Turning to books, this is what I've been reading of late.
Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics tells the tale of Faris Nallaneen, the underage Duchess of Galazon, sent to the boarding school of Greenlaw for three years by her wicked uncle. She struggles, she triumphs, she suffers, and she finds love. It's your typical potboiler romance.
Except that Galazon isn't a real place. Oh, we're in 1908 Europe. We pay a visit to France and we ride the Orient Express, but added to the continent is an Italian-like promentory with four dukedoms that used to be a single kingdom about fifty years back. Oh, and Greenlaw teaches magic.
This isn't your standard Harry Potter tale. Greenlaw's magic is all about finding balance, and the world is governed by four wardens (Wardens of the North, South, East and West) whose job it is to maintain the balance of the world. Of course, Faris discovers that she is a warden herself, and she must set right a great imbalance brought about by the vanity of her grandmother.
The story is oddly compelling. It stays strictly in the point-of-view of Faris Nallaneen, who is completely ignorant of her magical heritage, or even the political intrigues going on around her. As a result, when things develop, we discover them the same time she does, and we share Faris' surprise and alarm. Caroline's heroine is very compelling and, although the story is told in the third person, we get into Faris' head as effectively as if she were narrating the tale herself.
The story starts slow and, as I should remind you, this is no Harry Potter. This is not a story of a great hero and a great villain, it's a tale of a young woman's coming of age and into a true understandign of her responsibility. The narrative is wry and witty, and should keep you intrigued enough to keep going until the action starts in earnest.
A College of Magics was read in half-hour spurts to Erin as we went to sleep at night. I've been reading Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl while on the exercycle at gym with Dan. Unlike A College of Magics, however, I almost put this book down.
Artemis Fowl is a twelve-year-old Irish boy, the only living heir of a famously criminal family. The family has fallen on hard-times, now. With Artemis' father missing and presumed dead at the hands of the Russian Mafia, Artemis himself is the heir of only millions, rather than billions. As he is a brilliant, but evil, genius, he resolves to get his family fortune back. His trick: he's young enough to believe in magic. So he hatches a plan to rob the LEPrecons (LEP stands for Lower Elements Police -- the police of the Fair Folk) of one ton of gold. The Fairies would never know what hit them.
Artemis Fowl is very clearly written with children more in mind as the target audience, and while I have no trouble getting into children's literature, I had trouble here. Eoin Coiffer has seen fit to update the Faerie legends. The little folk wiz around on magic AND cold-fusion powered technological gizmos. The LEPrecon forces are your standard hard-boiled policemen and investigators. Haven City, the home of most of the Faeries, is an underground Gotham City. There are references to the Internet, CNN, computer viruses, the FBI; it goes on and on.
There was a quote on page 94 of the paperback edition of the book, which expressed my feelings precisely: "Back in the shillelagh days, there were no fancy polymer harnesses, no auto thrusters, and certainly no external monitors. It was just gut instinct and a touch of enchantment. In some ways Root preferred it like that. Science was taking the magic out of everything."
Eoin Colfer almost crosses the line when she gizmos up the Fair Folk. They have their ability to hypnotize people, but their wings have been replaced with mechanical contraptions. They function best in moonlight, but the way they shield themselves from human sight is explained away by vibrations and frequencies. The magic becomes just another one of their technological gadgets.
I remember, way back (like, the early eighties), a Christmas Eve special wherein the writers tried to come up with science fiction explanations to the magical power of Santa and his elves ("Santa uses the chimney about five percent of the time. Most of the time, he uses his molecular destabilizer"). I gave up on this production very quickly. Although there is plenty of room for science fiction to cross over into the realm of fantasy (see **Buffy**), for fantasy to take that same road back requires a pretty good storyteller. The Christmas Eve special writers weren't up for the job, and neither is Eoin Colfer. The whole enterprise starts to get silly pretty quickly.
But I didn't put the book down, despite what I've just said, and despite the fact that there are few, if any sympathetic characters. Artemis Fowl is a criminal. His Butler is a murderous thug. The Faeries are all cynical, hard-boiled people who shout a lot. But I still kept reading.
Eoin Colfer's style is easy to read, and his action scenes are very well handled. And perhaps it's because his characters are so ambivalent that I was forced to stick around. Butler has obvious affection for his charge, Artemis, and Artemis himself shows signs of compassion and even guilt. And while the Faeries yell a lot, and plenty are looking out only for themselves, there are a few characters who are fiercely loyal and dedicated to justice. And it all comes down to a satisfying climax, internally consistent and very well set up.
A College of Magics, by Caroline Stevermer, is a compelling read that starts slow, but builds and builds. I give it a solid four stars. It is published by Tor Books. Artemis Fowl and its sequel, Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident, both by Eoin Colfer, succeeds in spite of itself with smooth narration and solid action. I give it a decent three stars. Both books are published by Hyperion Paperbacks for Children. Be sure also to check out the official Artemis Fowl website.