Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Alexandra Quick and the Thorn Circle: Author's Notes (Chapter 26 — Murder in the Woods)

Chapter 26 — Murder in the Woods.

Don't mess with Ms. Grimm

I'm very clear on the image I want to present of Dean Grimm, but I'm not sure my execution has always been consistent. There are readers who hate her and thinks she's callous and cruel, and readers who think she's incompetent and has no business being in charge of children. (LOL, this in a fandom that has people like Snape and Hagrid as role models.) Anyway, she has certainly made mistakes (and I have made mistakes while writing her), but I liked writing her in this chapter, where she takes charge and kicks ass and even gets a nearly hysterical Alexandra under control.

“You,” she hissed, “are acting like a child! A hysterical, shrieking child! You are doing your friend absolutely no good by carrying on in this manner, so control yourself and act like a witch!”

Quivering, Alexandra closed her mouth, and met the Dean's gaze, though it was taking all her self-control to hold back both tears and more shouting.

“Good,” Grimm whispered, and released her.

“Please,” Alexandra said, her voice trembling. “This is my fault. We have to save her.”

“Yes,” Grimm said.

Okay, dialog shows signs of early writer mistakes: hissing and adverbing to excess. But the emotion is there, I think.

Then Mr. Thiel tries to take charge, and Dean Grimm lets him know that this is her school.

Thiel cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Dean Grimm, but I'm taking charge now. Effective immediately, all staff and faculty will answer to me.”

Ms. Grimm turned to face him.

“When senior Justice Department wizards arrive, I will discuss with them the measures to be taken,” Grimm said coldly. “In the meantime, you will stay out of the way and be quiet.”

Thiel bristled. “As the WJD agent in charge –”

“– it will be very embarrassing if your superiors find out that you were rendered ineffectual by a pair of twelve year-olds,” Grimm said, with a sharp smile. “That wouldn't bode well for the future career of an ambitious young WJD agent, would it? So if you'd like that little detail to be conveniently left out of my sister's report, you'll be silent and do as I say.”

Notice she hints at collaboration with her sister? Lilith and Diana have... issues with each other, but if you've been paying attention, you will have noticed that on certain issues, they always come together.

Also notice how often Alexandra copies Dean Grimm, even when she hates her?

“You are not coming into my room!” she said.

“I'm not taking my eyes off you, Quick,” he replied.

“Are you going to watch me undress?” she demanded. “Or go to the bathroom? These rooms are girls only! School rules.”

Thiel scowled, and looked over her shoulder into the room she shared with Anna. Charlie sat on the windowsill, and cawed a greeting. Thiel looked at the window suspiciously.

“We're on the second floor,” Alexandra said with exasperation. “What am I going to do, jump out? Without a wand?”

Thiel pointed his wand into the room and muttered a few charms. He seemed to be satisfied after a moment.

“Fine,” he said. “But I'm going to be right outside, and if I hear anything, I will come in.”

She slammed the door in his face, and threw herself on her bed and buried her face in her pillow. Charlie fluttered over and landed on her shoulder.

She only allowed herself a few moments of despair and self-pity, and then sat up and began thinking.

Alexandra grows up (but she'll backslide later)

This is the chapter where Alexandra also, belatedly, starts to put on her big girl pants. And she shows her resourcefulness and her latent power, using doggerel verse to get around not having a wand, and pulling an Abraham Thorn on Darla:

Darla, looking sleepy and annoyed in a lacy chemise, opened the door from her room to the bathroom that joined the two bedrooms, and glared at her. “Alexandra, if you don't shut Charlie up –”

Alexandra turned. Charlie was on her shoulder, and her hand was still dripping blood, and she gave Darla a look of such ferocity that the other girl instantly turned white, and took a step backwards.

“Close the door,” Alexandra said, and Darla did.

However, resourceful and powerful as she is, she's still only twelve and she's only had one year of schooling. Her doggerel verse doesn't work, and her two-story fall knocks the breath out of her and breaks her ankle. And she gets up and keeps going. There are a lot of things Alexandra lacks: common sense sometimes, empathy and consideration frequently, but never stubbornness, bravery, or determination. It's not that she doesn't get scared or feel pain, but she has the willpower to keep going no matter how hurt or scared she is. To me, this is one of her most endearing qualities.

Also, she demands respect. She won't let anyone disrespect her. Sometimes (often) this gets her into trouble, and sometimes it forces even grown-ups to take a little girl seriously.

“Her name is Anna!” Alexandra shouted. “And my name isn't Starshine! It's Alexandra! Alexandra Thorn!”

This set off a cacophony of cawing and screeching in the trees around them. They were surrounded by crows, Alexandra realized. Charlie screeched defiance at the other birds. Journey took a step back from her, and regarded her seriously, as if for the first time.

“Yes,” he said. He nodded. He reached out and seized her arm, but though his grip was tight, it wasn't rough. He was supporting her as much as he was holding onto her. “We're going to take a ride on the carpet together now, Alexandra. You can sit back down, take the weight off your ankle. Looks like you broke it, is that right? I can do something about the pain.”

