Caroline Stevermer wrote A College of Magics in 1994, so I’m a little behind the curve on reading it. My only defense is that in 1994, I started working on my doctorate in Second Language Writing, so I missed a chunk of material coming out from then until around 2001. I enjoyed Stevermer and Wrede’s Enchanted Chocolate Pot books immensely.
However, I’ll confess that I was reluctant to read College because of the inevitable marketing tack toward Harry Potter comparisons. It wasn’t that the Potter books were the best in the cosmos. It was that unlike the people who search for similar books, the marketing ploy convinced me I would be reading another variation on a theme.
I know Caroline is a gifted writer, and I should have trusted my instincts, but I’ll admit to be doing duped by corporate public America trying to make a buck. Damn them. As I’ve gotten to know Caroline better, however, I thought I should read more widely in her works. I’m glad I did.
Don’t let anyone compare A College of Magics to the previously mentioned magical school series. Both stories take place, to some extent, in a boarding school. There is magic in both stories, and that’s it. No more similarities.
What you will find is the story of Faris, a young woman that YA-reading girls aren’t encountering as much in the current universe of Bella. Faris is a heroine that I’d like my (imaginary) daughter to appreciate.
While Faris has her faults (she is impetuous, stubborn, and pig-headed), she is also not our stereotypical impetuous, stubborn and pig-headed YA heroine. Her social graces are lacking, even though she is perhaps the most important noble figure in her country. A lesser YA author would make this story about the feminization of Faris, how her good friend Jane teaches her to dress and act like a lady, thus finding love and happiness.
Ahem. Faris is just fine, thank you. She has some growing up to do, you betcha, but her essential character is strong and moral. She isn’t perfect, but on the other hand, she’s very much her own person, and she is great in a crisis.
What about that other big YA chestnut? Does College have romance. Sure, it does. But not easy, teenage googoo eyes romance. Not dependent girl needs supernatural creature romance. And not even patly wrapped up by the end romance.
No, Faris is so socially awkward, she alienates her potential love interest. And then she saves him. And then he enters independently into her service. She develops a crush on Tyrian, and they have a mutual thing for about a minute, before the story comes crashing down on them.
I like it. A lot. The ending is not pat. It’s complicated. There’s a twist that I find very fulfilling, and in the end, the relationship is ambiguous. In a frustrating, but very fulfilling way. Maybe this is why I’ll never be a commercially successful YA writer. I like ambiguity.
I want to recommend A College of Magics. It’s a fantasy whose setting is 19th-century Europe, and you know that’s how my tastes run. I want to sing the praises of the heroine as a model, and the praises of the author for assuming that not every adolescent girl wants to read a novel that leans more toward Harlequin.
Right. I suppose I’d better being seeing to my own writing. Or checking papers. Or something like that.