Chapter 11: Jinxed.
This was supposed to be the chapter where the plot really heats up, but it's also the one where a lot of the criticisms do, too, from the ongoing belabored rivalry between Alexandra and Larry to Dean Grimm's discipline methods to the scene that I personally think was the most egregious moment of Suedom for Alex in this book.
Reading back over it, I can see the flaws, but there are a surprising number of scenes in this chapter that I really liked, though I don't know if everyone else did. Like this one:
They sat silently for several long minutes, before Larry muttered, “Troublesome is right,” under his breath.
“You're blaming me?” she muttered back. “You started it.”
“You're stupid. And by the way, chicken!”
“Ssh!” Miss Marmsley hissed from the picture on the wall behind them. “I would think being in as much trouble as the two of you are you'd both know when to be quiet!”
The two of them sat silently for a minute, before Larry whispered, “What does that even mean?”
“What?” Alexandra asked.
“Chicken. Why do you keep calling me a chicken?”
Because it demonstrates Larry's unfamiliarity with Muggle culture (although it could argued that "chicken" is probably old and traditional enough that wizards should know it too) and because it demonstrates that both of them are, first and foremost, children.
But then comes the Sue moment.
Alexandra was filled with annoyance and fascination. She wondered if the wizarding world didn't have laws against turning children into rats, but she thought turning into a rat at will might be kind of fun. And exploring her present situation, undignified as it was, allowed her to put off thinking about what would happen when the Dean returned.
Of course she knew Galen was supposed to scare them, but Alexandra mustered the same fearless stubbornness she brought to every dangerous situation, and refused to be intimidated. She simply didn't believe the Dean would feed students to her cat. And seeing how terrified Larry obviously was, Alexandra walked, somewhat clumsily, directly up to the cat until she was only inches from its nearest paw. She could hear Galen making a rumbling sound, and it extended its claws. They were each as long as one of Alexandra's rodent forelegs.
Alexandra looked up at the cat, and flicked her tail. Although her little rat-sized heart was beating wildly, she said, “You wouldn't dare eat me!” Of course the words didn't come out, only a defiant squeak, but the cat threw its head back and stared at her, astonished.
Alexandra slowly and deliberately turned her back on Galen, and flicked her tail insouciantly as she padded back to where Larry was still huddled, trembling and wide-eyed.
“Chicken!” she squeaked.
Larry looked at her and squeaked back, but she couldn't tell whether it was fear or anger.
To be honest, I don't have many qualms about Alexandra being preternaturally skilled on a broom, or able to bluff and bully older boys, or cast spells that seem to be too advanced for her age level. She's a heroine, she's supposed to be kind of special and above average.
But, even when I wrote this, I had some doubts. And I should have listened to them. Alexandra is mostly pretty fearless (though you may have noticed she becomes somewhat less so as she gets older — sadly, with maturity and wisdom comes the realization that doing stupid shit can get people killed), but striding up to a cat that is, from her perspective, the size of a dinosaur, and getting up in its face, reads as over-the-top even to me. She might have the guts to stand her ground, and even make defiant noises, but given that she's also in an unfamiliar body (the fact of having been transformed into a rat alone would paralyze most people with terror)... well, that scene could really use a rewrite. Alex isn't a brave 11-year-old girl here, she's a kind of psychotic idiot.
“My understanding is that the Rashes and Mr. Washington were peripheral players in this little fiasco, even if they were not the primary antagonists.” And Ms. Grimm smiled coldly. “But I am so pleased that I have finally discovered something that actually makes an impression on you, Alexandra. Apparently, despite your willingness to endanger your friends and drag them into trouble with you, it bothers you when they suffer as a result of your actions. Then know that from now on, I will hold your friends accountable for your misbehavior. When you do something wrong, it is not only you who will be punished for it. Spend some time thinking about what responsibility really means.”
This is also where Dean Grimm comes under a lot of criticism. Many readers do not like the jinx she puts on Alex and Larry, thinking it's excessively cruel, and they like even less the way she tries to control Alex by threatening her friends.
With regard to the first: hey, this ain't Hogwarts. Yes, Dean Grimm is kind of mean. And yes, she will do things that none of the teachers at Hogwarts would do (except maybe Snape). Frankly, I don't see it as terribly out of line given the type of school it is and the type of authoritarian Dean Grimm is. "Go near your rival, who you can't seem to stay away from, and you both get turned into rats" seems like a fitting punishment in the wizarding world.
As to the second: yes, this may have been ill-considered on Dean Grimm's part. I don't agree with some of her more vehement critics who think it makes her completely incompetent and power-crazy (remember, I'm using Harry Potter standards here — anything Hogwarts or Charmbridge teachers do to punish students would have real teachers in the US or the UK probably facing criminal charges), but it is pretty nasty.
The door to their room opened, and Anna walked in, carrying her bookbag. She looked at Alexandra, and walked over to her own bed and set down her bag.
“Did you get expelled?” she asked quietly.
“No,” Alexandra said. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
Charlie screeched in her face, making her flinch, and then flapped over to the window and sat on the sill, back to Alexandra. She frowned and brushed crumbs off her knee.
Anna had her back to Alexandra also. She was opening her bookbag, taking books out, slowly. Without looking up, she said, in a soft, casual tone, “I think Charlie is saying you're being a jerk.”
