If you've never been in a used bookstore with Kate Nepveu, you're missing out on an experience. A few years back, I got to witness her methodical and relentless targeted search methods -- and got a copy of Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics thrust into my hands in the process. I promptly placed it on my shelf to begin the delicate and subtle aging process necessary to bring out the full aroma and flavor of a book.
Time passed, and Stevermer wrote a sequel, When the King Comes Home. I picked it up, and (for no obvious reason) read it more-or-less immediately. I didn't care for it much, as it was another of those irritating Mythic King stories, like Kushner and Sherman's The Fall of the Kings; so I mentally pushed A College of Magics further down my to-read list.
But after reading the Flewelling books, I was in the mood for real Fantasy of Manners, and Stevermer's novel appeared to be the best fit for the genre. So, I gave it a whirl -- and I'm glad I did, because it's a very enjoyable book.
It's also a book with a lying title. You'd think it was set in college, sort of a cross between Tam Lin and Harry Potter, but the college only even appears in the first part of the book, before the plot really picks up its pace. This part is also the weakest part of the book, suffering from Tam Lin-itis -- the characters are all insufferable and speak entirely in quotation.
When the protagonist gets out of college, though, things get very interesting. The setting is superb, Europe in 1908 with magic and a few fake countries to sit alongside familiar standbys like France and England. The plot, which involves both aristocratic intrigue (our heroine is the duchess heir to Galazon, currently under the heavy-handed rule of her regent uncle) and big magic, advances pacily.
It's not a perfect book, of course. Even past the awkward college bits, there are some jarring moments. The relationship between the heroine and her uncle is very unevenly written. At times, it seems like they're trying to have each other assassinated, and then five minutes later, they're sitting down for tea as if it's all a jolly bit of sport. The same thing is true of the other conflicts in the book -- Stevermer veers between writing them seriously and lightly, and the effect is frustrating. "Look, she tried to kill you!" you want to scream. "Quit sniping over scones, and snap her fucking neck already!"
Warts notwithstanding, this is a fine addition to the Fantasy of Manners canon, and recommended to fans of that subgenre. But I'm glad I read the sequel first, because if I were to read it after this, I'd be extremely disappointed.