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A College of Magics

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Teenager Faris Nallaneen is the heir to the small northern dukedom of Galazon. Too young still to claim her title, her despotic Uncle Brinker has ruled in her place. Now he demands she be sent to Greenlaw College. For her benefit he insists. To keep me out of the way, more like it!

But Greenlaw is not just any school-as Faris and her new best friend Jane discover. At Greenlaw students major in . . . magic.

But it's not all fun and games. When Faris makes an enemy of classmate Menary of Aravill, life could get downright . . . deadly.

480 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 1994

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About the author

Caroline Stevermer

26 books273 followers
(from website)
Caroline Stevermer grew up miles from anywhere on a dairy farm in southeastern Minnesota. She has a sister and two brothers. After high school, she attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she earned a B.A. degree in the history of art. She knew she wanted to be a writer when she was eight years old. She began by writing stories in her school notebooks. (They were not good. Many were not even finished. She persisted.)

By the time she graduated from college, she knew she would need to earn money in other ways, but she kept on writing. Her first professional sale was published by Ace in 1980. In the years since, she has had a variety of jobs and kept on writing. She likes libraries and museums. Her favorite painter is Nicholas Hilliard. Her favorite writer is Mark Twain. She lives in Minnesota.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 309 reviews
Profile Image for Leah.
516 reviews66 followers
May 17, 2013
This book is a travesty. I hardly know where to start.

It might be best to start with the claim on the front and back covers, from Jane Yolen, that this book is superior in all respects to Harry Potter. I'm not sure what yardstick she's using as a comparison, but it certainly isn't plotting, characterisation or reader engagement. Perhaps it's the dubious claim that this book is better written, which is a nebulous claim in any circumstances, and seems to be levelled here because she can't think of anything else to say about it that would also get her name on the cover of a book she didn't write. This was written ten years after the book's initial publication, in time for the international boom of Potter, but it's clearly intended for the same average reading group.

To start with, the title and the Potter comparison are wildly misleading. Faris spends no more than a quarter of the book at Greenlaw College, and most of that is abstract and infuriatingly poorly constructed. There is a mysterious yet ineffectual and distant Dean and a half-assed rivalry between the heirs to imaginary Western European countries, there is some kind of unspoken agreement about 'magic' (it gets taught, but it doesn't get taught, if you catch their meaning. No? Funny, me either) and a rah-rah English boarding school air to the late night study sessions and the sharing of foods sent from home. It's a copout to tell us they study hard when we don't go to classes with them. It's also a copout to say 'there was so much work to do, none of them went to even half their classes' when we don't see them doing any work. What's the point of setting a book in a school if we don't see any of the schooling, let alone the magic? This is not, even a little bit, like Harry Potter.

Then there is some highly hush-hush time when each girl is sent a note from the Dean and told that tonight is her 'Vigil'. Girls who come back from this are never the same, and most of them suddenly 'know' magic and that's that. I was reminded, vomitacularly, of the random scene in The Magicians where for no reason anyone can quantify (it's a magical secret!), the entire fourth-year class is turned into geese and have to migrate to the South Pole to resume their schooling for the year.

My beef with this vigil sums up the entire experience of this book: until Faris's friend gets called up, we have never heard of the vigil. In any half-decent story building environment, such an integral part of the Greenlaw experience would have been built up so that we, and Faris, are anticipating her note to the detriment of everything else. We should be curious, fearful, wondering. Instead, much like Faris, we drift through her story, superficially in control of things, but really allowing events to take us where they will, with some very little interjection, wandering from plot point to plot point with nary a hint of what came before, or what might happen next. It is beyond frustrating. Stevermer could have benefited monumentally from some solid plotting and some training in foreshadowing. And so on and so on for the rest of the book, ad infinitum. Faris's life is in danger! Faris is the warden of the North! Faris has to mend the rift! Apparently, she has feelings about all these things, but we don't hear about them until Stevermer remembers, usually directly before the important thing happens.

Most all the characters are massive, if enjoyable, cliches. Faris, the fiery-tempered redhead with fierce loyalty to her little Duchy; Jane, the blue-blooded English daughter with a no-nonsense head for magic and a fearsome way with servants; Brinker, the skulking uncle 'looking after' Faris's land until she comes of age, imposing some unexpected taxes; Tyrian, he of the romance-novel name and the romance-novel looks, the strong silent protector who never forgets his place... You get the idea.
They're all pleasant enough to spend time with, but really, I could also be spending my time looking at plain white walls or a pretty green field and get the same result. Certainly not worth 500 pages of my time.

I'm sorry I spent so long reading this book before realising it wasn't going anywhere. I should have stopped, but I'm getting tired of all the half-finished books laying around my house, so I struggled on. When I first found a lot of these old 90s fantasy book, I wondered why they had fallen out of print and the reading consciousness. I think I can safely answer that question, and posit that this book is only slightly older than Harry Potter now (1992 vs 1997), and it's certainly not a coincidence that the enjoyable, well-plotted, exciting and richly-characterised one of the two has endured. Whatever faults you may find in J.K. Rowling's writing, she recognised the hunger for detail and description of magic that exists in the hearts of most fantasy readers - we sit through Harry's classes with him, we sympathise while he tries to juggle homework, friends and a dark magical legacy, we laugh at the Weasleys, we grind our teeth at Malfoy. There is none of the engagement here, none of the feeling that we're getting the whole story.

A total, total miss. Don't waste your time. Go back to your childhood bookshelves and read Harry Potter again.
Profile Image for Chelsea.
1,363 reviews39 followers
October 12, 2020
"It seems I have to save the world."

"Oh, dear. Do you have the training for that?" Jane asked dryly.

Faris smiled and leaned back in her chair. "I doubt it. But it seems I am the warden of the north."