I did like writing the subsequent scene with Anna. I am not always sure how well I represent Alex and Anna's friendship. miles2go never thought they were quite convincing as besties. But a lot of people seem to like Anna, which makes me glad, because I like Anna. Alexandra is kind of a tough nut. Clearly she does love and care about her friends, but she hasn't exactly had a lot of experience having a girl best friend, especially one as girly as Anna. (Anna is not exceptionally girly, but she's definitely more girly than Alex.) So throughout this book, she is still trying to figure out what having a best friend means. And, of course, learning not to be so damn self-centered.
“So every time you do something wrong, one of – one of your friends is going to be punished along with you?” Darla exclaimed.
“That's... not very fair,” Angelique said, scooting a little further away from Alexandra on her bench.
“Why'd you have to go and play chicken with Larry?” David demanded. “And what did you think was going to happen when you took off like that across the sky? We were almost done with detention and you go and -”
“I know!” Alexandra snapped at him. “Well, at least you won't be doing detention for the next three months! And if you don't want to be my friend any more, well, fine, I don't blame you!”
“Don't be silly, Alex,” Anna said, with a worried look at David.
“It's not my fault the Dean decided to punish my friends. Maybe she doesn't want me to have any friends,” Alexandra muttered, stabbing her peppermeat with a fork.
“Maybe she wants you to behave.” This was Constance, speaking in a low voice.
“It is a thought,” agreed Forbearance mildly.
Sooner or later, she'll get it.
Afterwards, Alexandra asked Anna, “Why didn't you just leave him there on the floor?”
Anna looked at her reproachfully. “You know, he probably doesn't like being jinxed any better than you do.” She was carefully polishing her wand, while Alexandra cleaned out the cage she had acquired for Charlie from the school aviary.
“It's his fault!” Alexandra said.
“All his fault?” she asked casually, looking down at her wand.
Alexandra scowled at her, then thought about how patient and compassionate Anna had been, and she felt guilty.
“Maybe not all,” she mumbled, quickly and almost inaudibly. Then added, “But he's still a jerk!”
Anna smiled. “Yeah,” she said. “He is.” She paused. “You just let them do it. You didn't fight or do anything rash.”
“I wanted to.”
“You would have gotten in trouble.” Smashing Torvald in the face with a tray would certainly have resulted in another trip to the Dean's office.
Oh look, she almost did.
So, a lot of this chapter is kind of filler-y, but I like most of the scenes. Alexandra and Anna build on their friendship, Alex begins to take some small, painful steps towards character growth, and yeah, there is still too much interminable Alex and Larry rivalry.
It ends with the next major plot-related event, though, which is Journey's next murder attempt. Which is another attempt that, like the Invisible Bridge, I felt kind of had a few holes in it, but I mostly just left things open to interpretation.
“Yeah, school policy,” Journey sighed. “Most of the wizarding world still hasn't embraced the rights of the non-living, and the Dean is no exception. She doesn't think allowing them to share space with the living is a healthy environment for students. Now and then some poor ghost settles in the attic or the basement for a while, but the Dean insists we get rid of them.”
Bwahahaha! Foreshadowing! :D
And then Alexandra and Larry are sent into the attics to clean, and wind up "accidentally" running into one another and being turned into rats. And then Galen shows up.
Larry scrambled around in circles, panicking, while Alexandra dangled in the air, kicking and twitching, trying to jerk free. Galen reached a paw out and caught Larry, pinning his tail to the floor.
Both of them felt ice in their veins, while the cat sat there for a moment, purring triumphantly. Then a screech made the cat jump as well.
There was a flurry of wings and an ugly, ear-splitting sound and Alexandra dropped to the floor while Galen yowled and hissed.
Oops, there's another mild POV break there.
But what exactly was Journey's plan? Obviously he set Alex and Larry up to be lost, but did he plan for them to meet and turn into rats? Did he arrange for Galen to find them as rats (implying that, contrary to what he claimed, he though maybe Galen would eat them)? Or was he just going to murder Alexandra himself, in whatever form he found her?
The ineffectiveness of his earlier murder attempts is explained later, of course, when he admits that he basically didn't have the stomach for killing. Journey is a bastard and a coward, but he's not a psychopath who can easily murder little girls in cold blood. So it takes him a while to really work up the nerve, hoping that his earlier half-assed plans will do the job without him having to get too messy about it.
Galen and Charlie's roles both remain ambiguous, deliberately so. Would Galen have harmed Alexandra and Larry? The Dean is insistent in book four that Galenthias remembers nothing but being a cat — surely she cannot recognize her daughter? But maybe she can recognize students, even in rat form? And how did Alex summon Charlie? Well, Charlie is her familiar, of course. Familiars know when they're needed.
I think it works, but I admit the plotting was kind of loose here. What do you think?
“Who put the jinx on me and Larry in the first place? And gave us detention? Whose cat almost got us? Who do you think could make the Invisible Bridge disappear?”
Anna bit her lip.
Alexandra glared at her. “I'm not crazy, Anna!”
“No, of course you're not!” Anna said quickly. “But... why would the Dean want to kill you, Alex? I mean, it really doesn't make any sense.”
“I'm sure she has a reason,” Alexandra said confidently. “And I'm going to find out, before she tries again.”
And Alex is off on her first red herring hunt. I didn't really expect anyone to actually believe it was Dean Grimm out to get her. (Duh, that would be too obvious, right?) Did anyone suspect Journey at this point?