When Rachel Griffon finds a stone statue of a woman with bird’s wings standing abandoned in a forest she’s perplexed. She’s heard of creatures like women with dragonfly wings. She’s heard of creatures that look like women with wings instead of arms. She cannot think of anything like a woman with bird’s wings growing from her back and that’s particularly unusual for Rachel because she never forgets anything.
This striking and memorable scene is our first clue to the mystery at the heart of Rachel Griffon’s life.
You see, Rachel lives in a world where a powerful society of secret magic users lives alongside normal people, hiding their existence with guile, magic and secrecy. Rachel attends the Roanoke Academy of Sorcerous Arts where – wait! Wait! Come back!
It’s true, the core concept behind L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Rachel Griffon story is pretty well trod ground at this point. However, there’s more to Rachel than a Harry Potter clone. For starters, unlike most of what I read in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Roanoke Academy has a very realistic feel to the social dynamics that swirl through its halls. Rachel spends a fair chunk of her time navigating that social minefield without that side of things getting ridiculous or oppressive, which is a nice touch. While teenage drama is not my cup of tea I think the intended audience will find it engaging and Lamplighter shows how a teenager handles those challenges without endorsing any of the bad behavior that inevitably results from some of these hurdles.
However, Rachel’s story is not primarily a social drama, it’s a hero’s story. While the social battlefield is part of the story it’s not the primary focus, rather the focus is on the mysteries that result in Roanoke becoming a very dangerous place. Rachel has a unique tool for solving these mysteries in her photographic memory. It actually lets her slip out of mind altering spells with shocking ease and makes it very easy for her to remember all the details of her lessons – to say nothing of all the little clues that didn’t mean much at first but eventually all point to the source of whatever problem she’s facing in a particular tale.
However, where Rachel is a very powerful mystery solver she’s not a very powerful wizard. She can’t tackle these problems on her own. She doesn’t have a whole lot of magical muscle to put behind her spells, she’s incredibly tiny so she doesn’t have regular muscle either and she’s a little naive in the way she looks at other people. She has to rely on her friends and family to overcome many of the challenges she faces. For some protagonists that could be an issue. However, Lamplighter takes pains to construct each of her stories in ways that let Rachel play an active role in every stage of the narrative by playing to her strengths.
Rachel has strong morals that often put her in conflict with others who find the occasional compromise acceptable and drive her to right wrongs, whether or not that’s something a young girl should be responsible for. She has a strong sense for deductive reasoning which allows her to leverage her excellent memory. And she has an ability to connect with people quickly that allows her changing social landscape to present opportunities without dragging her along on a railroaded plot. Finally, Rachel has an incredible ability to keep secrets.
Every Rachel Griffon story revolves around some kind of secret or another and Rachel is often the first to figure it out. However she’s not always the first to share it. Rachel finds a special thrill in knowing things others don’t and being able to share those secrets at the moment where they will make the most difference. She knows this is her power. That she’s so proactive in using it and takes such joy in using it to help others is a credit to her, even though sometimes she does misuse it.
You have to understand that in order to understand Lamplighter’s masterstroke. You see, Rachel’s entire story is structured so that we can share this thrill with her because we know something she does not. We know that the stone woman with bird’s wings is an angel. The strange orphan words that seem to have no meaning in Rachel’s world – words like steeple and saint – encompass ideas that mean nothing to Rachel but are commonplace to us. You see, the core mystery in Rachel’s story revolves around something we know that her entire world has forgotten.
For a girl with a perfect memory that’s a terrifying thing to contemplate. She may also be the only one who can remember it again. So she tries to piece together the threads and figure out why someone would hide a piece of history away, why strange creatures like the one called Moloch are forcing their way into the world by violence and deceit and why a lion and a raven were arguing in her bedroom one night. She doesn’t even realize that conversation is one of the most important clues she has. But we know.
We know that Rachel’s world has forgotten Christ and His Church. But a secret on that scale cannot be kept for long.
Rachel’s entire story gives us a chance to keep a secret until the moment she’s ready for it. So far, she hasn’t reached that point but the ride to this point has been wild. I can’t wait until we reach the moment when it’s all revealed.