So many people seem to have disliked or downright hated this book, which is heartbreaking to me, as it is my favorite book in the whole wide world and has been for more than a decade; I come back to read it again and again and again, far more than I've read any other book in my collection. Much of this hatred seems to stem from the rather unfortunate editorial quote from Jane Yolen (whose works I also like, but whose quote seems misplaced here) claiming that A College of Magics is "A large step up...from Harry Potter." I mean, we don't know what went in the middle of that quote that the ellipses have replaced, but that's not the point. The point is that A College of Magics and the Harry Potter books have very little to do with each other, and A College of Magics actually has very little to do with said college at all. I can see why this would frustrate a lot of people. Similar mis-titles of books have greatly frustrated me in the past. But I still can't help but think that, in their desperate need for something like Harry Potter, people have lashed out at this book for not being Harry Potter, rather unfairly, because it is a complete gem on its own.

If you haven't figured it out already, this is mainly going to be me defending A College of Magics against what I feel are very unfairly leveled accusations, and laying out what is so absolutely wonderful about this book.

"When this place was dedicated to St. Margaret, slayer of dragons, it was already old. It was old when the wardens of the world held court in splendor. It was old before that, when they walked abroad in the world, as free as minstrels. Time sings in the stones here."

A College of Magics is set up in the style of a three-volume novel, rather cheekily, I would say, since three-volume novels are what the heroine and her friends spend so much time reading when they are supposed to be doing other things. It follows Faris Nallaneen, the eighteen-year-old Duchess of Galazon who, despite having the birthright and title, can't really rule her duchy until she reaches her legal majority at age twenty-one. In the meantime, her uncle Brinker rules Galazon, and he has sent Faris off to Greenlaw College, which is placed near St. Malo in France, in order to be finished. Greenlaw is, first and foremost, a finishing school--which is the reason that Faris' eventual best friend, Jane Brailsford, was sent there. But it has a reputation for turning out students who also learn magic, and who are therefore referred to as witches of Greenlaw in the world beyond upon their graduations.

She sat at the heart of the world. Silent and serene, she balanced in the void.

The magic part is another place where I think people get too hung up on this. People looking for a lot of flashy magic and lessons in spells (again, like in the Harry Potter books) are going to be disappointed. The magic here is much more atmospheric and lends itself very much to the maxim that "believing is seeing." Faris is our point of view character, and she doesn't really explicitly believe in magic--and so we don't see much of it. She certainly doesn't outright learn it, because she doesn't think that she can; doesn't, in fact, think that learning it is possible at all. She does eventually set aside her skepticism, but no real embrace comes in its place, leaving Faris as more of a magic agnostic than anything else. And so, while we see magic from others and we know that Faris herself is capable of magic, and has actually accidentally worked it on a few instances, it realms drifting in the background, leaving us wondering whether each of Faris' actions will have some magical repercussion. I love this. Magic exists in this world but its, as we're told and as we can see, exceedingly rare. But it is there, and sometimes you have to look harder than you would first think in order to see it. They're subtle magics, but when you realize exactly what they are, they're impressive in their own right. They also have their own place in the world, which the magics in Harry Potter do not. Everyone is aware that magic exists, whether they can use it or not, whether they've encountered it or (more likely) not. And so when it does make its appearance, it does, however unusual, belong.

"I know of no one and nothing that can restore that light once it has been extinguished."

Most of the book, however, does not focus on Faris at Greenlaw. It focuses on her after she leaves, and travels to Paris, to Galazon, and eventually on to the other fictional country of Aravill (capital: Aravis) in order to fix a great magical wrong that one of her ancestors committed, and which has left the very structure of the world in jeopardy. On this adventure she is accompanied by Jane Brailsford, a fellow student turned teacher at Greenlaw; Tyrian, a bodyguard assigned to Faris by her uncle to prevent her from leaving Greenlaw prematurely, but sent to him by a much more mysterious source; and Reed, a servant-slash-tennant at Galazon who is loyal to Faris but despises her uncle despite being in service to him, and who will help her take control of her lands at any cost. Along the way, she runs into assassins, highway robbers, old friends, new friends, ghosts in the wings, anarchists, and a king who certainly wants something from her...

"Must I explain it to you, too? Faris, you're the warden of the north."

The back of this book says it's aimed at ages 10 and up, and while there's no sexual content or cursing here, I really disagree with that, because I think most of this book is far above a 10-year-old's head. It's not raunchy or explicit in any way, but it has a subtle humor to it that no little kid would understand. I certainly didn't understand it as a kid, and I have to say that it has improved with age for me--much like Jane's aunt's plum cake. For example, a middleschooler isn't really going to understand quotes from Shakespeare, the topics of Aristotle, references of Menary Paganell's "Pagan" tendencies (sex, guys, it's sex) or even the real menace lurking behind the figures of power in this book. In that way, I think it's much better suited to an adult audience--another way that it differs from Harry Potter. Harry Potter can be enjoyed by all ages, it's true. However, I don't think there's much in it that a middlegrader outright wouldn't get; everything is pretty much put out there at one time or another. You have to think more with A College of Magics, to grasp the pieces that are intentionally left foggy, and thinking seems to be a skill that many readers of this book have been reluctant to exercise, expecting everything to eventually be laid out for them in a Potter-like fashion.

"You may count on me until my last hour, and for an hour beyond."

Even the romance is a subtle thread running through the work rather than an outright plot point. The two romantic interests are, of course, Faris and Tyrian, though it takes a while for this thread to emerge from the background into a place of slightly more prominence. Let me say this: Faris and Tyrian are totally my OTP. I ship them harder than any other characters I have ever encountered, including ones of my own making. Their relationship is slow and subtle. There are two kisses throughout the entire book, and not early on, either. Does the relationship ever really come to fruition? No, not really... But there's such potential there, lurking just off the page, that your imagination can fill in the blanks and guess at where it goes from there. Tyrian and Faris' relationship ties strongly to the climax of the book, and the ending, even though their relationship isn't even close to the core of the story of Faris attempting to restore balance. But, as in all other aspects of this book, Stevermer subtly works it up and in, along with the magic and menace that has been building in the background the entire time, into what is one of the most perfect conclusions I have ever read in a book. Is it happily ever after? No, not at all. In fact, the first several times I read this book I wanted to throw it across the room because I was so upset with how it ended. But as I've read it and re-read it, it has grown on me, a slow burn sort of affection that I now can't put aside. It's not happily ever after with confetti and a bow. But there's this perfect sense of resolution that just fits so well, that I can't say I would have rather had the confetti and the bow and the happily ever after. Stevermer didn't go the fairy tale route with this, but the route she chose just works, and it's the reason I like bittersweet endings in books in general.

