A YA anthology, which I read mostly for Sarah Rees Brennan’s vampire boyband story. Ah, I giggled, but I was also touched. And…I know I read the rest of the book, but I don’t remember any of the stories!

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear: A former nurse in WWI turns detective. I liked it and found the characters compelling, but was bothered by a touch of modernity at times. I know that after the war was when all kinds of things changed, but I wasn’t quite convinced by the period-ness of it.

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper: EEEEE! So much love! More here.

The Murders of Richard III by Elizabeth Peters: A classic British house party mystery about a bunch of Ricardians! By Elizabeth Peters! How could I possibly resist? Lovely, though Daughter of Time remains my favorite Richard anything ever.

Sylvester by Georgette Heyer: A definite favorite, for the lovely characters, as well as the description of the trials of a young author. Mostly, though, I just like Phoebe and Sylvester, who fall into my favorite categories of Heyer heroes and heroines.

Hunting the Five by Maria Violante: Not quite my cup of tea. More here.

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart: I was much more caught by this than I generally am by Stewart. I think the touch of magic added a sense of wonder that deepened the whole thing. Also, I did not completely disbelieve the whole romance. So, you know, that helped.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Catherynne Valente: I read this before it was a physical book, and I wanted to see what I thought of the codex version. I liked it, because I love Valente’s work. But I have to say, I missed the excitement of reading the story on my computer screen and realizing it was really good. And, *hides* I’m not such a huge fan of the illustrations. I know a lot of people love them, but they weren’t how I pictured the world of the characters.

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone: An interesting examination of the history of the doll and the culture surrounding her, both supportive and reactive. I felt more like it was an academic paper trying to be a nonfiction book, though. And Stone never seemed to quite clarify her position. I realize she was trying to be clear to both sides, but it just came across as a bit muddled.

The FitzOsbornes in Exile by Michelle Cooper: And I loved this one too! More here

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall: Third Penderwicks book, in which they go off to Maine without Rosalind. But Jeffrey is there, and it’s actually his story that really takes center stage. I appreciated the way Birdsall worked with what could have been a difficult storyline.

Bloodline by Katy Moran: I enjoyed Bloodline Rising so much, I thought I should try this one. It gave some good background, and Essa’s story is great in its own right. But in a way, I’m glad I read them in reverse order–Cai would have come across as a bit brattier if my sympathies had been with Essa. Also, I think BR is the better book. Not that Bloodline is bad at all, but Moran’s growth as a writer is clearly evident.

Liar’s Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce: EEEEEEE! Elizabeth Bunce delivers again! Not only does she deepen the world she created in StarCrossed, she makes Werne one of the most interesting villains I can think of. PLUS AND AlSO this is a YA fantasy murder mystery. And Digger is awesome. HOWEVER, dear Elizabeth Bunce! ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME? Third book now, please?

Inside Job by Connie Willis: Willis is a great writer (well, we knew that), but I had fundamental problems with this book. I simply don’t agree with the assumption that science and rationality and logic are the basis by which everything should be judged. I mean, I wasn’t bothered by it, but when you disagree with a book’s premise as thoroughly as I do, it’s hard to really like it.

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October book list

The Duff by Kody Depplinger: I liked Bianca and Wesley and the path their relationship took, but I always felt slightly uncomfortable with this book. I’m not sure if it was its messageyness, or the message itself, or something else entirely.

Resenting the Hero by Moira Moore: The cover led me to expect a different book (the cover is sunny; the book is not) but once I got over that, I enjoyed this one a lot. The worldbuilding was interesting and the relationship between the two main characters was unusual enough to be fun.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young: Loved this book! I reviewed it here

Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson: Loved this book too! And here’s the review.

City of Gold and Shadows by Ellis Peters: I re-read this book because I was in the mood for a Felse mystery and I remembered liking this one. I do like it–the Shropshire setting is my favorite, and the descriptions of Aurae Phiala are vivid and haunting. But the sadness of it struck me more this time than before.

