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!