"If love were the only thing, I would follow you--in rags if need be--to the world's end..."

A College of Magics isn't big and bright and flashy like Harry Potter. That's not Stevermer's writing style. She's very subtle and very matter-of-fact at the same time. She doesn't spend paragraphs and pages building up characters, but lets small details speak for themselves so we can build a mental picture of that character based off those things, like how Tyrian cuts cake using a knife of alarmingly efficient design, or how Brinker ordered every blossom picked off a family's quince tree to remind them that owned their land. These, and the way she builds up the magic, always in the background but always there, building its presence through feel rather through tell, is immensely impressive to me. I long to write a book so subtle and yet with such lasting impact. This is a beautiful fantasy, slow and yet sweeping, with a world that is both our own and not. It is not flashy, like Harry Potter. It doesn't really focus on a school story. Instead, it is about Faris coming to terms with who she is and what she must do, not just for Galazon, but for the world, and the sacrifices that must be made to reach that end. It's strikingly, achingly beautiful, and it is my favorite book in the world, and all of the people who hated it because it wasn't Harry Potter completely missed its point.

Above the college rose the spire, and on that height of heights, St. Margaret and St. Michael stood back to back, ready for new battles.

5 stars out of 5.
Profile Image for Elizabeth  .
387 reviews73 followers
March 4, 2012
Picked this up as an antidote to Grossman's The Magicians, for which purpose it is recommended. Women doing things! A magical college that produces functional humans! An academic community I totally recognize! Protagonists I don't want to drown! A protagonist who undergoes change and grows the hell up and deliberately chooses political power! Seriously, I have so much love for Jane and Tyrian and Eve-Marie, and Faris gets better throughout the book, and I hope very much they all remain awesome in the sequel.

The last third or so, I kept getting distracted by how confusing the time-and-place stuff was -- where the hell is Galazon? What the hell time period is this whole thing set in? where the hell is Greenlaw, for that matter? But I can live with that.
Profile Image for Charlotte.
60 reviews62 followers
April 4, 2018
I love almost everything about this book. A lot of the reviews on Goodreads take issue with the fact that it's not what it was sold as: I don't care much about that.

It's a three-volume novel in one volume. The first of those three volumes is a story about a magical women's college-cum-finishing school named Greenlaw, which owes more to girls' boarding school adventure stories (an excellent genre of book) than to anything else. It's very good at what it is, but the real fun begins when Faris leaves the college behind.

The college section is absorbing when you're in it; as soon as you leave Greenlaw, it becomes a kind of idyll that you're shut out from forever, always gazing back. It feels very real - to a certain kind of college experience.

Volume two is a travel adventure with intrigue and magic in Paris, a bomb turned into a very nice hat, and... a journey on the orient express.

Volume three is... I don't even know how to sum it up. A masquerade ball, political machinations, more magic. My heart broken into pieces.

The magic in this book is mysterious, and it has something of the numinous, something of... I don’t know, the mystery of the sublime about it. There is no magic system that can be easily grasped, which is all the better for me. It’s about feeling, and patterns, and loops of thought, and inner strength, and responsibility and sacrifice. And really, this is a book which seems to be about devotion in a lot of different forms. One of the ways in which it is about devotion is in the magic.

But why do i love this book so much? Why is it so fiercely dear to me?

I love all of the characters. This is the truth of it. I wanted more time with all of them. How does she do this? She writes everyone with such care. Almost everyone we meet is not who they seem; by which I mean, they are much more than they seem, at first. These are characters with an endless capacity for surprise, because the writing is so generous and subtle. I re-read one scene maybe ten times because I wanted to understand precisely what a character was saying about love in it, because there was allusion and sarcasm and something genuine beneath all of that. All there on the page - it just needs teasing out.

Tyrian, i love you. And i love Jane, and Reed, and Faris, and i even love Faris’s horrible uncle. And yet what really gets at me somehow even more than the characters themselves is the dynamics between the characters. Their relationships are so true and real and deeply felt. The tiny details, the unexpected moments. Oh, I love all of it.

Which is to say: the friendship in this book is wonderful, and is the root of so much else. But the romance destroyed me. In both the good way and also in a way that isn’t necessarily bad, but. The final twist hurts. I've seen it described as bittersweet: this can’t even begin to sum up the mix of emotions for me! Hi! It has hurt my feelings a lot!

This book broke my heart, in a way I expected (i looked up spoilers for one of the threads of this book before I went in) and in another way that I totally didn't see coming. Don't be fooled by the early 20th century boarding school adventure story feel, or by the sly joke Stevermer is playing when she makes this into one of the three-volume novels that Faris and Jane (and Tyrian?) love: this is not a pastiche, it's too clever and it hurts too much for that.
1,362 reviews23 followers
April 6, 2016
Been meaning to read this for a while, pretty much since Sorcery and Cecelia to be honest.

But this never really worked for me in any way. It completely sidestepped the mark. The setup is interesting, as is the magic system. The politics approached that. I always enjoy a good female friendship. I adored Faris's devotion to her country, and her responsibilities as their leader.

But there's something nipping at the edges all along. Something about the fact that neither Faris nor the reader ever seems to have enough information about anything, and not in a good way. Take the magical system for example, it conveniently can't be taught directly until people can prove they've mastered the theory, and people also can't talk about how they prove they've mastered the theory, so how magic is tought is never discussed at a school about magic. (Seriously, all of a sudden after graduation, Jane can do ALL THE MAGIC. Perfectly.) This has the effect of making the big magical final scene something of an anti-climax. And the whole book is like that, nothing is ever adequately explained, so nothing feels like it has enough context to be as interesting as it should have been. And what frustrates me the most is that I think there's quite a good book underneath it all that somehow gets sidestepped (at least from my perspective, I could see this working for some people). There were moments where I really enjoyed it, but they never came together into a cohesive story for me.

The best part of this book is easily the friendship between Faris and Jane (which, parenthetically is there some sort of unwritten literary law that all Jane's must be competent, discrete, and utterly correct, while basically just taking charge - with the exception somewhat ironically of Jane Bennet). But while the friendships are excellent, I would argue the romantic aspect is, perhaps not disasterous, but certainly disappointing.

