I really wanted to review this book, because I don’t think I’ve really read anything like it.
I’m going to start off by saying the book is excellent, and I mean that quite seriously. I was up until almost 3 AM finishing it and was nearly late for work the next day. It is a terrific book, and highly recommended.
But the reasons why were quite interesting, and the flaws were quite interesting as well, because they were related to the brilliant successes of the book. It makes for a very interesting case study.
I will start off with my criticisms, because I want to leave the review on a positive note, because again – I want to emphasize this – this is a really good book.
Buuuuuuut the flaws are so interesting I have to talk about them.
Like its predecessor “The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel” moves at a breakneck pace. This is excellent for keeping me up reading…but not so excellent when it comes to developing the world of Roanoke Academy. Despite the fact that it is clear that the world is well thought out and expansive, it is very hard for me to get a handle on it. The first two books take place in the course of a month. And in that time Rachel has saved the school twice and the world once! But that is hardly enough time to develop a connection with the school and its characters. It is inevitably limited because the friendships are inevitably limited. Young people can form friendships quickly but the people aren’t all that young and Rachel even points out occasionally that there is a lot they simply don’t know about each other.
Please excuse a small pivot, because it relates to the point I am making. I almost hate to do this, but I think I’m going to have to address the elephant in the room: The Harry Potter connection.
No, this book is not Harry Potter. The setting, the characters, the plot, and the background of the world are different. Harry Potter took place in “our” world, just with wizards, but the differences between our world and the world of Rachel Griffin go well beyond that. They are not the same.
But yes, there are enough similarities to make the comparison instructive.
Which series is better is not really a question I’m particularly interested in answering. They both have strengths and weaknesses. But I will talk briefly here about where Rowling’s books were actually superior.
Hogwarts felt very, very real in the Harry Potter series. It was a character as real as any other character. The moving pictures, the Great Hall that shows the weather, the huge empty unexplored passages the protagonists explore at night while creeping past the suspicious caretaker in their invisibility cloak, the library with screaming books, the massive grounds…
I can tell you all of this from memory. It stuck in my head as a child after reading one book. Hogwarts imprints on your memory like few other settings in literature.
Rowling takes time. The Rachel Griffin’s series’ breakneck pace is one of its biggest strengths, and one of the major criticisms of Rowling’s series – rightfully so – is pacing, but one isn’t necessarily superior to the other. The way magic works in the world of Rachel Griffin isn’t shown so much as explained in info dumps; once that is done with we move into the fun stuff, like battles and duels.
Rowling’s magic system has been criticized for being rather loosely thought out, and this is a fair criticism, but it has the advantage of being very easy to grasp. The magic in Rachel Griffin is explained quickly and is sometimes difficult to follow, because the way the magic is used varies dramatically. It is clearly far more thought out than Rowling’s series, but things zip by so quickly and it is SO elaborate it is hard to get a handle on what people can and can’t do. Rachel is described as being average at magic, and she is only a month into her first year of classes, yet she participates and holds her own in battles with powerful sorcerers. Eventually you just need to accept this to get sucked into the fun, which is fine but leaves one feeling rather lightheaded.
The way the characters are introduced and utilized is also very interesting. One place where Lamplighter has an edge over Rowling is that she seems to have a much greater handle on her characters’ weaknesses. Rowling sometimes had a very obvious blind spot to her characters’ faults, particularly with her female characters like Hermione and Ginny. Hermione near the end of the series is annoyingly portrayed as almost always correct while Ron is badly minimized, and Ginny is flawlessly bland.
I found myself occasionally getting frustrated and annoyed with some of Lamplighter’s characters, but the interesting thing was that she acknowledged it. Princess Nastasia’s stubborn refusal to recognize the seriousness of every situation was frustrating, but Rachel knows it’s frustrating, sees this as a flaw, and very nearly drops Nastasia as a friend entirely as a result. Yet we can also see why she makes such a good friend in the end, and ultimately her strengths and flaws are given equal weight.
Siggy, similarly, is portrayed as a very flawed individual but, like Nastasia, his flaws are always acknowledged. And even Rachel is a person who is both flawed but clearly intentionally so; not every decision she makes is correct, and other characters often call her out on this (the relationship with Gaius is heading towards an ill end…).
That Lamplighter can do this so well without breaking her breakneck pace is extremely impressive, and one of the series’ biggest strengths.
The engine of the plot is the building up of mysteries and revelations, each one more intriguing and interesting than the last, and the inescapable sense that the climax is going to be something big. It’s do big, in fact, that I am curious to see how you can top the literal world-ending threat being resolved in book two!
One curious thing -not flaw, exactly – about the pacing is how the issue of trauma and abuse are handled. At the beginning of the series we learn about absolutely horrific things that happen to several of the characters, ranging from rape to human sacrifice! And these are characters that we know and have been given significant time in the spotlight!
At one point we go from this scene to a scene immediately afterward where Rachel shyly agrees to be her crush’s girlfriend, and the school itself seems to be weirdly accepting of the horrible run of events that occurred.
In the rest of the book the deep scars the events of book 1 have left on the characters becomes more and more clear. Siggy’s frustration and fear at the abuse his girlfriend went through and hi complete inability to stop it makes him even more erratic and reckless. The things other characters did under mind control and the losses they’ve suffered lead to breakdowns and changes of temperament and behavior, but it’s always there.
In Rowling’s series she would cleverly leave the most traumatic events for the end of the school year, giving both the reader and characters time to mentally process them and start with a somewhat blank slate the following year without making it seem unrealistic. She was quite good at showing the effects of trauma on the student body, but because of the structure of the series she was able to be more subtle about it (when she wasn’t subtle about it, as in book five, it could occasionally get rather over the top; best to take advantage of the opportunity you’ve set up and keep things low key, Rowling).
Lamplighter’s task was harder, and while the discontinuity between the social, girlish scenes and the trauma and horror of their experiences was occasionally jarring, it also felt realistic and never interrupted the flow of the story. Even the few breakdown scenes tended to move the story forward.
Okay, but which series is better, at least so far?
…All right, fine, I won’t wimp out on you. Yes, so far I prefer Harry Potter. The time Rowling takes to build the world and help you get to know the characters pays huge dividends, and occasionally in Lamplighter’s work I do wonder how well I’d be able to follow if I wasn’t already familiar with some of the tropes she was playing with. Rowling’s structure could be rigid but it worked well to keep the story easy to follow even as the plot became more and more complex, which is sometimes a little more difficult to do in the Rachel Griffin series.
None of this is to day that the Rachel Griffin series doesn’t have strength’s Rowling’s series doesn’t have, nor is it to minimize the effectiveness of either of the books I’ve read or how tremendously I’ve enjoyed them. The sequel is a must-buy.
Like its predecessor “The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel” is very highly recommended.
Incidentally Lamplighter’s best work can be found in “God, Robot”, which stars two of the characters in the Rachel Griffin series and is a fascinating exploration of religion, redemption, and a world-destroying demon attack. Check it out!