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy: Another re-read. I do like Laura–she’s fierce and kind, which is a combination I enjoy. And Sorry is wonderful, especially as an antidote to the love interest that’s so prevalent right now.

Well Witched by Frances Hardinge: Not her usual, but still a nice story. Reviewed here.

The Iron King by Julie Kagawa: In general I liked this–the writing was strong and Meghan is a sympathetic narrator. But I was never captured or convinced by this version of Fairyland. I know I’m a bit particular about depictions of Fairyland, but I felt like the wonder and the…engulfingness of it were missing.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow: This just won a big, fancy award in Canada, and it totally deserves it. This is a beautiful, perfect book, about loss and pain and the choices we make. Oh, and fairy tales, and rusalki, and talking cats and Roamers too. I love it, and I love Katerina Svetlana.

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy: I bought this one recently, having read it once, and wanted to re-read it to make sure I watned to keep it. I do. Harry is a lovely character, and I entirely sympathise with her. The ending is a bit Fire and Hemlock, in that I have NO IDEA what happens, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry: This was fun! I might be careful about handing it to a sheltered kid, because there is a bit of language involved. But it’s also funny and sweet. It could come across as a bit heavy-handed, but I think it’s actually sincere, which is quite a different thing.

The Under Dogs by Markus Zusak: All three Wolfe novels. The last, Getting the Girl is by far my favorite, though the tidiness of the resolution bothered me just a little. But I was invested enough in Cameron at that point to not really mind.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor: I wanted to love it, but ended up having mixed feelings. Reviewed here.

The Revenant by Sonia Gensler: At one point I thought I was really going to dislike this book, and maybe even not finish it. But I perservered, and it paid off. In the end, Willie’s story was nicely told. I’m coming to realize that of the latest Victorian era books, I like the ones where the main character is an outsider, trying to fit into the society and having trouble with it. (See also: The Vespertine and Haunting Violet.) SO much more interesting than the normal upper-class girl who rebels against Oppressive Society.

Goliath by Scott Westerfeld: Mostly satisfying. Review here.

Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold: A re-read. There’s a moment at the beginning that’s incredibly more poignant since the publication of Cryoburn (which I feel like I ought to re-read, but am dreading). I liked this one–Ekaterin is great, though it’s sometimes easy to overlook her, and the reappearance of Bel Thorne is wonderful.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick: When I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I was enchanted by the pictures but not by the words. In Wonderstruck, the written story is much stronger–helped, I think, by the fact that the text and the pictures tell two distinct stories. They are related, but I won’t say how.

The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey: You know how some series start off really strongly and then go downhill, while other series start off strongly and get stronger? The Monstrumologist books are in that latter category. I don’t know how, but Rick Yancey completely blows me away every time. This is a beautifully written, haunting, and utterly chilling book. The characters become more and more complex and the story may be the most unnerving of the three. So glad that there will be more books in this series!

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt: I wasn’t sure how I was going to like this, because sometimes realistic teen novels drive me straight back into sff. But this was a nice read; I liked the slow build of the story and the shifting views of certain characters. I do agree with a criticism I’ve seen several places, that a particular storyline at the end felt a bit shoehorned in. Overall, though, this was a really nice book and one I’d recommend to reluctant realists.

Hereville by Barry Deutsch: I really enjoyed this one–a graphic novel about a Orthodox Jewish girl who fights trolls. It sounds zany, but it has some great moments, both funny and touching. I loved the expressiveness of Deutsch’s characters, and the different color palettes.

Venetia by Georgette Heyer: A book I consistently enjoy, especially because Venetia is so outrageous. It’s not in my top five Heyer books, but it’s pretty close.

Riddle of the Wren by Charles de Lint: I had acquired this somewhere and thought I should probably actually read it. It’s a fine high fantasy, but I wasn’t impressed by it. It felt pretty derivative and unoriginal.

Face Down Among the Winchester Geese by Kathy Lynn Emerson: I enjoyed the first few books in this series, but parts of this one severely tested my suspension of disbelief. Not sure if I’ll keep going with the series or not.

