Book Review: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin
The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is not a book to be read at funerals. Within the first chapter or two you will begin cracking up, holding back tears of laughter, and all your relatives will turn to look and see you reading a YA novel when you should be paying attention to the moving eulogy on your Great Uncle Stanley’s love affairs with golf and sharkboxing, the latter of which got us all here in the first place, but at least he died doing what he loved. They will then proceed to passively-aggressively deny you the best desserts at the funeral reception. For similar reasons, you should avoid reading this book at weddings, baptisms, confirmations, bar mitzvahs, ordinations, inauguration ceremonies, and circumcisions.
The aforementioned cracking up will be chiefly creditable to one Siegfried Smith, dragonslayer and destined to be a fan favorite. A few other characters bring some mirth to the proceedings, such as Valerie Foxx, plucky girl reporter, and her dog, Payback; and Nastasia Romanov, Princess of Magical Australia, but by and large Siggy carries the comic weight of the work, like Atlas hefting a magnificent globe of silly putty with googly eyes stuck all over it. Thankfully, authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter delivers Siegfriend in just the right doses to her readers to keep them laughing throughout the story but without overwhelming the main narrative and its heroine, the eponymous Rachel Griffin.
Miss Griffin is a first year student at the prestigious Roanoke Academy, the only school of magic in the world to teach all seven sorcerous arts. Going for an early morning broomstick flight before the first day of classes, she comes across a strange statue in the woods surrounding the school. Any reader will immediately recognize it as an angel, but it is utterly mysterious to Rachel, despite her childhood in England. Why this, and other things such as ‘steeples’ and ‘friars’ so puzzle the inhabitants of Roanoke is a mystery that remains unsolved by the book’s end, but one I suspect will play a larger role in the story to come (okay, okay, I’ve been fortunate enough to talk with Mrs. Wright about this book and know where certain things are headed, but it does not diminish my enjoyment of this particular plot point). As for Rachel’s broom, one of my favorite of the authoress’s conceits in this book is that the old fashioned image of a witch riding on a hard, bristly broom is just that, old fashioned. This is the 21st century! Broom technology has advanced tremendously, so that nowadays a ‘bristleless’ sports a comfy seat, handlebars, and stirrups that also serve to control the fan of blades that has replaced the bristles.
These newfangled brooms also help Lamplighter as she works to establish Roanoke Academy as distinct from a certain other boarding school of magic. Comparisons with Harry Potter are sure to come up in discussions of Rachel Griffin (I believe I’ve already seen one regrettable blurb describe it as ‘Harry Potter for girls’, thus missing the point of both Harry Potter and girls), but I do not think they will prove apt. Rachel Griffin is a very different sort of animal. If comparisons are to be made, it reminded me much more of Percy Jackson than Harry Potter, having a distinctly American feel to it compared to the distinctly British Harry Potter.
That being said, there are a few cases in which similarities to Harry Potter must be pointed out. The back story regarding the Six Musketeers will no doubt strike many as reminiscent of the events of the later Harry Potter books, as will the wizard world/muggle world distinction, and the division of the school into houses, including the ill reputed house of darker magic. This is completely intentional. I had the immense privilege of getting to meet and talk with Mrs. Wright not once but twice this year, and learned a great deal about the history of this book. It is based on a long running roleplaying game Mrs. Wright and her husband were part of, presumably GMed by the Mark Whipple to whom the book is dedicated to. The roleplaying game was set at Hogwarts after the events of the Harry Potter, and the student body was largely composed of famous literary and comic book characters, so of course Lamplighter couldn’t make Roanoke completely different from Hogwarts. Same goes for the literary characters: some are old enough that they can be mentioned freely, such as James Darling’s descent from Wendy Darling (who thwarted Pan’s son, Peter), while others must be given new, and awesome names, such as Vladimir von Dread, Crown Prince of Bavaria, or Wulfgang Starkadder. I believe I also spotted a descendant of Megan O’Keefe nee Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time. In short, if a character seems familiar, they probably are. Thus, the background setting for Rachel Griffin is pretty much the greatest crossover high school AU ever conceived, with the serial numbers filed off.
