To sum up: Fun read. Buy this book, read it, then give it to a young woman, for example your daughter, in the 13 to mid-20ish range. Lovable characters, fun adventures, suitably scary villains, wild speculations about how things are not as they seem, and coming of age issues dealt with frankly yet appropriately.
The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is the first book in what is intended to be a fairly extensive Unexpected Enlightenment series. Following the current practice of listing the ingredients in the stew, let’s go surreal: In a Harry Potter style universe, Narnia meets the Matrix. No, really. The wizarding school aspect is clear on page 1, while the everything is not what it seems, in both the existence of other worlds (Narnia) and the everything you know is a lie (Matrix) is only glimpsed and hinted at in this first volume.
As in the Potter-verse, wizards use spells to shield their activities and very existence from the mundane. In such a world, what keeps wizards from blinding each other? What keeps the most powerful from keeping the true nature of the world (or worlds, as the case may be) from those they seek to control? If so, how would a victim of such deceit become aware of it and make their way free of it? (1) Very grown-up issues, but not told in a way too overwhelming for younger readers.
Rachel Griffin is the youngest daughter of a large, ancient and noble wizarding family. She starts life with all the advantages: loving family, wealth, connections, looks (although she’s only occasionally aware of how cute she is in a barely pubescent 13-year old girl way). Plus, she’s sharp, has a photographic memory, and is a kind and polite (civilized!) young woman. So – the anti-Harry Potter in origin. The rags to riches role is given to a couple of her friends. (2)
She’s also precocious, starting Roanoke Academy a year early. Lamplighter is first of all spinning an adventure yarn, but is also exploring how the world looks to a well-bred, well-loved young woman entering the boyfriend/girlfriend arena, what goes on both good and bad, what sort of temptations a girl her age goes through, and how good and bad choices are made. Of this, the real drama in most young girls lives is made, and what they see around them is largely horror and ruin portrayed as ‘normal’. As a father of daughters, it is heartening to see such issues treated appropriately in an engaging piece of fictions. Girls can grow into women without caving to a out of control, narcissistic world.
Don’t get the impression that the story and action suffer from too much girly digression – not so. The author does a great job of simply acknowledging what Rachel is going through and following her thought process as she ponders her relationships – one of which is the attentions of a very attractive (and very well-behaved) older boy.
But that’s getting ahead. The adventures and mysteries start on page 1, when Rachel awakens from her first night at Roanoke Academy, and never stop. She awakens to overhear two animals – a tiny lion familiar and a huge red-eyed raven – talking about something that makes no sense to her. She then takes a broom flight around the grounds – she’s an elite flyer – and sees the statue of an angel, something she has no word to name and has never seen before in her life. She runs afoul of some crass girls, give a famous boy a ride on her broom, spots an impostor pretending to be a wizarding police officer, and helps save a girl’s life. All this before breakfast. Action hardly lets up. And this first book only covers the first week or two of Rachel’s first year!
Rachel, tiny, young, precocious, shy and and inexperienced, wants to make friends. She has poor luck at first, then finds Siggy, an over-the-top, dragon-owning orphan boy, and Nastasia, a prim princess, as her besties, and a circle of other remarkable friends. They are all trying, in addition to learning to be witches and wizards, to make the treacherous journey from children to adults.
In this first book, mysteries are introduced and deepened – a little – but not resolved. There are two more books out already, and many more on the way, so this is to be expected.
As a man pushing 60, I’m hardly the target audience for the Rachel books, except in the sense where good fiction should work anyway (Narnia and Have Space Suit, Will Travel are among my favorite books – because they’re great, regardless of what age the target audience was). And I never made it past about book 3 in Harry Potter – not my cup of tea. Yet, these stories work for me.
I’ve read the next two installments as well, The Raven, The Elf, and Rachel and Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland, and found them also good and engaging, and plan to read the additional volumes as they come out. Will review as time permits.
- Aside: have wondered if anyone ever asked Alinsky, who taught that believing one ought to tell the truth was a stupid bourgeois bias, that one needs to do and say whatever is required to move the revolution forward, when he was going to stop lying to them? One would have to concluded that Saul was telling his audience only whatever he thought would advance the ball, with no regard for the truth. You know? Using them as he was training them to use others. Similar issue.
- Now I’m really getting out there: Given the way he was raised, Harry Potter would have been much more likely to turn out as a craven weedler or even a sociopath – a Tom Riddle – than a decent little boy – ya know? Rowlings is playing somewhat with the rough life/different outcome thing, of course, but really – 11 years of the Dursleys is not going to produce a bitter little boy? More bitter, I mean. But I digress. Rachel represents the issues facing a kid raised with love facing a world sorely lacking in love, which makes these very different stories.