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins: I really enjoyed Anna and the French Kiss, so picking this one up was pretty natural. I liked it a lot, except for that problem of seeing the correct solution so obviously and the characters being blind to it. Gaaah.

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson: I wasn’t sure what it would be like, but ended up liking it a lot. One of the major things I liked is a big spoiler, so I won’t say it, but it made me happy. I liked Rory’s different worlds and the uncomfortableness of when they overlap. And for myself, I looked at it more as a mystery than as a paranormal story, for whatever reason, so I wasn’t creeped out as much as I was intrigued. The mystery had a great solution, I thought! And, I know I’m supposed to dislike Charlotte, but she dresses up as Amy Pond! I cannot do it!

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs: Unlike most of the rest of the world, I liked this one, but wasn’t IN LOVE with it. The photographs are a huge part of the story, and some of them are genuinely unsettling. I liked Jacob and the sense of weirdness* that pervaded the book. But I was not convinced by the romance and I wanted a little more from the ending.

* Which I mean in a very specific, hard to define sense

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: So, I’d never read this, which seems like a hue omission on my part. Anyway, I really enjoyed it! All the sly jokes about London made me laugh, but also made me want to go back even more. Also, the author picture on the back was quite funny. Little Neil Gaiman!**

**I’m sure he was actually the same height, but he just looks young.

Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer: I hardly ever re-read this one, and after having read it, I remembered why. There’s a certainly type of Heyer which I tend not to enjoy as much, and this is party of that type. It’s not nearly as bad as a couple of others, but I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the story or the romance.

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer: I re-read this one, because I hadn’t in awhile, and enjoyed it hugely. I’m fondest of the sensible heroines, and Sir Waldo and Ancilla are both so nice that this was a lovely read.

Claire de Lune by Christine Johnson: This had an interesting take on werewolf mythology, and a nice case of realizing that your parents aren’t as nonsensical as they sometimes seem. I was less convinced by the romance, though I believe there’s a second book, so that might change my mind.

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy Sayers: I thought I would re-read this one, since I’ve only previously read it once. The problem really is that my sympathies were so clearly marked from the beginning of the book that the solution, rather than being a surprise, seemed like the only right and possible one.

A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer: Another re-read. ON my first time through, I liked this but didn’t love it. This time, I really, really, really liked it. Ah, Faris! Ah, Tyrian! Ah, Greenlaw! *happy swoon* I do love a good college story, and this definitely fit the bill. I remember liking the second book even better than the first, so we’ll see how that one fares.

The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer: A bit of a let-down after The Nonesuch; I suspect I would have liked it better if I hadn’t had Waldo and Ancilla in my head still. Unfortunately, the heroine of this one is such a drip!

Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson: This is in a similar category as Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I think. I loved the worldbuilding and largely liked Elisa’s journey. I was intrigued by the way the relationships panned out–certainly unusual for the current crop of YA! And yet, I never felt that spark that really pushed me over the edge into love. I’m hoping for another book, though, because I did enjoy the world, and I often find second books stronger than first ones.

Madam, Will You Talk by Mary Stewart: The mystery part of this one was fun, but OH THE RIDICULOUS ROMANCE! I just sat there, going, “Uh….” [In case you couldn’t tell, I have STRONG OPINIONS on the romances in books, which may or may not have any bearing on reality.]

Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer: I like this one, which I had mostly forgotten about. Although Amanda can be a tad annoying, she’s also a more compassionate character than some of her type. And Hester is great. (I do so love a competent heroine.)

Across the Great Barrier by Patricia C. Wrede: Second in the Frontier Magic series. My reaction to these is a little odd, because I keep expecting something really big to happen, and then it never quite seems to materialize. I mean, it’s fine–not every book needs a huge finale, and these are a bit more intimate in scope. And I do like Eff a lot.

Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck: I think the word to describe this is cute. I felt for Helena, the oldest mouse, who must care for her younger siblings as they travel across the Atlantic with their Upstairs family. And I thought Peck did a lovely job of creating her voice and her way of looking at the world. Anthropomorphized? Yes, but in a way that also shows the mouseness of her.

Skyship Academy by Nick James: Sort of dystopian, but in a very different vein than most others. I liked it, though I totally called one of the big twists. The whole thing was very clearly a setup for a series, which is fine. Just expect a fair number of unresolved points.

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March book list, part one

Well, this is a first–a two-part monthly book list! I had it all in one post and I had gotten up to 2100 words with a few books left to talk about, so I decided to just split it in two.

The Safe-Keeper’s Secret by Sharon Shinn: I read the third book of this trilogy a few months ago and liked it, so when I saw this at the library I picked it up. Reading the third book first wasn’t an issue in this case, because these stories are much more in the companion-book line than a straight trilogy. Anyway, I really liked this one, even more than the third book. It was a sweet story and beautifully written. Unfortunately, there was a comparison to Spindle’s End on the jacket copy, which made me catch on to the twist sooner than I otherwise would have. Still, I don’t mind spoilers in general, so I wasn’t particularly bothered.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke: Short stories by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I’ve been meaning to re-read since I got my copy from Oregon. The short stories are from a variety of time periods, from Elizabethan to Regency. I often waffle on short story collections, but this one is pretty solid–helped, I think, by the unity of the concept and world. “On Lickerish Hill” is probably my favorite, though “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse” is pretty close.

Looking for Alaska by John Green: Miles Halter goes to a Florida boarding school, where he ends up with an odd group of friends, including the Colonel and the elusive Alaska Young. I accidentally read a bit in the middle–like a paragraph–and somehow ended up with a really weird conception of who the characters were going to be. So my predominant memory of this book is being surprised by the characters. I did really love the idea of the last words and I thought it was a graceful and sympathetic treatment of the subject matter.

The Body at the Tower by Y.S. Lee: The second Mary Quinn book. Candlewick’s cover was absolutely gorgeous again, and made my little costume geek heart rejoice. I thought that in some ways the story seemed a little fluffier than the first, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I liked it a lot, especially that the end wasn’t smoothed over to create some sort of false resolution. I’m excited for the third book, which is out next year, I think.

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott: I really enjoyed this book, perhaps more than I expected. Reviewed {here}.

A Gloveshop in Vienna by Eva Ibbotson: These were all short stories by Ibbotson. Unfortunately, I felt that most of them were too short, that without the length of a novel, there was no chance to really get to know and love the characters and so I didn’t feel any payoff from the resolutions.

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy: Everyone and their aunt was right. This is a lovely book. Reviewed {here}.

The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson: So, in the list of Ibbotsons, this is in my favorite category–the crossover adult/young adult romances. However, even the sweetness of this story and the gorgeous descriptions of Northumberland did not manage to move A Countess Below Stairs from its place as my favorite. There are some wickedly funny bits in here, as in all Ibbotsons, and some rather heart-wrending bits as well.

Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson: This is not quite in Ibbotson’s usual line, and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. Susanne is a clothing designer with a store in Madensky Square. She records life in the square, as well as her thoughts and struggles in a diary. I finished mostly because I was on an Ibbotson kick and wanted to get through it.

Flame-Colored Taffeta by Rosemary Sutcliff: Damaris and Peter discover a man they think is a smuggler and nurse him back to health with the help of the local herb woman. But Tom isn’t exactly who he seems. The story takes place in the 1750s, a different time than Sutcliff usually writes about. But it doesn’t matter, because her prose and characters are just as lovely. This is a bit more in the middle grade category than some of her books, though certainly it’s enjoyable for an adult as well.

The Sword and the Circle by Rosemary Sutcliff: I wasn’t wild about this one, despite loving both Sutcliff and Arthurian legends. It all felt a little too derivative–a bit too much straight Malory and not enough of Sutcliff herself.

