Palomino Press, 2013, 368 pages
Supremely curious Rachel Griffin yearns to know everything. Arriving at Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts — located in New York’s Hudson Highlands — she discovers a world more secret than the World of the Wise that hides magic from the Unwary mundanes. Rushing forward where others fear to tread, Rachel finds herself in the midst of wraith attacks, duels, and evil, fire-breathing teachers. Whoever imagined so much could go awry in just the first week!
Okay, first of all, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is absolutely Harry Potter fan fiction. The author herself describes this book as "Harry Potter for girls with angsty romance." It's set in an American wizarding world that is not Rowling's world, but there are a lot of direct analogs. A lot. The serial numbers are filed off, but you can easily see the marks where they were.
Yes, it's written by a professionally published author and it's published by a real publisher (albeit a POD micro-press that seems to be basically an author's collective — I am not surprised that Tor, which published Lamplighter's previous books, had no interest in this one), and the filing off of serial numbers is thorough enough to make legal attention from J.K. Rowling unlikely, but if you are the sort of person who twitches at the thought of fan fiction, however cleverly written, or who thinks Harry Potter is stupid, then this book will do nothing for you.
That said, if you do like Harry Potter, and especially if you still have love in your heart for HP fan fiction, then you will probably like this book. And it's also original and entertaining enough to appeal even to an audience not exclusively made up of Harry Potter fans. (Though if angsty teens and wizard school has no appeal for you... well, sorry. Try Tolkien.)
Now, if you do not happen to know this about me: your humble reviewer has written a series of modestly well-received fan fiction novels. About a teenage girl Harry Potter in the American wizarding world.
So of course I saw this and was all "Yeaaaaaaah, I have to read this."
For the benefit of those who couldn't care less about fan fiction (or, specifically, my fan fiction) I will avoid discussing my own books and comparisons thereof until the end of this review.
Be warned also that there will be mild spoilers after the first section.
The World of the Wise
Although The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is set in America (specifically, at the Roanoke Academy for Sorcerous Arts), the protagonist is actually from England. Rachel Griffin is Lady Rachel Griffin, with a famous
Another of Rachel's new friends is Siegfried "Siggy" Smith, who is a thirteen-year-old orphan who was confined in cupboards (groan), he's already famous throughout the
I was completely unsurprised that he was the author's husband's Player Character.
Lamplighter's riff on Potter also borrows liberally from C.S. Lewis (more on that below) and roleplaying games. In fact, even had I not read that this book is actually based on a roleplaying campaign, I would have figured it out by the way that every character is basically a set of special abilities/advantages and a list of personality traits being enthusiastically and dramatically roleplayed. Rachel has Eidetic Memory, Curiosity, Sense of Duty, and is Romantic. Siggy has a Pile of Gold and a Pet Dragon, and is Fearless, Chivalrous, and Does Not Trust Adults. Princess Nastasia is Very Beautiful and Royal, has Prophetic Visions, and is afflicted with Honesty and Truthfulness. Not only is it obvious that all the main characters started life as Player Characters, but I have a strong suspicion about which game system they were using.
A few chapters in, I was thinking that this was getting awfully silly.
And yet. It's also awfully fun.
Lamplighter's World of the Wise is as zany and fun-filled as Rowling's, if not as coherent. There are seven schools of magic (not all of them requiring wands or Latin), and Roanoke has a house specializing in each. So yes, there's a sort of replication of the Hogwarts Houses, though Roanoke's houses seem to be less static. The history of this world has not just one Voldemort and his Death Eaters, but numerous bands of supervillainous evil sorcerers, all of them defeated by wizards who are usually parents or relatives of the kids currently attending Roanoke. Roanoke is very multicultural and incorporates a little bit of everything, as there also seems to be more crossover between wizards and
In short, it's the sort of zany, anything-goes setting you'd expect in a roleplaying game where the GM lets the players make up whatever they can get away with.
The plot moves quite rapidly. A major difference between this book and the Harry Potter books is that the first book does not cover Rachel's first year at Roanoke; everything happens in her first five days. The first chapter begins with her overhearing a mysterious conversation between talking animals. We then move to a murder attempt on one of her classmates, then Rachel making friends and enemies at school, gradually uncovering a larger and more ominous plot, and finally, a big battle in which the
The most engaging part of the book is definitely Rachel herself. While she's a bit of a super-Hermione Mary Sue (brave, honorable, dutiful, has skills no one else can match, a genius with a photographic memory that lets her "play back" everything and see invisible beings, everyone likes her except those mean nasty girls who don't), she's sweet, silly, angsty, charming, and extremely likable. She's got a touch of boy-craziness, but she spends a lot of time deliberating over obedience to adults, forming conclusions about other people's characters, how she feels about various boys (lots of various boys), and life decisions, in a way that taxed me a bit but does seem appropriately thirteen-year-old girl yet thoughtful.
So, despite my skepticism and a few other reservations (see below), this book wore down my cold, cynical heart. I loved Rachel and I loved this book. It is not great literature and L. Jagi Lamplighter is no J.K. Rowling, but dammit I really enjoyed it and I am definitely going to read the rest of this series. (According to the inside cover, four books are planned.)
