Rachel Griffin, youngest child of the Duke of Devon, has read (and memorized) almost every book in the family library. She’s blessed with a perfect memory; anything she’s seen or heard she can relive exactly as it was, and she’s smart enough to take good advantage of it. She’s also skilled at riding, whether on horse or broom. Now, a precocious thirteen year-old, she’s heading to Roanoke Academy in New York there to stay, according to family tradition, in Dare Hall. Once there she’ll learn magic, make friends and enemies, and, naturally, help to save the school from death and destruction.
Yes, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, first volume in a new series of young adult fantasy novels by L. Jagi Lamplighter, is yet another entry in the annals of post-Potter fiction.
I’ve avoided most of the Potter wannabes; I only picked up this one because it was pitched by science fiction author John C. Wright (not coincidentally Lamplighter’s husband). I’m glad that I did, because Lamplighter has a winner here. She might be playing in J.K. Rowling’s backyard, but she’s brought her own ball and bat, and she’s playing by her own rules.
Lamplighter’s world is superficially similar to Rowling’s. It takes place here on Earth, more or less at the present day. The vast bulk of the population know nothing of magic; the remainder, known as the Wise, refer to them as the Unwary, and take careful steps to remain hidden from them. But it strikes me as deeper than Rowling’s, more fully put together; I find the explanations for why things are as they are more satisfying. As an example, the Wise use little in the way of modern technology, having magical equivalents, just as in the Potterverse. But this is because they can’t: use of magic disrupts technology (as in the Dresden Files), while heavy use of technology disrupts magic. You can use one or the other, but not both. In the Potterverse, there’s no obvious reason why the people of the Wizarding World couldn’t use electric light and radios and television the way Muggles do.And then, Lamplighter had a great deal of fun fitting her magical world into history and literature. Roanoke was founded by Virginia Dare, of the lost Roanoke Colony; it was lost because Dare, a powerful enchantress, turned it into a floating island, and founded the Academy. Roanoke roamed all over the world for many years before settling down in the Hudson River under a spell of obscuration.
During Rachel’s father’s youth, a wizard named Aaron Marley (great-nephew of Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley) found a way to resurrect five evil wizards: Koschei the Deathless, Simon Magus, Morgana Le Fay, Baba Yaga, and Aleister Crowley. They were eventually put down by a team of Roanoke students lead by one James Darling, whose family was slain by the Terrible Five:
“Marley and the Terrible Five joined forces. They forged a cabal devoted to destroying the world, known as Veltdammerung— or, in English, the Twilight of the World. There were three prophesies about the Veltdammerung.” Mr. Fisher sat on a stool beside the jars. “One predicted their rise to power, which came true; one foresaw their gaining control of some talisman called the Heart of Dreams, that never did happen; and one claimed that they would be undone by a boy named James Darling.
“They sent a smoky-winged creature to slay the Darling family. Only, somehow, the six-year-old James survived— which is how these things always work. Prophesies can be altered. Universally, however, committing an act of violence to change them seems merely to hasten their arrival. Look at Oedipus or Perseus or Paris.”
My emphasis. James, as it happens, belongs to an illustrious family: his “grandfather and his great aunt and uncle were the ones that put an end to the stealing of children by Pan’s son, Peter.” Lamplighter has done her homework, and had a great deal of fun with it.
So the Terrible Five were destroyed, but some hard feelings were incurred and grudges were planted; and naturally they are going to bear fruit during Rachel’s days at Roanoke.
In the meantime, Rachel makes a number of friends, including Anastasia Romanov, the strictly correct princess of Magical Australia, and Siggy the Dragonslayer, a street kid whose acquaintance with morals is strictly occasional. There are a variety of mysteries, and attacks, and strange happenings, and a handsome young man named Gaius Valiant who seems to like Rachel and might or might not be the kind that your mother warned you about. There’s bravery and daring do, and adults who aren’t complete idiots.
The first couple of chapters are perhaps a little too goofy, but I enjoyed the rest thoroughly. My only real complaint is that the book ends far too abruptly, just moments after the climactic battle. I enjoy a more drawn-out ending, where we find out how everyone is and tie up a few loose ends. It was a grand performance, and I’m eager to see where Lamplighter takes it. Highly recommended.