We meet Faris Nallaneen, the gawky eighteen-year-old duchess of Galazon, just as she arrives as a new student at Greenlaw College, a finishing school in northern France. Faris was sent to school against her will by her uncle Becker, who is ruling the independent duchy of Galazon in her absence. Faris is deeply annoyed at having been sent out of the way, and hopes to be expelled just as soon as possible. But Greenlaw is a college of magic, and its tutors and dean have plans for Faris.
If this sounds rather Hogwartian to you, please note that A College of Magics was first published in 1994, several years before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It is less wacky than Harry Potter, being written for a slightly older audience (it would be quite appropriate for young adult readers). It also has a decidedly feminine slant – Greenlaw is a girls’ school.
The book takes place in a fantastic alternate pre-World-War I Europe, where Victorian morals meet a fascination with modernity, and where girls are taught grammar, logic, rhetoric, natural history, natural philosophy, Latin, Greek, algebra, geometry, dance, and deportment. They are not taught magic. The practice of magic is forbidden, as is any discussion of magic after they’ve actually learned it. This leads Faris to suspect that Greenlaw’s magical reputation is a hoax. “Apparently,” she thinks, “all it took to learn magic at Greenlaw College was a willingness to claim one knew it when one left.” Faris, who doesn’t want to be there, is highly skeptical.
This is a long, complex novel. Only the first third of the book takes place at Greenlaw. There Faris makes friends and learns the joys of scholarship, and college life is portrayed in such a beautiful way that I grew to miss my own undergraduate days, even though mine were generally not half so enchanting. Faris learns a lot at Greenlaw, always with an eye to returning to Galazon and reclaiming her rightful place in the world. But Faris has an enemy: Menary Paganall, a fellow student, who is strangely powerful and not at all nice. Faris also has a destiny, one that will drive her from the haven of Greenlaw and into danger.
By her side go two friends: Jane Brailsford, the ever-so-British Greenlaw graduate whose magical talents come in handy more than once; and Tyrian, a bodyguard hired by Faris’ uncle Becker to make sure that she stays at Greenlaw where she belongs. When Faris rescues Tyrian from an terrible fate, he transfers his loyalty entirely to her. He is her devoted servant, but Faris’ feelings for him will grow complicated.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away; I wouldn’t have time or space to do that, even if I wanted to. The author effortlessly presents us with an entirely new and magical world-view and brings her characters to vivid life within it. She tosses tiny clues at you in throw-away bits of conversation, which later gain significance as the puzzle of the plot starts to take shape. And she writes charmingly. There’s a section of the book during which Jane and Faris travel to the city of Aravis. Faris reads aloud from a spy-obtained dossier about Aravis; meanwhile, Jane reads out of a Baedecker’s guide. The two swap paragraphs about the city from their respective sources. It’s probably the cleverest and most readable information-dump I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Or this little moment, which illustrates Jane’s personality so well:
“With the most animation she had shown since Paris, Jane applied herself to sustaining the general conversation. She steadfastly addressed Lord and Lady Brinker by their first names, as they had addressed her since her arrival. She confided to the table at large that she did not find the Chinese room intolerably red. She made observations on the weather, the architecture of Galazon Chase, and the novels of Marie Corelli. Faris listened, slightly awed by so much enthusiasm. She knew that Jane did not truly think the novels of Marie Corelli to be satirical social documents. She wondered how genuine the rest of her opinions were.”
This book actually contains a subtle homage to Dorothy L. Sayers: at one point Jane, says, “I wanted to go up to Oxford, but of course Father and Mother think only bluestockings go to Shrewsbury.” Shrewsbury is the fictitious Oxford women’s college invented by Sayers for Gaudy Night. I’m sure this book is jam-packed with other little in-jokes and sly references, if one took the time to track them all down. Even if one doesn’t, reading this book is a highly enjoyable experience.
Not that it’s absolutely perfect. One Amazon reviewer calls it “original yet odd,” and that’s certainly true. There are significant happenings and turns of the plot, where one wishes the author had spent more time rather than whipping along at her usual speed. One of these is the moment in which Faris realizes how much Tyrian means to her; another is the climax, in which she solves the problem she was given. So much is implied at these moments, rather than made explicit, that one feels just slightly cheated.
Nevertheless, A College of Magics is delightful from start to finish. It is a funny, complicated, suspenseful, and magical book, and it even has a moving (entirely G-rated) love story. I’ve read it twice, and both times I was enthralled by it. I’m thrilled to recommend it.
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