There was something about the way he was speaking, almost a nervousness in his voice. Alexandra looked into his eyes, and an understanding settled over her, like a chill seeping into her skin.

“Wait,” she said quietly. “Let me say good-bye to Anna. Please.”

He hesitated, and looked at her suspiciously.

“I don't have any more tricks,” she said, feeling all the pain and fatigue of this night weighing down on her.

“All right,” he nodded. It was strange, how suddenly she was the one who was calm, and he was the one who was nervous. He held onto her, as she limped over to where Anna struggled futilely against her ropes. She was almost grateful, as Mr. Journey helped her keep the weight off her broken ankle.

Anna was staring at her. Her eyes were as wide and terrified as she'd ever seen them. She shook her head and made strangled sounds through her gag.

Alexandra forced herself to smile.

“It's all right, Anna,” she said. “It'll be all right.” She reached up and laid the back of her hand against Anna's tear-stained cheek. “Ssh.”

Anna stopped struggling, but she was still trembling violently.

“I'm going to leave Charlie here to bring help,” she said. She looked over her shoulder at Mr. Journey. “Is that all right?” He nodded.

Anna was shaking her head again, but Alexandra repeated: “Ssh.” And she leaned forward, to kiss her friend on the cheek. “It'll be all right, Anna,” she whispered. “I promise.”

Anna made muffled sobbing sounds. More tears were running down her face. Alexandra said to Charlie, “Stay here with Anna. All right, Charlie? I need you to stay with Anna. Make sure they find her.”

Charlie squawked in protest.

“Charlie!” Alexandra stared at the bird. Finally, the raven fluttered off her shoulder and landed on Anna's, looking back at Alexandra reproachfully.

Mr. Journey began pulling Alexandra back towards the flying carpet.

“Don't worry, Anna,” she said, one more time. “It will be all right.”

She knew Anna didn't believe her. She was good at lying, but not to her friends.

I really like that scene. It's like Alexandra has grown up all at once, just when she thinks she's about to die.

Ms. Grimm catches up to them and they duel, but Mr. Journey summons a murder of crows. Notice the first mention of the Stars Above, which yes, I already knew would someday figure into the story, though I had no definite plans yet.

“Ben!” Ms. Grimm called. “Please. By all the stars above, this is madness! Even if you kill the girl, even if you escape, you'll only return to a life as a fugitive! A traitor, hunted by the Thorn Circle and the Confederation alike, with the blood of a child on your hands!”

“Would you surrender yourself to Hucksteen and his goons, Lilith?” replied Journey. And then he roared, “Nex cornicis!

The woods came alive. A horde of black-winged birds erupted out of the treetops, shrieking and cawing and flapping. They streamed through the air to converge on a figure Alexandra could only see for a moment before she was engulfed by the murderous flock. Then there was only a furious storm of black feathers and slashing talons and stabbing beaks. Alexandra shuddered, but the din soon faded as Journey propelled the flying carpet onward, leaving the crows and their victim behind.

Yes, I screwed with Fidelius Charm canon, get over it

So, at this point, Mr. Journey gives the big Villain Speech where he reveals all to the hapless heroine who is about to die. Okay, a little cliched, but I think it can be forgiven under the circumstances — Journey really does want to talk, and he's also putting off what he has to do. And this is where we get the Big Reveal about the Fidelius Charm.

“There's a powerful spell called a Fidelius Charm. It allows a secret to be hidden inside a living person, and stay protected there, from anyone and anything that might reveal it. Even the most powerful magic can't discover it. Even those who know it can't speak of it, not even under torture. The only way it can ever be revealed is if the one person it got hidden in reveals it.” Journey looked at her. “You're the Secret-Keeper for the Thorn Circle, Alexandra.”

This is one of the biggest flaws I get faulted for: Abraham Thorn made a baby, who obviously could not reveal the secret, a Secret-Keeper. An airtight way to make sure the secret can't be revealed, right? Some people have argued that the logical extension of this plan would be (if you were, say, Voldemort) to then kill the baby and make sure the secret dies with it. A lot of readers think I went against the letter and/or spirit of the Fidelius Charm, according to Rowling's canon.

I will still argue that I did not go against the letter of canon, though I suspect if asked, Rowling would probably say, "No, it doesn't work that way, you can't do that." But as far as I know, no one has ever asked her. :D

As for going against the spirit... well, maybe. We know the Fidelius Charm is very complicated and difficult, and I think it's not unreasonable to assume that Abraham Thorn created a "variant" that allowed him to game the rules. Most "rules" in magic are plot conveniences. Magic is given restrictions and "laws" to limit what the characters can do, rather than letting them just deux ex machina their way through any situation. Some writers leave magic very nebulous and not very clearly defined, and we know only that it's powerful and there are probably some things it can and cannot do but mere mortals won't understand exactly what those things are ‐ e.g., Tolkien. Nowadays it's popular in fantasy to create elaborate "scientific" magic systems, which can be a lot of fun in terms of worldbuilding, and easily lend themselves to RPGing, but it basically makes magic indistinguishable from physics; you just have a universe where the physical laws are different. Brandon Sanderson is typical of this kind of writing.