In short, this book feels a bit all over the place.
Profile Image for Minli.
359 reviews
January 11, 2010
If I were to use one word to describe this book, it would be: subtle.

The novel's comparison to Harry Potter baffles me, I suspect in an attempt to make a reprint of A College of Magics a commercial success (HP is not subtle). I actually think it could have used a different title, because most of the action took place away from the college, and the magic was so very metaphorical, and for the lack of a better world, surrealist.

Instead of a contemporary setting, A College of Magics is set in the early 1900s, beginning with Faris Nallaneen's arrival at Greenlaw College. From my deduction I'm guessing it's somewhere in Normandy, and the college is more like a finishing school for ladies, with 'unofficial' magic studies and forays into classical philosophy and literature. I never get a clear sense of just how magic works, but maybe I'm not supposed to.

I remain confused and conflicted over this book--there were so many things I liked about it: the fantasy of manners, the historical setting, the characters, the political intrigue and the touches of mystery. I liked Faris, hot-tempered and wilful, and I liked how Uncle Brinker's motivations were complex and layered (he's crafty, but not evil). I thought Jane was fantastic, and her friendship was Faris was one of the best I'd read in a long time. I found their dialogue hilarious and wished to be part of their conversations. Tyrian's character could have been botched and cliche, but ended up so refreshing and genuine I had fits over the ending (more on that later). Some things were nicely foreshadowed, like Eve-Marie's arrival in Aravill, and Brinker taxing Galazon dry for Faris's dowry.

But. But. I could have done without the subplot with Menary--it seemed like a feeble tie between Greenlaw and Aravill. The plotting feels uneven and dreamlike, with some characters introduced and then dropped and never revisited, and others (like Graelent) who were too important and brought in too late. I had major problems with the ending, and I don't know if that's just me being thick but I did not quite understand how exactly Faris descends the stair, or closes the rift, or what she sacrifices to be able to do so. And must I say, that OMG! those few chapters when Tyrian was dead made me shake so madly I had to pause and catch my breath, I was sad and shocked and angry and going "HOW DARE SHE" and then feeling guilty because it's ultimately up to the author and not me. Even when Tyrian does a bodyswitch with the nasty king and gets to live, the ending felt unsatisfactory though presumably happy.

I have a few ideas about this. One is, the time period Stevermer set the book in, and drew inspiration from: Woolf, Joyce, etc in the early 1900s. I still think it tries to do too much, and that A College of Magics straddles so many genre lines it doesn't fit well in any of them. It's a Ruritanian/historical romance, a high fantasy tale, a political satire with a kickass heroine, a comedy of manners where beloved characters actually die, a magical boarding school story, etc. etc. It sits between YA and adult fantasy--Faris is 18 at the onset and 21 at the end, and the book really speaks to that age group.

With that said, however, A College of Magics was an engrossing read--I couldn't put it down--and a highly creative and original story.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Taylor.
300 reviews9 followers
June 7, 2013
Not a fan of this book. I picked it up for $1 because the premise sounded interesting and the front had a quote by Jane Yolen "A large step up . . . from Harry Potter." I can't find her full quote, but my point of view would be that there was some clever editing going on. For me, the quote would read closer to "A large step up from twiddling your thumbs for four hours, but a far cry from Harry Potter."

The dialogue was stilted, and the characters had very odd relationships (or lack thereof). The romance struck me as mostly ridiculous, but sadly predictable. There were internal politics that the characters all knew about, but the reader isn't privy to. Huge chunks of time are explained away in a few short paragraphs; indeed, this book is not at all about a College of Magics, as the title would have you assume. She spends only 1/3 of the book in school, and about 10 pages actually in class. The rest is her 'saving the world' but she seems completely inept at doing any such thing.

It may seem odd since I don't care for the book, but I think it would have read better as three separate books instead of just three sections within this book. She could have done so much more to flesh out the world and the relationships. And the politics: there's a lot going on that seems glossed over. Yes, it's for a younger audience, but I found that by keeping things vague the story is a bit harder to follow. Splitting it into three books would have given more opportunity for interesting things to happen, instead of forcing the reader to continue plowing along until the end.
Profile Image for Beth.
303 reviews14 followers
November 27, 2007
Stevermere has an unusual writing style for a fantasy writer--a terrific ear for historical context and language, a judicious use of dialogue, lots of subtlety in terms of character development and foreshadowing. Her prose is never too flowerly, and yet one can almost believe she wrote this book when it was set--in 1908. Never a single anachronism, even as she writes of magic and derring-do among witches. Wonderful, even the third time 'round.
Profile Image for Juushika.
1,551 reviews163 followers
September 12, 2008
Faris is the heir to a small dukedom, but while she is a minor her uncle rules in her stead. As she approaches her majority, he sends her far away to attend a prestigious finishing school where she is taught lessons, social graces, and—the school's specialty—magic. Just before graduation, Faris is swept away into a whirlwind journey of politics and magic which leads her ever closer to the very foundation of the world she lives in. A College of Magics is intelligent and clever, realistic and fantastic, set in an intriguing alternate Edwardian-era Europe, skillfully plotted with a genuinely satisfying conclusion—while the magic would benefit from further development, on the whole this is simply a wonderful book. I highly recommend it.

A College of Magics is difficult to summarize because the titular aspect makes up a mere fraction of the book—but to discuss more would be to give too much away. Safe to say, the College of Greenlaw is only the beginning of Faris's journey through friendship, Europe, political intrigue, family feuds, and—always—magic. All the same, the book never deviates too far from the college: skillfully plotted and arrayed, it always comes back to where it begin and what Faris learns at school. These factors are augmented by a cast of lively, brilliant, and realistically faulted characters and a period setting that is almost a character itself, Edwardian-era, balancing the wonders of magic with politics and human lives. Stevermer is as clever as her brightest character, and her narrative flows smoothly, keeping the reader engaged and amused and up until the satisfying conclusion.

