I’ve been stuck on writing up Caroline Stevermer’s A Scholar of Magics for an unreasonable time now. I don’t know why doing it justice is giving me such trouble, but the queue behind it is getting quite frightening, so I will do my best here. Insert fangirl squees liberally for full effect.
A Scholar of Magics is a semi-sequel to A College of Magics; it’s just as delightful but a little smoother. Greenlaw was the eponymous college of the prior book, a school for women that also taught magic; Glasscastle is its counterpart for men, located in England to Greenlaw’s France. (They have interestingly different approaches to teaching magic, however.) At the opening of Scholar, one of our protagonists is having tea with the wife of one of Glasscastle’s scholars:
Samuel Lambert, all too aware of his responsibilities as a guest, saw with dismay that there were loose bits of tea leaf in the bottom of his cup. Lambert was not easy to alarm. He had no objection to tea leaves as such, but their presence made it probable that his hostess would once again try her dainty, inexorable hand at telling his fortune.
Fortunately, Jane Brailsford, his hostess’s sister-in-law and a major character from College (who later helpfully sums up all the reader needs to know about College, though in an unfortunately clunky passage), arrives unannounced:
Grateful for the unexpected reprieve, Lambert used the precious minute or so of solitude after Amy’s departure to conceal the contents of his teacup in a brass pot that held a substantial aspidistra. When his sleeve brushed against the foliage, he roused a beetle from its afternoon nap. The insect flew low over the table, rose to an altitude just out of swatting range, and set itself to veer around the room for the rest of the day. After watching its erratic flight for several circuits of the room, Lambert helped himself to a few sugar cubes from the bowl. He wasted two shots before he got the hang of the insect’s abrupt changes of speed and direction, but the third sugar cube closed its account. Lambert nailed the beetle on the wing at three paces, exactly over the tea tray. The corpse missed the milk pitcher with half an inch to spare and landed, legs to the sky, between the teapot and the sugar blow. Uncomfortably aware that no etiquette book covered freelance insect extermination, Lambert retrieved the evidence. He deposited the dead beetle and the sugar cubes on top of the tea leaves in the aspidistra pot and resumed his seat.
Lambert is an American sharpshooter assisting studies of accuracy for a government-funded research project vital to the imperial interests. (Early-twentieth-century alternate Europe with magic setting, in case you didn’t follow the link to the College review.) In the six months of work, the only event of note was internal: Lambert fell helplessly in love with Glasscastle, which he thinks won’t have him. Things change rapidly, of course, else we wouldn’t have a book; both Jane and a mysterious man in a bowler hat are very interested in Lambert’s roommate, a scholar named Nicholas Fell.
It might help the unfamiliar reader to know that Stevermer’s books in this world [*] (besides College, there’s the very brilliant When the King Comes Home, set in the Renaissance-equivalent) start out with relatively low and explicable levels of magic; then the characters take a physical journey, and the magic gets a lot less explicable. The magical dilemma of Scholar continues to elude me, I have to say; I briefly thought it had to do with modern physics, but, well. Fortunately this doesn’t ruin the book for me, as the things that I did understand are more important to the story and are more in the foreground of the plot. In addition, the movement of the story felt smoother to me than in College, perhaps because Scholar isn’t structured as a three-volume novel, or perhaps because I was expecting it this time.
While speaking ever-so-vaguely about the shape of the book, I should add that if you had the same reaction as I did to the opening material, fear not—one need not actually read Comus to understand what’s going on, as the interactions are text rather than (or in addition to) subtext. (I’m sure it would enrich the experience, and I’ll be getting to it Real Soon Now.)
For the longest time I could never keep the plot of College in my head, but I didn’t care because I read it for the characters. I don’t think I’ll have the same problem with this one, but I’ll still read it for the characters. It’s lovely to see Jane again, and I was extremely pleased to meet Lambert, whom I have a strong urge to hug and send ginger stem cake. Their interactions simply made me smile all the way through the book, not a unique occurrence but one to be treasured all the same. The supporting characters are nicely rounded, and I was rather amused that two minor characters, advisees of Fell, move the plot by their determination to get grades out of him—well, it made this faculty wife snort, at least.
Those who liked College should certainly read this. It might be a good place for people to start reading Stevermer as well, despite its quasi-sequel nature, as I think it’s a touch more polished than College (people seem to split sharply on When the King Comes Home, which rather surprises me, but it is first-person with a very distinct voice). I would strongly recommend this book to people looking for any or all of the following in their fiction: non-mechanical magic, non-medievaloid fantasy, academia, fantasy of manners, sensible women, sensible men, affectionate characterization, wit, and charm.
(I suppose I managed some fangirling after all.)