St. Saturn's is a summer school for gifts in the fantasy province of New Carthage (where there are also ""winter schools""), and it is headmastered by Farley Piccolo, a Caesar of a principal whose costume fetish includes more than a bit of transvestitism. But, along with secretary Miss Twig (she occasionally dresses as Sister Phaedra or Catherine, Princess of Urania), Piccolo does his best to run the school--fending off rogue teachers, uppity kitchen and custodial staff, and the always high-spirited and mischievous gift students. Most troublesome of these is surely Abbey Stowe--and when, midway through the book, she disappears (before Piccolo can expel her), a mystery of sorts commences, eventually involving a poisoner, village vigilantes, an impostor claiming to be Abbey's military-man father (he soon dies, as does most everybody else), and various frou-frou apparitions. If all this sounds like the makings of an enormously fey first novel, that's exactly what it is--with obvious, much-less-funny echoes of the St. Trinian's film series. (The best characters here are the Trinian's-style students.) But Apffel goes far beyond fey . . . into weird and confusing; and as one reads on, looking for clarifications that never come, the suspicion arises that the author is playing some complex private game with symbols and analogies--most likely (what with references to Saturn, Carthage, Gaul, and invading barbarians) a camped-up version of Suetonius and the Fall of the Roman Empire. Faint comedy, bizarre whimsy, obscure allusions--a fiction debut which, though seemingly quite pleased with itself, will offer more puzzlement than pleasure to most readers.