Perhaps the only complaint about A College of Magics is the magic itself. Stripped of wand-waving and spells, magic is rendered a force of mind and will—and is less flashy and entertaining as a result. Stevermer never describes the rules and workings of her magic, and the reader is left unsure what is possible or why. The book might benefit from more magical exploration, and more time spent with Faris at school. The conclusion, however, makes up for this absence: it is so easy for a book of great politics and magic to fall into a middling end, but the conclusion of A College of Magics is a feat of magic of the soul and mind. It is meaningful, appropriately sized to the lead-up that precedes it, and by far one of the better endings that I've read.

While this is not the best or most memorable novel, I was consistently amused and impressed throughout reading it. Witty while meaningful, political while magical, A College of Magics is skillfully written and conceived. It dances on the edge of humor, always entertaining but never mindlessly comical, and the characters are brave, ill-tempered, and slightly larger than life. I would have liked to see more how and why of the magic, but on the whole I find little to complain about. I hugely enjoyed this book, and I recommend it to all readers—although young women and fans of alternative fantasy may be the best audiences.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,163 reviews699 followers
February 4, 2023
Faris and Jane should’ve kissed.

Like most people my age (millennials), I read Harry Potter as a kid. I was never obsessed with it or anything, and as I grew up I noticed more of the gaps in the worldbuilding, and then of course it turned out that Joanne Rowling is kind of a terrible person, so I’ve not spent much time thinking about the books since. I still have my copies, because I got them (secondhand, like all my books) as a gift, but they’re mostly collecting dust on the shelf. In the years post-Harry Potter, there have been many imitators, none of which have even come close to the ineluctable popularity of Harry Potter; there have also been many detractors, whose books are “subversions” of Harry Potter in some way or another. I never read The Magicians, mostly because all of my friends whose tastes I trust have assured me that it's terribly written, but that's a great example of the kind of “dark” or “more adult” take. Mostly that just means adding more sex and death and cursing (the expletive kind, not the magic kind). There was plenty of death in Harry Potter. Not a lot of swear words, to be fair. Not much sex either. But you can’t really turn a book for children into a book for adults just by adding some fucks and fucking.

I don’t think this book is really all that comparable to Harry Potter—it predates it by a good three years, and the similarities are mostly superficial—but hey, it’s a story about a magic school and some kids who have to save the world. Well, sort of. Greenlaw College is a “college” in the American sense, although it’s set in some fantasy-Western Europe; the primary characters start out as older teenagers and become adults. The book is marketed as YA, and I read it when I was a teenager as well, but it definitely feels more grown-up. There are actual consequences, for one. While not explicit on-page, things like politics and sex are discussed and referenced quite frequently. Magic is integrated into the world at large instead of just a parallel pocket universe (tidily side-stepping the reasonable criticism of Harry Potter that the witches and wizards don’t, you know, end world hunger or stop wars or whatnot). Actually the magic system reminded me a lot more of the traditional mediaeval and pre-mediaeval beliefs—think Daoist (氣), Arab (كيمياء), European (alchemy)—turning lead into gold, touching fire without being burned, that sort of thing. Also, the point-of-view character doesn’t really believe in magic.

I think one of the reasons this book worked for me when I was a kid is that it’s not actually YA, it’s adult fiction masquerading as YA (seriously, it’s not that kids can’t read it, it’s that they probably won’t understand most of the more subtle bits of it—I certainly didn’t!—unlike, say, Harry Potter). I have to wonder if one of the reasons people don’t like this book is simply because they don’t understand it. I’d not go so far as to say it’s too complex for them, but maybe... it doesn’t hand-hold like Harry Potter (a series intended primarily for children), and it doesn’t explain everything. How does the magic work? We don’t know. Neither do the characters. That’s fine. It’s been a while since I read this book—I picked it up in a secondhand shop when I was maybe 12 or so, having only enough money to buy a single book, and the cover caught my attention—but there are still scenes I remember vividly: Faris trying to lift the candlestick, the fight on the train, the aftermath of Menary’s Vigil, climbing the tower, the tide coming in, the soap-bubble and the champagne cork that became a bird, the stone ruins and the lions... it’s a visceral, organic, sublime writing style. The fact that the geography of our world is enmeshed with fantasy spaces—real countries like England and France, coterminous with imagined territories like Galazon and Aravill. The impression is of our world but shifted slightly to the left, off-kilter.

Also, Faris and Jane should’ve kissed.
Profile Image for Zen Cho.
Author 54 books2,359 followers
May 11, 2012
I loved this, to my mild surprise. A couple of complaints first:

1) I've already complained about this on my blog, but it doesn't make sense to me to have an extra country in our own world with goofy fantasy names like the Duchy of Galazon. "Faris Nallaneen" has no business existing in the same world with a name like Jane Brailsford. At least lah have more convincing names.

2) Ahhhhh Europe Europe Europe. I grew up reading the same books these Minnesotan writers read, or at least I assume they were the same books, because I see why they are so stuck on this particular idea of ~Europe~ (and never mind whether or not Galazon etc. are actually in Europe; they are all ang mohs and the landscape sounds European) and why they can't get out of their habit of writing like a version of Jane Austen watered down for modern consumption. The style and mindset have a potent charm; I don't deny it myself. But it's still frustrating to have a whole book with all these casual fun world-building references to Europe all that and hardly any acknowledgment that the rest of the world exists, save insofar as the rest of the world is under the subjugation of the fabulous British Empire. Tired lah. I'm glad I read the book, but I'm glad I don't feel I only have this kind of book to enjoy. When I was growing up I did feel like that -- and it wasn't good for me.

Despite the things that irritated me, I really loved Faris -- her determination, her temper, her smarts, her love for Galazon and her interest in agriculture. I sort of hope fantasy has moved on from the political mindset where it's all unquestioning yay aristocracy and ooh look at Jane and how clever she is at manipulating the accoutrements of class and feudalism of the "Faris, you are our ~true~ duchess" sort. But as I said, I do see the appeal. And back to positive comments -- I love Faris. I can never have enough of characters who are all about responsibility and debts and obligations -- I just about died at the scene where Menally (?? some stupid fantasy name that starts with an M) says, what do you have that I haven't had first, and Faris tries a couple of things before she hits on responsibility. Yessss. So satisfying!