When the King Comes Home by Caroline Stevermer: It’s been awhile since I read the other two books in this series, which meant that I wasn’t quite sure where this one was supposed to fall in the timeline. The first two were both sort of early 20th century, whereas this one seemed much more Renaissance-y. Eventally I just let it go and enjoyed the book. I found all of the details about learning to be an artist fascinating. I also liked the fact that it didn’t have romance, but didn’t have it in a way that seemed natural to the character. Quite different from the other books, but good.

Light in the Darkness by Sergei Fudel: Spiritual reading. There were parts of it that I found very interesting and helpful, and other parts where my reaction was basically “HUH, WHAT?” Due to the way the book was set up (snippets of Fudel’s writing) I also found the lack of context difficult.

Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliossotti: A re-read, because I enjoyed it the first time. Enjoyed it again. I believe there’s a sequel in the works, which is nice, as long as it’s good.

The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar: I read this in early March, and now I have only the vaguest impressions of it (I really need to be better about writing down my thoughts at the time). Of course, that means that it didn’t make a huge splash either way. As I’m looking back, I think it was a sweet story, but not particularly touching in any way.

Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson: Also known as The Reluctant Heiress. A re-read. I do like this one. The atmosphere of the various settings is lovely, and the characters are fun. The antagonist is definitely in the love-to-hate category. The hero could easily slip into that kind of overbearing stereotype, but he never does, which is nice.

Love Letters by Madeleine L’Engle: Aah, I have to say that I much prefer her other books. I like the idea of this, but I think that Rumer Godden did it better in In This House of Brede.

The Truth-Teller’s Tale by Sharon Shinn: The middle book of Shinn’s trilogy. The solution was kind of easy to spot, but I suppose that there are reasons for the main character not seeing it herself. By the way, all three of these books have gorgeous covers that are paintings. I’m rapidly growing to hate pretty much any and all photo covers–that’s a huge exaggeration, actually, but I’m so tired of models looking nothing like the characters, standing in a modern teenage posture. It’s especially awful with fantasy and historical books.

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August book list

Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip: Full review here. Short version: one of McKillip’s best. If you’re a fan of her books, read it.

Dreamdark: Silksinger by Laini Taylor: Full review here. Short version: a very strong sequel with wonderful worldbuilding.

The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket: I went to Salvation Army and bought a whole bunch of books for 15 cents each. This was one–I hadn’t read it in years and enjoyed it again.

Cotillion by Georgette Heyer: Another 15 cent book. YAY! Because I love this book, even if I still haven’t solved the mystery of the title. I think this one really stands up to, and actually demands, re-reading. At first glance the main characters seems sort of silly, but on a re-read one realizes that they actually have more substance than it appears. And any comparisons to Freddy Threepwood, of Leave it to Psmith fame, are totally unjustified. (Full review here.)

Heist Society by Ally Carter: I’m sure this is being billed as an Ocean’s Eleven for kids. It is definitely that kind of light enjoyable fluff. However, I actually saw more parallels to one of my favorite old movies, “How to Steal a Million.” And it’s not just the Audrey Hepburn look-alike on the cover. Like I said, definitely fluff, but also a lot of fun.

Slob by Ellen Potter: Full review here. An unexpectedly sweet story with a lot of heart.

Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer: Full review here. It would have been a lot of fun at the right age; at this point, I’ll stick to the main Kate and Cecy books.

Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer: Reviewed {here}. I loved this book when I first read it, and I love it now.

Gateway by Sharon Shinn: Reviewed {here}. Good but not outstanding. If you’re in the mood for a decent fantasy with an interesting multicultural bent, give it a try.

The Magic Thief: Lost by Sarah Prineas: A bit of a let-down compared to the first. Still, nice to see the characters again. Reviewed {here}.

Black is the Colour of my True-love’s Heart by Ellis Peters: This is becoming one of my favorite Felse stories. It’s sweet and bitter, beautiful and tragic. A lot like the music it describes.

The Exiles by Hilary McKay: A great story, full of misadventures and laughs. Reviewed {here}.