Now, since I'm not known for pulling my punches in reviews, there were a few problems with the book. The first I've touched on above: the worldbuilding is derivative, the plotting is very evidently that of a roleplaying game, the characters even more so. And Lamplighter's prose is frequently stiff, almost Victorian. Massive infodumps of extraneous background material ("Oh, yes, that character's father was a member of a secret society who fought so-and-so during this past event that has nothing to do with the present...") and lots of "tells." Even the children tend to speak in formal, declarative sentences without contractions.
I'm also not impressed with Dark Quest LLC's copy-editing. There is a typo on the back cover. There were a rather large number of typos in the book. I took the blurb above from L. Jagi Lamplighter's own page, but only after correcting a few typos. Okay, that's the author's fault, not the publisher's, but the publisher clearly needs to proofread the author more thoroughly.
Oh look, it's Aslan
Even before I started reading this book, I had a suspicion about the nature of Rachel Griffin's "unexpected enlightenment." The hint is on the cover. Another big hint is that Mrs. Lamplighter is married to science fiction writer John C. Wright, an atheist convert to Catholicism notable for his vitriolic enthusiasm about the eternal hellfire awaiting homoliberalatheists. I don't assume that Lamplighter's views are identical to her husband's, of course, but I'd be surprised if they're wildly different, so I was rather expecting a Christian subtext in this book.
In the first few chapters, we find out that both in the World of the Wise and among the Unwary, temples to pagan gods are the only religion to be seen, while words like "steeple" and "friar" still exist in the English language, but neither wizards nor Unwary know what they mean or their origins.
"Uh huh..." says I.
And then a miniature talking lion shows up.
Now, before you assume that I'm going to react like a vampire in sunlight to any hint of God in my fantasy literature, I am actually rather fond of C.S. Lewis (stodgy old schoolmaster that he is), and I can bear a certain amount of religiosity as long as the author is not getting up on a pulpit.
L. Jagi Lamplighter does not get up on a pulpit (yet), but yes, she is definitely pulling a stealth C.S. Lewis here. The meta-plot she seems to have devised is a rather clever way of introducing God into the wizarding world. (Though really, a mini-Aslan? That was just lazy.)
Evidently, in future volumes, the Big Bad is going to be The BIG BAD. So. Take that as you will.
Alexandra Quick vs. Rachel Griffin
I had a personal reason for being interested in The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. I have written a series of fan fiction novels about Alexandra Quick, an American witch in the Potterverse. Although unlike Lamplighter's series, mine is explicitly fan fiction and so I have not done the work of filing the serial numbers off, Alexandra and her world does exist largely independently of Rowling's world, and it has been suggested to me more than once that I should file off the serial numbers and try to get it published. (I have no plans to do so.)
So, those of you who have read Alexandra Quick may be wondering how similar these series are.
Answer: Not very.
There are, obviously, a lot of superficial similarities. Since they're both about young teen witches in an American wizarding world, there are bound to be.
However, Rachel is not much like Alexandra at all. She is much nicer, for one thing, and more thoughtful. She had a very different upbringing (she was brought up in the wizarding world, and she's British even though she's going to an American school), and her personality is completely different. She's much more responsible, also much more submissive to authority figures (including sixteen-year-old boys). Rachel doesn't hesitate to spring into action, but she's fundamentally more of an intellectual; a brave Ravenclaw as opposed to Alexandra who is a smart Gryffindor.
People who find Alexandra unlikable, bratty, and selfish may find Rachel much more to their liking. I was trying to write a vexing character who frequently acts amorally (not because I celebrate amorality, but because that's just who Alexandra is), whereas Lamplighter has, particularly given the Christian subtext of her story, obviously created a character who's meant to demonstrate moral improvement.
Likewise, Lamplighter's World of the Wise is not much like my rather darker Confederation. There is obviously something very dark that has happened in this world, but the tone so far is one of magical wonder and wacky hijinks, leavened with the obvious existence of very evil entities. So, for those who have complained that my world is missing the zest and fun that characterizes Rowling's world, Rachel Griffin's world is a lot closer.
I don't think I can draw any conclusions about whether fans of Alexandra Quick will enjoy the Rachel Griffin series. If you dislike those things about my series that I mentioned above, then you may well like Rachel Griffin. If you like AU Harry Potter fan fiction in general, then this is basically professional fan fiction. If you love Alexandra Quick, then YMMV on Rachel Griffin.
But, I would certainly encourage you to give Rachel a chance.
Have you read The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin?
Verdict: A delightful if not unflawed work of professional fan fiction, I enjoyed The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin very much despite and because of my biases, which were many. This would almost get my "Highly Recommended" tag except that my recommendation is too qualified; if the premise appeals to you, then definitely give it a shot, but I am basically recommending a book based on a Harry Potter/Narnia roleplaying game. So, I leave it up to your discretion whether you think "Holy crap, that sounds really cool!" or "What the hell are you smoking?"
My complete list of book reviews.