Slightly odd ending -- I wish she'd kept Tyrian dead.

Went straight on to the next and got thrown out by too blatant positive references to British imperial interests, so who knows when I'll finish that.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Erin.
131 reviews56 followers
June 10, 2011
This is what I was expecting from The Magicians - it's strong throughout, never leaning on the setting to charm (life is good at the titular college, but things are just as interesting outside of it). It's a shame this has such a terrible cover, because it really did surpass my expectations and I know that I never would have picked it up if I hadn't been curious about Stevermer after reading Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. It's nice to read a YA book that isn't constantly reminding you that you're supposed to like the protagonist - I just liked her. She was enough. The romance took a backseat to the rest of the plot, which is always a plus, and this imagined world was just strange enough to be exciting (England and France exist side-by-side with made-up countries, magic is taught but apparently rarely practiced, things are almost normal but just slightly off in most ways) without being off-putting.

A warning - lots of Goodreads reviews expressed sentiments about the ending that made me pretty sure I knew what was going to happen, and I was mostly right. So be careful.
Profile Image for Ithlilian.
1,676 reviews24 followers
October 2, 2011
This book was terrible. The cover boldly claims that it is a "large step up from Harry Potter" and it couldn't be more wrong. The believable environment and rich characters of Harry Potter don't compare to a school that's barely even described and a cast of callous characters. The main character in A College of Magics comes off as stuck up and annoying. The magic doesn't seem very magical, and the lessons are ridiculously boring. Random plot threads are introduced but never finished and most of this just doesn't make any sense. A failing plot, miserable characters, and a terrible fantasy element make this something I'm sorry to have read.
Profile Image for Polly.
135 reviews32 followers
February 24, 2020
Сто тысяч лет хотела прочитать эту книгу и очень жестоко обломалась.
Это вот из тех самых романов, в которых вроде бы что-то есть, но со всем остальным очень сложно. Сложно с практически никаким миропостроением, сложно со скучной героиней, сложно без законов магии, сложно со злодеями, которых пытались очеловечить. Сложно с тем, что писательница любит щедро отсыпать высокопарного штиля в диалоги персонажей.
В общем, мне было скучно, но недостаточно скучно (и раздражительно), чтобы бросить это все дело.
Profile Image for colleen the convivial curmudgeon.
1,155 reviews286 followers
September 21, 2019

I'm really torn on this book. It wasn't bad, and it was enjoyable enough while I was reading, for the most part, but I wouldn't really think about it much when I put it down. Not really compelling reading.

For one thing, I didn't love the main character. She had her moments but, well, all of the characters, really, never felt fully fleshed out and "alive". Things sort of happened sometimes that didn't make much sense. Time passed and we'd suddenly skip months with a little sort of "and things happened" kind of comment. There was some character growth - but not really? Like, Faris goes to this school - and more about the school in a minute - and she's meant to learn deportment and whatnot, but also diplomacy, but then as soon as she leaves and has to deal with people it all sort of just goes to hell anyway? She never really seems to learn anything.

To the school, the title of the book is misleading because you're only in the college for the first, like, third of the book, and even then you don't actually see much in the way of classes. Faris seems to spend most of her time complaining or avoiding classes - which I guess is why she didn't learn much. Midway through her second year we get a sort of "and Faris decided maybe she should actually take time to learn some things, and she did".


You don't spend near to any time in the actual classes. I think we saw them eat more often than we saw any classes. The teacher names were totally interchangeable, because who could remember one from the other, and why should we care? We never saw enough of them, and they never did anything to make them memorable in any way.

Also, it's a "college of magic" where magic isn't taught. At least not openly. It's very specifically "not done", except it sort of is, but kind of in secret, and it's not really taught because it can't be taught, it has to be experienced, or something, and Faris ends up performing magic a few times without being aware of it, and she can't do it on command, but then suddenly she's this super important magical person and she has to leave school to go be the Guardian of the Watchtower of the North, or something, and heal the rift.

Jane goes with her, a friend from school now teacher - except the Jane who journeys with Faris seems totally different from the Jane at the school. I've literally never seen a character seem like two totally different characters to this extent before. Like, I almost feel like the travelling Jane was originally meant to be a different character, and then Stevermer decided to make it the same character but didn't change anything else about the story but the name.


Also there's a sort of villain who hates Faris because snobbery and family drama, or something, and there's also a romance. The climax with the villain was very anti- because Faris' magic works exactly how she needs it to, when she needs it to, even though she doesn't know how to do it, so it's like, whatever.

As to the romance, I actually liked this aspect, because I'm a sap, but I super didn't love the ending. Some people call it bittersweet, and it can be, but it's also kind of gross? So...

Yeah, in the process of writing this review I dropped from my initial 3 stars to 2 stars, because I'm not sure I can honestly say "I liked it", and I think "it was ok" definitely suits it more.


I debated about commenting on the blurb on the book which claims this book is a "big step up" from Harry Potter. Several other reviews have done so, so I thought maybe I'd just let it go but, honestly. I'm not even sure what they were thinking.

For one thing, the comparison to Harry Potter does a disservice to both stories. If you go in expecting this story to be about learning magic in a magical school you will be nothing but disappointed. If you go in expecting a richly developed magical world with living breathing characters to inhabit it, you will also be disappointed.

If, however, you go in expecting more of a fantasy of manners with a really little bit of magic, then I think you're expectations would be more in the realm of the reality of this book.

So, yeah...
Profile Image for Kate.
1,196 reviews15 followers
December 27, 2013
12/2012 Of all the Caroline Stevermer I've read, this is my favorite.* The first half or so of the book is really a story about college. It resonates with me because it is so much like my college experience (minus the evil uncle back at home, of course). Faris finds her place at Greenlaw, and falls in love with it, and finds her place among her friends. And there is magic, and it's a very different sort of magic. The second half of the book I really like this book, although the ending still makes me uncomfortable every time I read it. I understand that It seems such an unsatisfactory solution.

*Not counting things that she wrote with Patricia Wrede.

