Josh says I need to just let this go, but it really irks me that Simon & Schuster chose to print "FANTASY" in big letters on the front of the edition I just read. Ooookay. Letting go.
It's funny -- the first book struck me as likely to be embraced by those on the young end of the Tamora Pierce fandom, whereas this one, with its school setting, fish-out-of-water storyline, nasty rich students, tough professors (including one very mean one) and wonderful headmaster... You do see where I'm going with this, I hope? Yes. There are a lot of Harry Potter-esque aspects.
I do think it's possible to read and enjoy this one without reading the first book, but I wouldn't recommend it. Menolly is annoyingly apologetic about everything even when you know her background, but without having actually witnessed how awful her parents were, her constant apologies might become unbearably irritating. Harry Potter she is not -- she is eager to please and quick to assume that she is at fault, whereas he does a lot of "It's not fair" and blaming others. Interesting, because I like them both so much.