I don’t hate fantasy novels, I just generally prefer science fiction. I have my tastes, y’know? We all do. Mine usually run to things with spaceships and antimatter torpedoes and Ominous Dark Things from Beyond the Stars, but every now and then, it’s good to branch out. Get a change of pace. Get some elves in play instead of space elves. I’ll enjoy anything that’s done well enough– I enjoyed the Harry Potter films, for instance. Haven’t read the books, but the movies were enough fun that I jumped on a decently priced blu-ray set before the last two came out.
That having been said, YA fantasy isn’t usually my thing. Sure, there are exceptions. A Wrinkle in Time. Narnia. You know, the classics. And I’m willing to give most things a shot once in a while, particularly when the things are either A), free, or B), written by a friend of mine. And I suppose I might as well get the disclaimer out of the way: I was given an audiobook of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin for review purposes by the author, L Jagi. Lamplighter, who is both a friend of mine and a colleague at SuperversiveSF.
Now that we got that out of the way, on to the review.
The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin definitely fits into the Harry Potter mold. The titular Rachel Griffin is a gifted student of a magical world hidden from the view of mundane, non-magical folk. But where Hogwarts takes their students very young, the Roanoke Academy of Sorcerous Arts is a high school and college for the “Wise,” and the precocious Rachel is there a year early, 13 instead of 14.
Rachel’s early efforts and making friends go awry when she runs into the school’s requisite Mean Girls, but she soon falls in with a better crowd: Siggy, an orphan from London, known for having found a dragon in a sewer and slaying it, winning its hoard; Nastasia, the Princess of Magical Australia; and Gaius Valiant, an older student from the thaumaturgy school (A department that is a little Slytherin in reputation.). Several other students wind up in the fringes of their group, but Siggy and Nastasia are the core, with Gaius
New friends or not, something is afoot at Roanoke Academy. A mysterious man pretending to be an Agent, one of the Wise’ police force, tries to kill one of Rachel’s friends with a cursed talisman. A teacher reacts very poorly to the discovery that Rachel is the daughter of an important Agent. Rumors of a new mind-controlling geass that is so subtle the victim doesn’t know they’re under a compulsion. And, through it all, ominous sightings of a large, red-eyed crow that may or may not be the herald of the end of the world.
Plus, in the forest outside of the academy, there’s this strange statue of a woman with bird wings the likes of which no one has ever seen before…
As I said, YA fantasy isn’t usually my gig. And at first I was a little worried about The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. It is, at first, a very gentle book, and the woman reading it does so in a gentle, sing-song voice that I usually associate with bed time stories. There’s nothing wrong with gentle, sing-song, or bed time stories, but y’know. Sooner or later you get antsy for an antimatter torpedo fired into the maw of a dark god.
But despite Jagi’s gentle narrative and her very good natured young heroine, there’s enough hints of darker things in Rachel Griffin to carry the promise that a dark god somewhere will get something fired into its maw. There is the aforementioned ominous crow. Visions of students being tortured or maimed. Mind control. And the world itself is plenty interesting; while it does, as I said, draw heavy inspiration from Harry Potter, there are glimpses of other inspirations, chief among them being Narnia and Roger Zelazny’s Amber books. Maybe most intriguing of all– at least for a seminary student who immediately hones in on any religious content– it is a world which theoretically knows of monotheism, but hasn’t seen in practices in thousands of years. The whole Christian canon is unknown, its various powers and beings a mystery to both the Wise and mundane of Rachel’s world.
There’s plenty of humor to be had, too. The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin made me laugh out loud more than once, particularly with the character Siggy and his dragon familiar, Lucky, and Nastasia’s tales of the eccentric king of Magical Australia. Siggy and Lucky have a lot of John C. Wright in them (Jagi’s husband, and, I believe, the one who played Siggy in the RPG campaign that inspired the novel) and that includes his sense of humor; Magical Australia is just depicted in such a colossally hysterical way that I am really hoping there’s an eventual spin off set in Magical Australia.
So, while I’m not a YA guy, I got a lot of amusement out of the The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. It’s highly recommended if you need a read, or if you’ve got youngsters and you’re looking for something decent for them to read.
Josh Young is a seminary student, Castalia House author (featured in God, Robot and author of the forthcoming Do Buddhas Dream of Enlightened Sheep) and blogger at Superversivesf.com. He can be reached on Gab.ai @BadgerSensei. If you enjoyed this, we’d love to have you visit our main site!