Review: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

Last August, T. Everett recommended I read The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, saying “Have you ever wondered what Harry Potter would be like if it were about Hermione instead?”

I hadn’t wondered this, because of Ann Margaret’s excellent stories on that very premise – except that, okay, I had, because those still revolve around Harry and his path as the Chosen One.  So the question becomes, “What would Hogwarts – and Hermione – be like without Harry’s shenanigans?”

If we took Rachel Griffin’s Enlightenment as the answer, it would be “Largely the same; other shenanigans would arise to fill the gap.”  There are, in fact, so many shenanigans springing up that the whole 360 pages or so comprise five days, assuming I counted properly.

However, Rachel and Hermione, and their respective worlds, are dissimilar enough that the question of Granger-sans-Potter remains unanswered.  Rather, we are presented with a whole lot of other questions, answers, and characters, including:

– Rachel, a wizard girl of Noble Blood, with an eidetic memory, a strong work ethic, an unyielding compulsion to obey adults (until she tries really really hard and breaks said compulsion), a devotion to her father which must eventually be transferred elsewhere, and complete religious ignorance…but I’m getting ahead of things.  By dint of memory and effort, she flies very well. She remembers everything she looks at, though there were too many instances of Let Me Stop And Review The Picture In My Head for my taste (though I must concede their purpose: to help her see past magical obfuscation). She is super concerned with Who Likes Whom.

– Siegfried, an orphaned dragon slayer who often exclaims “Ace!” while hoarding his gold and food (so much so that he doesn’t know to buy an extra set of clothes), and whose quixotic ideas move the narrative forward, if haltingly.

– Nastasia, a Russian princess…of Magical Australia, for whatever reason.  She has a Bag of Holding, a violin, several skills which I have forgotten, a deeper commitment to the rules than even Rachel has, and the blessing/curse of having Visions when she touches certain people.

Many other figures crop up, though their development is flimsy.  Honestly, a lot of it reads as flimsy: the number of talents every single character has, the fact that a “girl reporter” is under threat of death, the amount of improbable things figured out by a bunch of 13-year-olds, the rapid escalation of threats interspersed with a lot of concern over dating.  The names – Gaius Valiant, Salome Iscariot, Dr. Mordeau, to name a few – are either super-literal or the reddest of herrings; I’m betting on the former.

Still, a few subtler details await development by the margins.  For one, individual takes on magic and magical worlds are generally diverting, and this world is no exception.  The American wizarding school, the Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts, explains how the colony of Roanoke went missing: the school’s founder turned it into a floating island, safe from the eyes of the Unwary (this world’s Muggles).  Magical familiar animals, music, and particular materials (including wands of metal and jewels) contribute to one’s magical abilities.

One of the most intriguing facts is that Rachel Griffin, Devourer of Library Books, is ignorant of all religious information – to the point where she doesn’t understand why a broom would be branded a “steeplechaser,” or what a friar is, or what the winged statue in the forest might be.  The dramatic irony involved might carry on through another book; given the visions, Morningstar references, and discussions between a prophetic raven and a miniature lion, I expect some kind of celestial showdown in the end.  Hopefully it doesn’t get too preachy.

Altogether, it’s a story that’s mostly drawn in Crayola colors – but here and there are shades in between, shadows implying that something deeper may come.  The concept is better than the execution; by the end of the narrative, I wasn’t certain what Rachel’s “unexpected enlightenment” actually consisted of.  Hopefully the next three installments can answer the questions this book left hanging, and further illuminate the reality (and history) of the Wise.

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Alphabooks: W is for Worst

W: Worst Bookish Habit

Photographing my bookshelves reminded me just how many books I have: between four and five hundred, perhaps half of them unread.  Dozens have been dragged back and forth between my parents’ home and my college, and then to my Ann Arbor apartment, and then to the house I live in now.  They’ll all be boxed up and moved again in a couple months.

So it’s a bad habit that I often neglect the books I own (“They’re mine!  I have all the time in the world to read them!”) in favor of library books (“Oooh!  I don’t have to buy this but I can absorb all its stories and characters and ideas before returning it!”), though perhaps that’s preferable to buying even more books and then being stymied by indecision whenever I regard my shelves.

But I have a worse habit yet, which is checking out about 3 dozen books and a dozen CDs from the library and then ignoring them, too.  They wait week after week on the bookshelf I purchased specifically for borrowed books.  Eventually, the library e-mails me a notice that someone else has requested this or that item and I can no longer renew it.  So then the book is in demand.  Then I start to read it.  Then I find that I have wasted the time I might have spent with it, and either keep it until it’s two weeks overdue, or return it unfinished and pine after it.

Dreadful business.

But I have a worse habit yet, which is clicking around on Archive of Our Own and reading fanfiction incessantly.  It’s like overeating because your body never tells you it’s full.  It’s like voluntary insomnia.  It’s like opium.  I click and click and am not satisfied with clicking until it’s 1 AM and I am going to regret getting up for work in the morning.  That’s the worst habit of all.

Do you have any bad book habits?