The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a delightful magic school tale of fast friendships, secrets, and parallel worlds. Rachel sets out on a quest for knowledge and ends up getting more than she bargained for in this first installment of the Books of Unexpected Enlightenment series.
This review contains minor spoilers.
The Wizarding World of Rachel Griffin
Any book in the magic school genre will inevitably be compared to Harry Potter, and in this case I feel that it is appropriate. Rachel Griffin is a young, enthusiastic protagonist who must apply her limited practical skills against older opponents intent on destroying her world.
Rachel must face bullies, true baddies, and, of course, school work with courage and determination. The magical academy is divided into groups defined ostensively by scholarly interests, but practically they have many of the usual prejudices, conventions, and legacies. This includes Drake Hall, the “bad” group full of uppity rich kids and conniving schemers.
However, Lamplighter’s execution of the genre’s expectations is faithful without becoming tiresome or predictable. The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin delivers all of the wonder of the early Harry Potter books, while presenting something enticingly unique.
The young characters in this story are well-developed and possess a pleasant level of depth that goes beyond the simple “smart,” “looney,” “forgetful,” “funny,” or “bully” descriptors. Instead, their motivations and aspirations differentiate them. Rachel wants to know and share secrets. Nastasia desires to meet others’ expectations of her, particularly by following the rules. Siggy wants to perform great (and awesome!) deeds of heroism. Valerie Hunt, girl reporter, wants her friends to be able to rely on her as she uncovers the truth. Vladimir Von Dread wants to be able to protect others through his own power.
This emphasis on motivations gives particular complexity to the students in the “bad” group that was never quite fully realized in Harry Potter. Power is a means to an end, and those who seek power are not by necessity evil.
And this point in not merely flavor, but inserts uncertainty into Rachel’s relationships, thus impacting the plot. It results in greater tension surrounding the mysteries she is trying to solve, since it is unclear who can be trusted, even when there are underlying assumptions about their loyalties, friend or foe. This is much more satisfying than a bully (student or teacher) who merely wants to embarrass the main character due to a personal grudge and who is otherwise relatively flat. Of course, the latter is always good for schadenfreude and is also employed to good effect.
The main character Rachel is particularly well-crafted. I really appreciated her clear thinking and believable emotions. She is by no means a robot, but she exerts more self-control than your typical lead, male or female, reigning in emotional urges to lash out, gloat, and fall in love in a way that made her both sympathetic and worthy of my respect as a reader. I can trust this kind of character to behave in consistent ways, making plot twists so much more satisfying when they flip my predictions and exceed my expectations.
The storyline of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a bit typical. Rachel must use her knowledge and skills to identify the source of a threat—one that easily outstrips any student-level conflict—and face it with courage and a determination to protect her friends.
As in most magic school stories, adults are necessarily too busy, stupid, prejudiced, or evil to be relied upon. It is unfortunate that Rachel’s inner conflict pivoted around the issue of obeying adults, closing in a thematic climax of suboptimal conclusions. Still, that has always been a weakness of the genre.
More positive is the shift away from an epic fate that casts Rachel in a dichotomy of good vs. evil. I’ve always been a fan of stories that depict people holding the line against evil through diligent choices to do the right thing. Rachel consistently chooses to help and protect her friends.
She accomplishes this through thoughtful contributions within her means. The climax of the story does not have her facing off alone against a villain, but rather applying what she has learned to provide timely and vital assistance to more skilled allies, including older students and adults. The resulting conclusion was satisfying and meaningful without imposing on my suspension of disbelief.
Setting and Sci-fi
The setting of this story also has a crafted feel, with enough details about the world of the Wise to provide context, but not so many that the plot becomes bogged down with worldbuilding. The location of the school is beautifully described and gives it a more concrete sense of place.
There are some really intriguing sci-fi elements, too, including strange, parallel worlds or dimensions and a little alternate history. I am interested to know more about how and why Christianity has been removed from the public’s conscious, leaving only traces in the lexicon such as the word “steeple.”
Check Out The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin!
The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a fun magic school adventure that delivers on the expectations of the genre in unique ways. I am eager to read more about the exploits of Rachel Griffin and her friends in the rest of the Books of Unexpected Enlightenment!