12/2013 re-read
51 reviews5 followers
March 31, 2008
I really enjoyed this book. I was a little hesitant to get the book when I noticed the "age range" was projected for 9-12 year olds. Or maybe it was 9-12 grade? The reading level was never a problem... meaning I didn't feel like i was reading a children's book.
The narration seemed a little disconnected emotionally. Personal preference really comes in to play on that point. The style intrigued me, and I thought it was a great complement to the way Faris seemed to keep herself emotionally detached from everyone and everything.
I loved that Faris's maturation was very subtle. (I find that character growth often relies on nearly overnight epiphanies or is entirely lacking.) The story was definitely appealing and kept me engaged. It is a little slow in the beginning. No major 'action' or developments really happen until almost half way through the book. While much of the beginning may not seem all that necessary, some of it is very much necessary and the rest is needed to make it happen at the right time without repeated jumping ahead in the story. I welcomed and enjoyed the more fleshed out tales of Faris's beginnings at Greenlaw.
Profile Image for Lightreads.
641 reviews524 followers
February 12, 2009
A young Duchess is sent far away from home to magic finishing school in alternate Europe, and then there's plot and politics. I picked this up because I particularly liked Stevermer's half of Sorcery and Cecelia. This didn't hit the same sweet, simple notes. It's a nice enough book, with some interesting world building and a heroine with a temper, and you really can't go wrong with magical girls' college. But this book had a vague feeling of being all under glass for me. There's a fair amount of narratorly distance, and it muffled some of the lively female friendships and the romance and the sense of cool weird magic.
Profile Image for Bryn Reads Everything.
1,903 reviews15 followers
February 25, 2018
I loved this; it is like a school story by Angela Brazil crossed with a Ruritanian romance (think The Prisoner of Zenda) with added magic. There are some male characters, but the majority are women, and the writing is very soothing; everything is explained and people talk to each other a lot and there are some very funny moments. It is not particularly well-crafted; the plot jumps around a bit and a lot is done by impression rather than really developed, but I didn't care, it was a perfect book for me, and I can only hope that everything else she's written is equally wonderful.
94 reviews1 follower
November 7, 2017
Read this gazillion years ago and really enjoyed it. Maybe it's time to reread.
Profile Image for Elevetha .
1,768 reviews168 followers
June 21, 2021
This shouldn't be confusing but is. Also overly long and I don't think edited at all.


Everything is written and given to the readers in this soft understated way, which can occasionally backfire but mostly just really works. The dialogue is clever and fun, the characters and relationships within them are really refreshing and wonderful and strong.

I will say that this is marketed/shelved/advertised as "10 and up". While technically true that there is nothing overly objectionable that a 10 year old can't read, this is a terrible marketing choice. This is an upper YA/adult book, not because of content; but the writing, its subtleties, its quiet underhanded beautiful way of describing just about everything...I don't know that it would appeal to anyone under the age of perhaps 16?? And if it would, it certainly shouldn't/wouldn't be the target audience. This is such a shame, because marketed properly, I could see this taking off far better than it did.

Minlee, Beth, Charlotte, and Andree (in the top 10 reviews on the main page) all accurately sum up parts of this book that I didn't know how to say.
Profile Image for Sidsel Pedersen.
804 reviews52 followers
September 3, 2018
This is such a different story. It might start as a school of magic story, but the title is really misleading and the cover makes you think it is a kids book - but really it is at least a young adult. The main character is young yes, but the story isn't a simple story. It is quite philosophical and in parts kind of slow. The magic is really interesting. A lot of the story is about friendship and responsibly.
I quite enjoyed the story, but it didn't grib me and drag me in to keep me there. It was however a story to make me think and wonder.
Profile Image for Sula.
229 reviews24 followers
September 21, 2021
This almost felt like two books to me. The first quarter of the book being one, depicting her time at said college. This part started fairly promisingly but overall I only would give it 2 stars - nothing much of interest seems to happen, and her 3 years there skim by with nothing to distinguish them. There's no feel for the sense of place there and their everyday lives even! It would probably have been more effective to start the book right at the end of her time at the college. It's very choppy, and keeps changing scenes, but that is partly because it has nothing much to say and so keeps moving on.
Both this and the rest of the book suffer from unexplained, confusing plot points. Not in a good, make-you-think way but more this just happens. How do they learn/gain magic? The college doesn't teach any (why is this book called the college of magics then?!) and somehow they gain powers after the vigil. These powers are very much a wave your hand and whatever you want to happen happens magic. For some reason Jane seems to be always doing the magic, even though both her and Faris have been through the vigil. Faris' main show of magic is not until saving the day at the end.
This is a humorous book, and while I love humorous books, this leant too heavily on the wry, witty banter humour between the characters. After a while this loses impact and it also means the characters start to feel similar and less developed as they nearly all have this character trait and respond this way in every situation.
The second part of the book becomes more interesting than the first, and has a stronger plot (therefore becoming less choppy) but still suffers from the above problems. Some interesting concepts were brought up, for instance I liked the idea of these magical gardens. All in all it was a bit one of those books that feels like it should be really good, but just missed the mark in some of the better areas and is let down in others to really hold it up high.
Profile Image for GeraniumCat.
250 reviews39 followers
August 22, 2018
What a lovely book! Only the second I'd read by Stevermer writing on her own, but it was so enjoyable. I'd been a bit put off, honestly, by the comparisons that seem to appear everywhere with Harry Potter, because it is partly set, as the title suggests, at a college, but this is so much more than just another school story.

Faris Nallaneen is sent to Greenlaw College by her uncle, to get her out of the way, she is sure. When she's 21 she will be Duchess of Galazon, but that is 2 years away, and in the meantime he's much happier being in charge of the country without her interference. Actually, you can see his point, Faris is prickly, opinionated, argumentative - and great fun. She's regarded with a certain wariness by fellow students, but does make friends with several. She also makes an implacable enemy of Menary Paganell. Greenlaw is a college of magic, but Faris thinks it's pretty much just another finishing school, she's sceptical about magic and students aren't allowed to practise it so it's hard to tell if it's real or not. One thing that Faris is sure of, if it's real she doesn't have any talent for it.

