I normally would not pick up a YA book. But John C Wright is a fantastically literate and aware author who’s integrity in making recommendations I trust, and in posts and comments his wife, L. Jagi Lamplighter, has been warm, very well spoken, and insightful. So I decided to give her book, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, a shot.
The short version is that I am very glad I did.
Nestled amidst the beauty of New York’s Hudson Highlands and hidden from the eyes of the Unwary, Roanoke Academy is a place of magic and wonder. It offers everything a young sorceress could desire—enchantments, flying brooms, and the promise of new friendships.
On her first day of school, Rachel Griffin discovers her perfect memory gives her an unexpected advantage. With it, she can see through the spell sorcerers use to hide their secrets. Very soon, she discovers that there is a far-vaster secret world hiding from the Wise, precisely the same way that the magical folk hide from the mundane folk.
When someone tries to kill a fellow student, she investigates. Rushing forward where others fear to tread, Rachel bravely faces wraiths, embarrassing magical pranks, mysterious older boys, a Raven that brings the doom of worlds, and at least one fire-breathing teacher.
Described by fans as: “Supernatural meets Narnia at Hogwarts”, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a tale of wonder and danger, romance and heartbreak, and, most of all, of magic and of a girl who refuses to be daunted.
So, yes. We have a magical school. The lead character is a girl instead of a boy. There is magic. The “wise” – humans with magic – exist in parallel with, and mostly hidden from the normal humans, most of whom are “the unwary.”
Yet, It’s hardly a simple knockoff of Hogwarts.
First of all, it exists roughly in the same universe as her husband, John C Wright’s, “Moth and Cobweb” books. The wise are families which have magic because their forebears had been, in part, magical creatures. There are wars among the wise at times, and of course, multiple schools of magic. The wise in this world tend to take a more active part in managing the world of the unwary to keep them ignorant of magic behind the scenes than the magicians of the Harry Potter universe, but then, it’s not quite our world. Monotheism, as in Christianity, is almost unknown.
The pacing is spot on – and the story doesn’t artificially drag through an entire school year.
Rachel is an interesting character, and not particularly gifted with leadership by author caveat, or many other skills that her friends have in abundance. The one thing she does have – an eidetic memory – she learns how to use to see what is hidden, and the competence she develops at magic are done through repeated, often embarrassingly bad, practice before she finally gets the hang of things.
Her persistence is far more important to the decisions she makes than anything else, and unlike a certain other magic school series, she is certainly a protagonist here, making choices.
The romance aspect is sweet, somewhat innocent, yet real, which is different from what I’d seen, and far different from the worst of what I’d heard is considered acceptable in YA fiction.
As to the bad guys and the conflict – yes, the adults don’t really listen, a trope so old that Eight Legged Freaks explicitly made fun of it, but are not morons and when trouble comes calling they are near universally competent and people you would not cross. There are bullies, straight out of central casting for Mean Girls. The magicians in the house of bad boys living on the edge of dark magic are shown to be far more nuanced than their reputation allows.
And Rachel makes several decisions that I expect will lead to interesting times and hard choices later on.
I could say far more, but only at risk of spoilers.