Warning about a new comment spam scam

This morning, I found a message in my comment moderation queue which I thought I should warn people about.

Like most comment spam these days, it listed a genuine-looking e-mail address at a big-name provider, but instead of trying to be SEO spam, the URL field was pointed at the front page of Shutterstock and the message body tried to scare me with claims that they were a certified photographer (what does that even mean?), I had photos on my site that were infringing their copyrights, and if I didn’t take them down, I’d be reported to my hosting provider and/or sued.

Now I find this to be a hilarious piece of scam-work for three reasons:

  1. My site has almost no images of any kind in order to keep bandwidth consumption down
  2. There’s only one image on the entire site that isn’t either part of the bundled-with-WordPress theme I’m using, a screenshot I took of non-photographic content, or a diagram I drew.
  3. That single photo is the picture of me in the sidebar, which was taken by a member of my immediate family out behind our house, not some random stranger on the Internet.

…so why am I bringing this up? Well, the threat tries to drive you to download something off Google Drive which is supposedly a list of what you’ve infringed.

First, that should already be ringing alarm bells. If they could customize the URL, why couldn’t they just say what I’ve infringed in the message like a DMCA takedown message would?

…and why wouldn’t they mention the DMCA or EUCD, which have the force of law behind them, when so many people are over-eager to do so? Probably because sending such a takedown requires you to list what you want to be taken down and swear under penalty of perjury that you hold the rights to it.

(Not to mention, why would a legitimate sender post a comment on a random post with no images in it, rather than using the contact form.)

Second, a line like “Take a look at this document with the links to my images you used at blog.ssokolow.com and my earlier publications to obtain the evidence of my ownership.” is classic form-letter spam… though, granted, spam usually just uses ssokolow.com in place of actually referring to the site in a way that would require a human to compose.

This is clearly a message that’s trying to come across as written by a human, but has the markers of being submitted by a bot. Obvious botspam if you know what to look for.

In fact, I’ve been meaning to rework my anti-spam code to require filling out an hCaptcha if a message mentions the domain name of the site the message is being submitted to without it being part of a proper URL (i.e. blog.ssokolow.com instead of http://blog.ssokolow.com/ or whatever), because it’s such a common spam tactic to copy-paste the domain into the form letter to make it sound more official.

I decided to see what they were pushing, so I spun up an up-to-date copy of Chromium in Incognito Mode in a sandbox on Linux and pasted in the URL… it immediately asked me to log into my Google Account.

Now, I’m not familiar with Google Sites, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s some way for them to get a log of which Google accounts accessed a file that’s been marked private (enterprise customers would want that), and this is some attempt to scrape e-mails to sell to spammers.

I didn’t feel like creating a throwaway Google account just to investigate further, so I left it there.

The takeaway?

Don’t let spammers goad you into revealing your contact information… especially when their messages look so unlike real legal threats.

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Nicer Terminal Commands For Flatpak-Installed Applications

If you’re like me, you probably like to launch your GUI applications from the terminal at least occasionally… or from scripts… or from a quick launcher which doesn’t search .desktop names because you find it annoying to have your intent second-guessed by poor ergonomics in “multiple things match” situations.

However, as shown by the Flatpak developers closing #1188: Improve cli application experience and then locking it because real-world reports of how awkward the current situation is (eg. for invoking a Flatpak-installed copy of Meld from git merge) are apparently “abusive comments”, /var/lib/flatpak/exports/bin is the best we’ll get out of them, and I don’t like typing org.inkscape.Inkscape in the terminal.

I still think Flatpak is the best solution for a lot of other things which I don’t want to have to do myself (especially when paired with using Flatseal to lock down app permissions further), but this is ugly, it’s a usability regression, and it doesn’t even tab-complete well.

Fortunately, since I’m an end-user who doesn’t have to solve all the edge-cases, it’s easy for me to hack together a solution that works in all my use-cases.