Much of the book concerns what happens when Faris leaves Greenlaw, and I'm loth to say too much about it because it would spoil the story. What did I love so much? Well, I like several of the characters immensely, especially the hoydenish Faris and, by contrast, the supremely organised and well-turned-out Jane Brailsford. Conversation between characters is particularly good - the student chat showed just the right mix of genuine humour and world-weariness. There's plenty of excitement too. Incidentally, my copy suggests a readership of 10 and up, but I suspect 10 is somewhat on the young side; 12 seems about right as a starting point to me, as some of the themes seem better suited to that slightly older age bracket.

There's a sequel, which I instantly ordered. Oh yes, and I hated the cover...
Profile Image for D. B. Guin.
825 reviews70 followers
May 26, 2017
A good book, even though it's called A College of Magics when it's not really about a college of magics in any way. They spend like... the first fourth of the book at a college of magics, and even then that's not the real focus of the story itself, much less of our hero Faris. Contrary to appearances, it's about Faris coming into her thrust-upon magical role, and semi-related political shenanigans.

I don't have a whole lot to say, except that there was a ton of actual attempted murder in this book. It's the kind of book where you'd expect a lot of enmity, veiled barbs, and maybe some cruel social traps laid. But there were actually a lot of people straight up trying to kill each other. Menary was nuts. I kind of wish we got to see more about the rift and how and why she became nuts, because I have a feeling it was a really creepy, sad story.

I really enjoyed the unusual take on the monarchist rabble-rouser guy. When he first turned up I thought he was going to be a dashing, important, clever, leader-of-men forward-thinking type, and Faris was going to have to deal with them wanting her to save them from the cruel rule of Menary's family. Instead, he turns out to be mostly a paper tiger and in the end everyone is just like, "Why are you even here?" Poor guy. At the end he just looks like a complete idiot, with no idea how massively far he's overstepped.

Also................ the thing? With Tyrian? And the king's body? Like yay, he's not dead? But. Is that creepy, or is that just me? Tyrian doesn't seem 100% happy about it? If I were in his place, I would have rather just died, honestly. I think Hilarion has been a transient immortal shade for too long.
Profile Image for Kayt O'Bibliophile.
713 reviews21 followers
September 3, 2011
2.5 stars

Faris Naralleen is heir to the dukedom of Galazon. Too young to rule, she's sent from her beloved homeland by her jerk uncle until he works out a way to rule even after she comes of age. At Greenlaw College, though, she discovers there's more to learn than just poise and history: magic.

A College of Magics, I will admit up front, is not a book that would appeal to me hugely even if it didn't have flaws, simply due to the writing style. I found it reminiscent of Robin McKinley with its humorless narrative and way of alluding to things instead of saying them straight out. It's a way of writing that I've found makes it hard to connect with the action and the story.

Past that, though, it still has flaws. Most characters are hard to grasp--they don't seem to be 'characters' so much as people-shaped words that fill any given plot need. The antagonist is never fully explained, the secondary antagonists aren't...actually, most characters aren't given any motivation or reasoning.

And despite the emphasis of the title and description on magic, it's often a secondary thought and the magic system doesn't seem to have been worked out very well. It's very annoying to read a book where you don't understand what's going on--it would be different if the characters were the same, but no, they seem to have it figured out, they just haven't enlightened the poor reader.

Overall, a bland book. What is the point? Why all the hocus-pocus that doesn't do anything.
637 reviews12 followers
November 4, 2018
This book was originally published in 1994, so Stevermer could have no idea that a few short years later a book featuring a school where one goes to learn magic would have a totally different resonance. "A College of Magics" shares fairly little with Harry Potter, though, not even the first (and best) part, which is set in Greenlaw College, where, indeed, students come to learn magic. The student scenes have an elegance and sophistication that is in keeping with the book's romanticized Edwardian atmosphere. Possibly this is because Greenlaw is a college, and not a version of a traditional English public school: it probably owes more to Bryn Mawr, where Stevermer went to college (it is also an all-girls school), than Eton. Once Faris, our heroine, leaves Greenlaw, the book acquires a nice "Prisoner of Zenda"-esque vibe, with Faris opposing her uncle, a typical modernizing despot, for the rule of the Duchy of Galazon (which presumably adjoins Zenda, Orsinia, and Ruritania). This part of the book wasn't quite as well-done as the college scenes -- in particular, some of the magical scenes didn't really make sense -- but the atmosphere, and Faris, who is well-drawn, carries you through.
Profile Image for Catherine.
108 reviews6 followers
April 23, 2021
It's unfortunate that this book carries the comparison to Harry Potter, since I think it honestly ruins many people's experience of the book.

That being said, I have read and reread this book several times, since upon finishing it for the first time this book became one of my favorites. I don't know if it's because I read it when I was quite young (or just because I am truly a romantic at heart) but I loved this book.

I loved the atmosphere of the narrative, the importance of magical balance, the references to the music of the spheres (which continue, if only confusingly, in the sequel, which is not at all comparable to this book), and above all, the references to the song of Tom of Bedlam. I don't think it is a novel to read necessarily for the characters (although I loved them), but it is a novel to read for the atmosphere.

I'm not going to specifically talk about the end because of spoilers, but it gave me chills, and it certainly leaves one thinking, which I do think was the desired effect.

Whenever I read this book, I never want to leave it. Perhaps it's time for another reread....
Profile Image for Julia.
121 reviews23 followers
November 7, 2010
This is such a wonderful book that I have a hard time summing up. It's set in a turn of the century Europe that is similar to our own. Magic exists, and is something that proper young ladies are taught. The book chronicles the adventures of Faris Nallaneen the rightful ruler of a tiny nation state, who has been exiled to a school in England by an appropriately wicked uncle. There are intrigues, magic, tea and transformations. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical British fiction as well as people who like reading fantasy books. This book also reminds me of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
Profile Image for A J.
241 reviews6 followers
August 3, 2014
The comparison to Harry Potter on the cover is unfair to both books; the writing style is closer to a very dry Georgette Heyer than anything by Ms. Rowling. And 'Ages 10 and up', really? I doubt most ten year olds would be interested in the complexities of European politics before the Great War.

Flawed, and with a somewhat infuriating ending, but interesting enough to make me want to read the next book. I fell in love with Jane, and her friendship with Faris is beautifully written. Just don't be misled by the cover.
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