Thirteen to Dinner by Agatha Christie: I hadn’t read this one in a long time. Not her strongest, but interesting as always.

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie: The murderer is fairly obvious, but I like the other characters. And we get Hastings as a narrator, which I always enjoy.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie: These three were in a five-novel collection. The funny thing is, the plot of Cards on the Table is mentioned in one of the other books. I think it’s Thirteen to Dinner. Anyway, it made their being collected together a bit more interesting.

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd: An intriguing mix of recent historical fiction and fantasy. Reviewed {here}.

All-of-a-kind Family by Sidney Taylor: Reviewed full {here}. Short version–I love this story of a family growing up in New York in the early 1900s.

Ash by Malinda Lo: I was intrigued by the twists of this Cinderella re-telling, but I never connected fully with any of the characters, and I didn’t believe the setting at all.

The Merchant’s Mark by Pat McIntosh: The third Gil Cunningham mystery. Fun again, and I really enjoyed the introduction of Gil’s sister Kate. I also loved the fact that once again McIntosh takes the characters’ faith seriously.

The Four-story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright: A favorite from my childhood. Reviewed {here}

Mistress of the Art of Death> by Ariana Franklin: Another medieval mystery, but somehow more adult and darker. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much, to be honest, but I might try the next one to see how I like it.

The Exiles at Home by Hilary McKay: Hilariously funny. I was rolling about in silent laughter the whole time (silent because there were people sleeping). I really need to get my hands on the third book!

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall: The sequel to The Penderwicks and, in my opinion, even better than the first book. Sweet, funny, and touching.

The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle by Deva Fagin: I feel like I have very little sense of how I actually felt about this book, which might be due to the fact that I read it in chunks. Overall, I found it different (in a good way) but not entirely wowing.

White Cat by Holly Black: I really enjoyed this book a LOT. Reviewed {here}.

Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken: Very well done! I enjoyed it a lot. The one minor complaint I have is that in a few places it seemed like Sydella’s emotional reaction to something was sort of glossed over or hurried by.

St. Mungo’s Robin by Pat McIntosh: Fourth Gil Cunningham mystery. As Gil’s wedding day approaches, he finds himself beset by all sorts of difficulties, not the least of which is his bride’s somewhat mysterious behavior. In the end, it all winds up satisfactorily.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine: Not Mockingjay, which is a bird of another sort altogether. This is a fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking glimpse into the world of Caitilin, a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, who has recently lost her brother in one of the most horrific ways possible. You can read Melissa Wiley’s review {here}.

His Life is Mine by Archimandrite Sophrony: By the monk who founded the monastery in Essex, which I have yet to visit (next trip). An excellent book, which felt pastoral–loving and gentle. Encouraging rather than super theological (although it is that too).

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart: As usual, hijinks surround the lives of the four children. Mysteries, puzzles, threatening danger. It was fun, but somehow not quite as big as I was expecting. Still, a great end to the series (I think it’s the end?).

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Magic Below Stairs: a review

by Caroline Stevermer

Opening line–“The first time he met Billy Bly, Frederick thought he must be dreaming. Billy Bly looked like a little old man dressed all in green, and came just to Frederick’s knee.”

This is a hard book for me to review. Essentially the problem is that I’m too old for it (*tear*) and I’ve read the other Kate and Cecy books. Because of that I felt impatient with the Frederick person, who kept hogging up the space and keeping Kate and Thomas away. The writing, while definitely suitable for the target age group, was a little too simple to keep my attention, or impress me with its elegance.

I don’t want to make it sound like this is a bad book. It’s not at all! Frederick is an engaging hero and his relationship with Bess is nice, in that it felt realistic without seeming unduly romantic. Because how old are they? Too young to be canoodling. (I say, while I waggle my stick and mutter about kids these days.) Basically, it felt like a relationship that could develop somewhere in the future, but hadn’t yet.