Just…

  1. Query Flatpak for the list of installed application IDs (flatpak list --columns=ref)
  2. Run flatpak info -m on each application ID and parse out the application’s actual command name (if one exists) from the .ini-esque output (not perfect, since some app developers/maintainers will use/omit launcher wrappers when they don’t expect you to have to type the name, but it gets you 99% of the way. For example, Flatseal‘s actual binary name is com.github.tchx84.Flatseal, not flatseal, and Flatpak is a perfect way to distrust something like JDownloader that you still need to use, but its command is jd-wrapper.)
  3. Add a folder to the end of your PATH containing exec flatpak run ... "$@" scripts named after the extracted command names. (Better than using alias because you don’t have to coordinate re-source-ing the file in each open terminal for updates to apply.)

…and so, I present to you a proof of concept. It’s got shortcomings, but those are all fixable when I have time to come back to it and rewrite it in a language with a proper .ini parser:

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RAR Test Files

Quick question. How many people realized that it’s legally impossible to create a RAR file without using WinRAR, RAR for Linux, etc., all of which are shareware?

At first, that might seem like no big deal, given that we have 7-Zip now… until you realize how difficult it is to be sure you’re legally in the clear if you have something that unpacks RAR files, or RAR-based formats like CBR and RSN and want to distribute some RAR files as part of your test suite.

Well, when Clint from Lazy Game Reviews released a video titled Registering WinRAR in 2021: How Far Back Does It Work?, I decided that I had reason enough to change that, so I bought a WinRAR license for my Windows XP retro-hobby PC (and, since the license allows a home user to share one license between all their devices, also for my Linux desktop PC and my Windows 98 retro PC).

Home users may use their single computer usage license on all computers and mobile devices (USB drive, external hard drive, etc.) which are property of the license owner.

https://www.win-rar.com/winrarlicense.html

I’m still waiting for my “WinRAR Physical Delivery on CD” (CA$ 13.94 extra) to arrive, but I’ve already used the digital delivery license key to make a nice load of test RAR and CBR files for the batch file corruption checker that I’m writing which shells out to /usr/bin/unrar t on Linux.

They contain either a testfile.txt or a PNG and a JPG, as appropriate, all made from scratch by me, and all designed to be as compact as possible while still being recognizable as the expected file formats. You’re welcome to use them for whatever you want.

P.S. Since I also have Amiga Forever 2016, I’m looking for suggestions for similar “can’t be made on Linux/Windows using 100% gratis software” formats to build up a complementary repo of Amiga test files.

So far, I’ve combined the Amiga Kickstart ROMs I paid for with the freeware’d LZX release from LZX_Y2KF.LHA to make an LZX test file that lsar -t from The Unarchiver’s command-line tools (mirror) can verify.

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Stripping Emoji from File And Folder Names

There’s an annoying little problem that happens sometimes when you save stuff off the web, which the popularity of emoji has brought into the spotlight: Some tools still assume Unicode code points will fit within 16 bits and break with characters outside the Basic Multilingual Plane (BMP for short).

I’ve seen this happen with git gui where I had to adjust the test suites for some Unicode-processing code to use character escapes instead but, in this case, the problem is astral characters in filenames.

If you’ve ever used something like Ctrl+S on a Tumblr page or youtube-dl on a video that uses emoji in the title, you might have discovered that CD/DVD-burning GUIs like K3b run into errors with mkisofs/genisoimage when you try to save such files onto a typical Joliet+RockRidge ISO.

It used to be just one or two, so I’d rename them away manually within K3b before burning the disc but, now, I’m starting to see a lot of them… so I wrote a quick little script that recurses through one or more folders (I forgot the usual “Is this a file? Skip os.walk and go straight to the file handler” code, so no file paths) and renames away any codepoints above 0xFFFF.

I’m not sure what Windows tools might break on non-BMP codepoints in filenames, but I habitually steer clear of anything I know will complicate making scripts portable so it should work anywhere you’ve got Python 3 installed.

Enjoy.

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Food For Thought

I was making food and my mind got to wandering.

“Broccoli… sounds like broccoly… same construction as shiny or smelly… what does it mean to have the characteristic of broccol?”