In fact, the story’s roleplaying game roots are one of its greatest strengths. While the narrative centers on Rachel and is told through her point of view, the rest of the main cast is well drawn, and always has something to do or say in the story, because of course, during the original game they would have been just as much main players as Rachel Griffin. Lamplighter does an admirable job keeping them all involved in the story, though I think a bit more of Miss Iscariot’s ego and snark would have helped leaven Nastasia’s descent into Lawful Stupidity near the end. Furthermore, Lamplighter pulls off the tricky feat of having all of these character interactions not only develop the characters and their relationships, but also advance the plot, but perhaps this should not be surprising, as she wrote a very nice essay on this topic over on her LiveJournal. This was something I loved in her Prospero’s Daughter trilogy and her husband’s Orphans of Chaos and The Golden Oecumene series: much of the story is advanced through characters talking while they do stuff rather than just doing stuff. Good dialogue is always a pleasure to read, and Rachel Griffin has plenty of it, thanks to its roleplaying roots and Lamplighter’s skill.
Now, as to this plot that keeps getting mentioned, after going for a broom flight, Rachel goes through that cherished and traditional rite of passage for all boarding school novel characters: meeting her first friends and enemies. The former are Siegfried Smith, dragonslayer; Valerie Foxx, fearless girl reporter; pretty millionaire’s daughter Salome Iscariot, whom I felt was underused; and Nastasia Romanov, Lawful Good Princess of Magical Australia. The latter are Cydney Graves, Belladonna Marley, and Charybdis Nutt, but mostly Cydney Graves. Thankfully, their conflict is woven organically into the plot, and does not push back the appearance of the machinations of the actual villains, who, by the way, are already trying to commit murder most foul by Chapter Four. The chief plot of this book turns on Rachel and her friends settling in at Roanoke Academy, her investigations of rumors of a new form of geas(magical hypnosis. I was delighted to see the term ‘geas’ used), the comings and goings of an ominous raven who may or may not foretell the end of the world, and the mysterious and increasingly distressing visions of other worlds Nastasia has when she touches people, with the threat of another outside attack ever looming over the proceedings. The plot moves along at a very nice clip, and the unexpectedly action packed ending sneaks up on you faster than you think. In fact, this first book felt more like the first part of a larger book rather than a book in its own right. I feel like a bit more time to cool down from the climax would have lent a better feeling of completeness to the work. On the other hand, perhaps Rachel Griffin is more like The Lord of the Rings, a larger work split into several volumes at the behest of the publishers. I suspect the latter, as the sneak preview for Book 2 picks up right where this book leaves off.
Also, I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far without mentioning one of my favorite ideas from the book: Rachel’s eidetic memory. Not only does this provide a meta-explanation for Rachel’s detailed past tense narration a la Severian the Torturer from The Book of the New Sun (a few lines about Rachel not understanding what it’s like to forget things definitely seem like a nod towards Grandmaster Wolfe), but Lamplighter gives it the added power of allowing Rachel to see past magical obscurations by playing back her memory of what she has been looking at, which will appear illusion free. Like with the broomsticks, Lamplighter takes an old trope and gives it a new twist. Also, I’ve always liked the idea that even in the magical world there will be supermagic or special magical talents.
I must admit, there were a few things that I did not understand, such as the narrative’s continued interest in Salome Iscariot’s bust size and Rachel’s lack of such, or Rachel’s precocious crushes on older teachers, but perhaps these elements are meant for the young teenage girls this book is marketed towards and will be appreciated and understood by them. I at least understood her interest in mysterious upperclassman Gaius Valiant, and why Sigfried asked Valerie out immediately after she showed him the proper way to wear the bowie knife she gave him. Go Siggy! She’s a keeper!
The book also contains four illustrations by the authoress’ husband, fellow author John C. Wright. Wright’s style looks like what you might have got if Pauline Baynes ever worked for Marvel, evoking both classic children’s book and classic comic book artwork. It’s really cool to see illustrations in a young adult book these days, even if, as usual, my own imagination’s idea of the characters comes out somewhat different than the illustrator’s (for some reason the book gave off a strong anime vibe to me). I hope we will get to see more of the characters in the later books. With permission, I have posted these images (save one, because I do not want to spoil what is possibly the funniest scene in the book) within this review.
With a lively, likeable heroine and cast of characters, a great setting, fun dialogue, and imaginative writing, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a very enjoyable work of young adult literature. I would call it ‘unexpectedly’ so, but 1)awful puns at the ends of reviews turn customers off and 2)The Prospero’s Daughter books were excellent, so I can’t say I wasn’t expecting great things from Mrs. Wright. Definitely give it a read…just not at funerals.
Available at Amazon. Published by Dark Quest.