So, I’m sure that for kids in the right age group and with the right temperament, this would be a fun book. For me, it was a bit of a disappointment, because what I wanted was another Kate and Cecy book and I didn’t get it.

Book source: public library
Book information: Dial Books, 2010

My other Caroline Stevermer reviews:
Sorcery and Cecelia (with Patricia C. Wrede)
A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics

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January reading list

The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein: I read this in December. Then I read it again, because it’s that good.

The Capricorn Bracelet by Rosemary Sutcliff: Sutcliff fans probably remember the ring with the flawed emerald and dolphin from Lantern Bearers, Silver Branch, etc. Here she traces a similar history, except that the family heirloom is a bracelet with a capricorn device and the family is located around Hadrian’s wall. I would have liked a little more story on several of these, but they were nicely done.

The Reluctant Widow
by Georgette Heyer: Reviewed {HERE}

Carney’s House Party by Maud Hart Lovelace: A re-read. I’m a major Lovelace fan; the only book I haven’t read from the Deep Valley series is Winona’s Pony Cart. I liked seeing a different perspective on love and marriage, and Betsy and Joe’s relationship.

Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce: These are absolutely mad books, with magickal Butlers, a population that wears kilts, and a determined heroine. Also, great slang. Pigface psychopomp has now entered my vocabulary irrevocably. Basically, they’re a lot of fun, but fun with a good heart to them.

Dragon-Spear by Jessica Day George: I enjoyed the first two books, but I was fairly disappointed by this one. I didn’t want George to add unnecessary drama, but there were times when it seemed like her characters didn’t react to things that real people would have been having fits over.

A Coalition of Lions
by Elizabeth Wein: Goewin, Princess of Britain, travels to the African empire of Aksum to recall Constantine, their ambassador, to Britain. Completely different than The Winter Prince, it’s nonetheless fantastic in a different way. (A bit more {HERE})

Before Midnight by Cameron Dokey: A re-telling of Cinderella. I found it interesting and overall well done, but wasn’t massively impressed by it. I did think the characterization of the stepmother and stepsisters was well done.

The Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip: The first McKillip book I ever read. I can see why I liked it and kept reading–there’s a lovely iridescence to this one and I really enjoy the way McKillip plays with different fairy tale motifs. Plus, I like the sea.

Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia Wrede: After Tender Morsels, I thought I’d try a different re-telling. And hey! I like Patricia Wrede. It was okay. As with Before Midnight, I enjoyed the book but wasn’t blown away. Although the darkness of Tender Morsels makes me hesitant to re-read it, it’s far more memorable.

April Lady
by Georgette Heyer: This is the one where the wife has the debts and accidentally misses one when she gives them to her husband to settle, and then of course is afraid he’ll be angry. It’s an interesting plot, but the characters weren’t as endearing as in some of Heyer’s books.

Firebirds ed. by Sharyn November: I wanted the second book in this anthology series, but the library accidentally sent me the first. That’s okay, I enjoyed re-reading it. Elizabeth Wein’s story was especially nice this time around, since I’ve now started her major series.

The Sunbird by Elizabeth Wein: Telemakos really comes front and center in this one. I’ve started to consider him a Gen-like character. A few more thoughts {HERE}

A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer
A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer: I read these two in one volume. I enjoyed the characters and the story over all, but wasn’t entirely convinced by the world-building, which didn’t quite seem thought-through. The second book was, I think, stronger than the first. I don’t normally say that. A few more thoughts {HERE}.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson: Wow. This is a whammy of a book, and one that’s been justifiably praised. Pearson manages to tell a tricky story without falling into several possible traps. Very well done. A few more thoughts {HERE}.

Black is the Color of my True Love’s Heart by Ellis Peters: When Ellis Peters is good, she’s very good. And that’s exactly what she is here. I was expecting a stereotypical view of those crazy 60’s kids, and instead I got a story that was both beautiful and tragic. A few more thoughts {HERE}.