“Cucumber… OK, If the vegetable is a “cucumb-er”, what does the verb ‘to cucumb’ mean?”

“…and I know that broccol-y (having the characteristic of) and broccol-ish (resembling) aren’t the same thing, but where do broccol-esque and broccol-oid fit in? Hmm. This needs more thought.”

Yes, I know broccoli is an Italian loanword and cucumber is a corruption of the Old French cocombre… but that doesn’t stop my mind from getting silly and I wouldn’t want to, because being in that habit is what makes me notice the things that go into my better reviews.

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Fanfiction – A Quick Overview of The Whole Pureblood Pretense Series

In the wake of the final chapter of murkybluematter’s The Futile Facade, I found myself stuck dwelling on the huge cliffhanger it ends on. Enough so, that I’ve just finished a marathon re-read of the series to wear out my attraction to it for a little while… and, since I said in my review of The Pureblood Pretense that I’d review the rest some day, I suppose waiting for the final act to begin is as good a time as any for a run-down of why you should read the thing.

Given that I’m covering a series that’s 1.4 million words long and still has a whole act left to go, I’ll be focusing more on overarching themes and general trends than fine detail.

NOTE: If you feel this review is overly positive, I suggest checking out the aforementioned review of the first volume only. If anything, it’s a little too honest about flaws that I didn’t notice until the reading was done and the critical analysis had begun.

To recap, the series is a fusion of Harry Potter and Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet, where a girl named Alanna of Trebond is so determined to become a knight that she trades places with her twin brother and adopts the name Alan, eventually befriending both the crown prince of the realm and the king of thieves and winding up the kingdom’s first Lady Knight and married to one of them.

I’d like to put some emphasis on that for anyone who’s only familiar with the Harry Potter side of things, because it’s important. To make this plot work, the main character is a blend of Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond. It may introduce a backstory to help justify that but, in the end, the plot relies on certain aspects of Alanna’s character to avoid falling apart at the seams.

I’d also like to spend a moment on what makes this blend of Harry and Alanna such a compelling character. Like Harry Potter, she’s a quiet, unassuming individual who can be goaded into doing The Right Thing by fate. Like Alanna, she’s laser-focused on what she wants in life, and is determined to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. This combination of quiet introversion, a strong sense of what’s right once she’s emotionally invested, and the drive to do what she wants, come hell or high water, produces an interestingly complex hero. One who keeps doing the heroic deeds when trouble comes knocking (despite how important it is to remain unassuming) but who also spends most of the story learning to acknowledge the idea that she’s heroic and never loses that desire for the quiet, academic life that destiny stood as an obstacle to.

At the same time, there are other facets of her personality which integrate well with that. As I’ll cover in a couple of later quotes, Harriet Potter has always been a troublemaker and, though she may not want to fully accept the implications of the label, a liar. She’s a character with a history of trying to let her more boisterous cousin take the blame for childhood escapades gone wrong, and mastered her own variant of the infamous puppy-dog eyes before ever conceiving of their grand ruse. Not exactly a paragon of virtue, this reluctant hero.

(And, with a villain so entrenched in political power, she is a hero who is caught between “lying as virtue” and “lying as vice”. Without her skill and willingness to lie, she can’t accumulate the stable of allies needed to face the villain, but that same willingness to turn to deceit also makes her life harder at times, blinding her to easier choices and, as the ruse progresses, fostering self-doubt. After all, when so many others have misplaced trust in you, it is easy to start questioning your trust in yourself.)

In this series, the divergence from canon starts back when Tom Riddle didn’t become Lord Voldemort but, instead, went into politics as the charismatic and cunning Lord Riddle, leader of the right-wing Save Our World party… producing a setting where, by the time young Harriet “Harry” Potter is born, only purebloods are allowed at Hogwarts.

By age 11, Harry is an obsessive potions nerd (that I suspect to have drawn at least some inspiration from someone in the author’s life who’s on the autism spectrum), and she’s determined to study under the man who, in her eyes, is the greatest potions researcher of the age, Professor Severus Snape. At the same time, the death of Sirius Black’s wife has left him insistent on sending her honorary cousin, Arcturus Rigel “Archie” Black to Hogwarts, and left Archie wanting to study somewhere better suited to an aspiring healer… so Harriet proposes that they trade places.