Rowling is a bit half of one and half the other; she made up a bunch of magic "laws" but they're not very rigorous or consistent, and they mostly exist to give some sense of limits and to put bounds on what the characters can do or give them clever ways to do it within the "rules." But on the other hand, magic can also do ridiculously powerful, reality-distorting inexplicable things in the Potterverse when it suits the story.

So, if I really wanted to sit down and write a thesis on how Abraham Thorn accomplished his feat, I could do so, and I could explain why wizards who really want to make a secret permanently unlearnable can't just use the sacrifice-a-baby-Secret-Keeper trick. (I can think of several possible explanations off-hand, one of them being: they could, but most wizards aren't Voldemort.) But I don't really feel a need to. It works for purposes of this story, and it's only a plot hole inasmuch as one objects to my tweaking Rowling's rules. Magic can do shit that isn't necessarily "balanced" or logical. Did Abraham Thorn take advantage of a rules "loophole"? Absolutely - it's what he does.

Really, the weakness in this plot is not what people object to (making a baby a Secret-Keeper) but what the secret is. I defined it as: "the identities of the Thorn Circle." That's awfully broad - broader than "Where James and Lily Potter are hiding" or "The location of Grimmauld Place." And there were a whole bunch of people who knew the secret, being members of the Thorn Circle — just what can Mr. Journey say or not say, and to whom?

If you want to logic me, then explain why the Potters didn't make James the Secret-Keeper? Would have made more sense for the people who are actually hiding to be the Keepers of their own secret! Of course it's entirely possible that there are other conditions for casting the ritual that precluded this — which goes back to my assuming unspecified but implicit rules that explain why you can't pull some of the other rules-lawyering tricks that have been suggested.

The Villain's Big Mistake

Okay, enough about that. Next, Journey makes his Big Mistake:

He rose slowly to his feet. “Without you, no one can ever find the Thorn Circle, Alexandra. As long as they stay hidden, they're safe. Heck, Grimm and Thiel as much as knew about me, but because of the Fidelius Charm –” He paused. “Now, see, even I can't actually tell you who I am, not straight out.”

He reached into his pocket. “Don't think your father left you unprotected. He put another charm on you, as powerful as the first. His own invention. A Circle of Protection, he called it. Can't remember how the incantation went, exactly, but 'While the circle is unbroken,' any murderer who raised his hand against you would be struck down himself. We watched him place the circle around your little wrist, before he sent you off with your mother.”

This is part of the reason why Journey didn't just kill her directly. All through the book he was trying to get Alexandra to conveniently off herself after stumbling into traps he'd laid. He's foiled by Alexandra's luck, persistence, friends, and his own squeamishness.

Now, he thinks that by possessing Alexandra's bracelet, she is no longer protected by the Circle of Protection. But the Thorn Circle was the circle of protection. Abraham, that cunning bastard, bound his followers' lives (and his own) to his daughter, who was protecting them.

Basically, it's a one-time-use get-out-of-death-free card. Except it's not free: someone else has to die.

Alexandra couldn't move, and she couldn't take her eyes away from the sight. She stared at Mr. Journey, lying lifeless at her feet with his eyes open and empty, until Ms. Grimm dragged herself to Alexandra's side, and sat up next to her, and turned her around.

“Don't look,” she said. “You don't need to see this. It's all right now, Alexandra. It will be all right.”

Ms. Grimm was pale, covered with leaves and blood and feathers. Alexandra could see that one arm was hanging limply and her side was soaked with glistening red blood, but she somehow managed to look composed. Alexandra closed her eyes and leaned her head against the Dean's shoulder, and didn't mind when she felt the woman stroke her hair gently with her good hand.

The Author's Big Mistake

This chapter was the climax. The final confrontation with the villain, the Big Reveals, and lots of revelations about Alexandra, Mr. Journey, and Ms. Grimm. Alleged plot holes aside, I still am quite pleased with how I ended the main arc, and I made Alexandra the brave girl I wanted her to be.

However, there is a big flaw in this climax, one that would probably make this book unpublishable as written if it were an original novel: Alexandra is a passive spectator in the final confrontation. Heros are supposed to be proactive, and ironically (especially since I didn't even notice this flaw until miles2go pointed it out to me) Alexandra is not proactive. She offers herself up as a sacrifice, and then waits to get rescued.

She showed bravery and resourcefulness in getting away and finding Anna and Mr. Journey, but then she spends the rest of the chapter helpless and basically does nothing. She is saved by the intervention of Ms. Grimm, and by the deux ex machina of Abraham Thorn's spell.

It's realistic. She did everything she could do in her situation. But the expectations of modern genre readers are that heroes save themselves. If I were writing this as an OF novel, I'd have to rewrite that ending so that Alexandra takes an active part in saving herself, even if she does need some help from Ms. Grimm.

Tags: alexandra quick, aq reread, aqattc

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