Dear Enemy by Jean Webster: I’ve loved Daddy-Long-Legs for a long time, but this sequel was a disappointment. Not only did the eugenics-heavy philosophy bother me, the romance didn’t work. A few more thoughts {HERE}.

Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey: An Arthurian re-telling? By Anne McCaffrey? Why, yes! It was a little weird to read it, especially after having read The Winter Prince so recently; she uses several of the same names and locations. Nonetheless, these are entirely different stories. This one ended very abruptly and I wasn’t entirely satisfied. (Is it part of a series? I’m too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia. A new depth to which I have fallen.) But it’s an interesting look into a particular period of history, especially equine history, and I bet I would have enjoyed it a lot when I was younger.

Flora’s Dare by Ysabeau Wilce: Pigface psychopomp! How on earth am I supposed to wait for the third book to be released? Ysabeau Wilce! You are a mean lady! What kind of an ending is that? More coherently, Flora continues her adventures in this book, and discovers some long-buried secrets at the same time (to anyone who’s read it, I hope you see what I did there).

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Recent reads

I’m not feeling the reviewing right now, so I thought I’d just blather on about a few books I read recently.

A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird by Elizabeth Wein: I think the most important thing to say about these books is that they’re not The Winter Prince. They certainly build off of that story, and I would most definitely read it first. But The Winter Prince is one of those books that I don’t think you could write a real sequel to. Nonetheles, A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird are both fascinating and well-written. Telemakos is a wonderful character who’s reminding me more and more of Megan Whalen Turner’s Gen. I’ve got the next one ordered and I can’t wait till it gets here!

A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magic by Caroline Stevermer: I’ve been enjoying Stevermer’s Kate and Cecy books, which she wrote with Patricia C. Wrede, for several years. These two are quite similar in the mix of magic and a world that’s mostly like ours at an earlier time period. I have to say that, while I liked the characters and the story, the world building seemed a little odd to me. I felt very disoriented in the first book because the main character is from a country that doesn’t exist in our world but does in this world and then England showed up and I was confused. I was also confused as to their current location and the time period. But the second book retroactively cleared that all up: early 1900s, the first book is set in France, their world is quite like ours. I did wonder though, if things are different enough to have entire countries that don’t exist in our world, would Taft really be the president? I seem to remember one alternate-reality story I read where Adlai Stevenson got elected. It wasn’t a major plot point but it helped to point out that things were different there. Anyway, if you ignore the world-building and focus on the characters, these are fun stories which reminded me at times of Dorothy Sayers (especially the second).

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson: Several people had reviewed this, so I picked it up. I ended up reading it all in one sitting, gulping it down. Wow. Really, really good. And really, really freaky at the same time. Jenna’s voice was just right–detached enough to keep certain parts from seeming overly sentimental but not so detached that I didn’t care about her. My only problem (a slight one) was with the epilogue. I felt like it was all tied up just a little too neatly, especially with Allys. But overall, if you’re looking for a good teen sci-fi set slightly in the future, I’d definitely recommend this one.

Black is the Color of my True Love’s Heart
by Ellis Peters: When I started this book and found that it was going to be about folk singers in the 1960s, I winced. I’ve read several mysteries where young people of that era figure and even if the author treats them with some kindness, it’s always that heavy-handed “oh those silly dears” kindness. Well, I did Ellis Peters a wrong. I think she must have been something of a folk song enthusiast herself (or maybe I should say ballad–she seems to prefer that term). I kind of called the twist, but I read her for two things: the characters and the description of the Shropshire landscape. The characters in this were well-drawn. And Dom was in it! I love Dom. So, yay.

Dear Enemy by Jane Webster: I can still remember the day in middle school when, browsing in the school library, I picked up Daddy-Long-Legs. I read the synopsis on the back and instantly figured out the plot, but I read it anyway and loved it. I knew there was a sequel and finally decided that enough was enough–I was going to read it. So I did. It wasn’t as good. I felt like there was too much emphasis on heredity and eugenics for comfort and the romance just…didn’t work for me. The hero never felt like a real person. I will stick with my original love.

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