That is, the book is The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, by John C. Wright’s wife, L. Jagi Lamplighter. TL;DR rating: 3 out of 5, would not buy in hardcopy.
Now, I was not intending to read this book. I’d read the five free chapters on the author’s blog, but I just was not impressed with the writing. (And not because she’s a bad writer; I really like her Prospero’s Daughter trilogy!) However, when the sequel came out, Mr. Wright was promoting it, and I vaguely recall there being some kind of birthday involved, and I decided that I’d go ahead and buy it and give it a chance.
So. Chance given. Low opinion… not changed. I suppose to properly critique the book I’d need to go back to similar children’s novels, particularly the first Harry Potter volume and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe in order to really put my finger on why this book, despite a fascinating concept and glimmers of brilliance, simply falls far short of what I would consider a book worth keeping on the shelf.
The first problem is that the world is not immersive. Harry Potter is not exactly the world’s greatest YA literature, but since both works are in the same genre (magical boarding school) I will be making comparisons. The titular character, Rachel, is not an outsider who comes to magic school with zero knowledge of the magical world; instead, she’s the younger sister of a noble magical family to whom magic is normal. There are some good descriptions, particularly of the magical infirmary, but there’s quite simply no sustained sense of discovery, no sense of the wonder of magic like there is with Hogwarts. That’s the biggest problem I have with the book.
The second problem is that the plot takes too long to get moving (the first five chapters fail to hook, remember), and yet the action takes place over the span of five days(!) – the pacing leaves no room for discovery, gradual character development, etc. This leads to a lot of telling instead of showing, with links back to the immersion problem. Take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and shove all the action of the entire book into the first five days of the school year. Is it still a good book? No! Where was her editor?
Third: the main character is not believable. We’re talking pretty close to Mary Sue territory, here. Rich, check. Cute, check. Nobility, check. Makes friends easily, check. Possesses a superpower, check. Extremely intelligent, check. Catches the attention of hot older wizard boy instantly upon arrival at school, check. Insanely good flying broom jockey, check. (Seriously?! You couldn’t have made her a unicorn polo player or at least something DIFFERENT than a broom jockey??) Thankfully she’s not actually a Mary Sue, but it’s real, real close. Her “fatal flaw” – a sort of stage fright – is inconsistent and doesn’t really play any sort of role in her character. The author gives her some “stereotypical” thirteen-year-old-girl attitudes without showing her in any of the typical relationships and while simultaneously having her act as a much more mature person most of the time – it’s something that’s shoehorned into her character rather than integrated believably. It’s not that I dislike Rachel – but she does have a tendency to mentally monologue too much.
These flaws are all the more maddening because the concept is so interesting! It’s like there’s some kind of “children’s book” writing style that Lamplighter is attempting to use for this, as opposed to the writing style she uses for the Prospero’s Daughter books, and it. Just. Doesn’t. Work! As a reader, that’s very frustrating – to know an author is better than this and could do so much more with the material if she had a good editing/beta reader team; to see flashes of brilliance that don’t go anywhere. And also to fix the scene transitions, although that may be more of a formatting problem.
Now, as for the title: unexpected enlightenment. Unfortunately the book is fresh out of those. There are quite a few mysteries introduced, but over the span of five action-movie-packed days, there’s no real enlightenment on offer. Unless the title refers to the fact that Rachel, ordinarily a very obedient child, discovers that upon going to school that adults can’t always be trusted to make the right call. Especially if they don’t have all the pertinent information. Now, I don’t think that this is a “bad” moral for the book to have, not for a thirteen-year-old; that’s a good age for children to be rationally evaluating their actions rather than engaging in mindless obedience to authority figures. And it could have been dealt with in a better, more nuanced manner if the book had actually spent enough time in the school year to do proper character development!
However, the book does have a sequel, and the confluence of I like this author and maybe it gets better in the sequel (because the story isn’t wrapped up in the first book – hardly anything is resolved) and the Kindle price being a reasonable $3 is good enough for me to justify my “I want to find out what happens next” curiosity. Hey, if I could give Jim Butcher a second chance after the fiasco that was Changes when I don’t even know the guy I figure I should give an author I’ve actually met a second chance too!
P.S. Benchmark standards for this age level include the aforementioned Harry Potter, Narnia, and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. Also taking up hardcopy space on my bookshelf: Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, as well as the first three books of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series.