The first year (The Pureblood Pretense) reads like a particularly good Harry Potter A.U.. Harry may be female in this story, but I’m reluctant to use the term “femHarry”, because it dwells on her gender’s relevance to the plot even less than Effects and Side Effects. In fact, aside from making her body-shy out of fear of getting caught, and concerned about the scarcity of women in the Potioneers’ Guild, it’s not really significant to the plot outside of being a Lioness Quartet fusion.

There. Recap done.

Now, the second year (The Serpentine Subterfuge), and especially the latter half of it, is when the series really starts to graduate from being merely well writtem by fanfiction standards, to being a more satisfying, more enjoyable read than many of the professionally published novels I’ve read… a trend which kicks into even higher gear when the second act begins in year three (The Ambiguous Artifice).

In keeping with being an HP-Lioness fusion, Book 2 begins by introducing “the lower alleys” beyond Knockturn Alley. It makes them feel natural as something that could exist in Harry Potter canon but, at the same time, imbues them with a hint of the medieval fantasy feel of Tortall from Pierce’s books. It also introduces Lionel “Leo” Hurst, the counterpart to Alanna’s friend, the King of Thieves.

murkybluematter enjoys finding subtle ways to parallel elements of the Harry Potter and Lioness Quartet books while still leaving them feeling natural enough that, if you don’t know what’s being referenced, you won’t notice anything odd to suggest that a reference is being made. For example, here’s one of the more overt ones:

“What?” Sirius held a wounded hand to his heart. “I’m saying this for Harry’s sake, Prongs. Unlike the rest of us, she hasn’t dealt with these kind of snobby, tight-eyed people before. Harry, just remember that you can’t be formally charged on capital offenses until you’re seventeen, so—”

“Please don’t encourage my daughter to murder anyone,” Lily pleaded.

“Especially anyone she hasn’t met yet!” Archie said, grinning. “She might get along really well with the party nobs.”

“She’d better not,” James grimaced.

“Yeah, no schmoozing with the politicians, Harry,” Sirius said.

“I’ll just stand in a corner, make no noise, and pretend not to exist,” Harry said.

The Ambiguous Artifice, Chapter 11

(A reference to the “I’ll be in my room, making no noise and pretending that I don’t exist” phrasing used in the film version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when Vernon Dursley is making sure everyone remembers their roles in his little dinner party… the book is almost the same but uses “and pretending I’m not there”.)

Likewise, with “Rigel Black” being sorted into Slytherin for the amount of cunning and ambition needed to pull off such a daring ruse, Draco Malfoy winds up being the counterpart of Alanna’s friend, the crown prince. However, in general, murkybluematter just writes engaging Slytherins, period.

(I particularly like how Pansy Parkinson’s character unfolds over the course of the series, and I’m intrigued by the similarities presented between Aldon Rosier and a bored Sherlock Holmes.)

Of course, this being a Harry Potter story, and this being an author who enjoys subtle parallels to canon, it’s also a story where “Rigel Black” inevitably finds herself in the same “destined hero” role as Harry Potter from canon, prophecy or not.

All in all, the things which make this series great tend to fall into two categories:

First, the character writing. Aside from it just being enjoyable, there are some beautifully deep bits of character development. For example, when Draco ends his first year with an internal monologue on how different his friendships turned out from what he expected, and how he wouldn’t have it any other way.

That’s far too long to quote without destroying its impact, so I won’t… but I can excerpt another moment. This one is mid-way through year 2, when I was blindsided by the realization that Harry didn’t just think she didn’t need friends,… she didn’t understand why she might want friends beyond her honorary cousin.

Rigel could only conclude that friends were an incredible thing. How strange to have people who so understood and respected what she needed. How valuable to have people who made her feel so at ease and unthreatened, despite the difficult, dangerous deception she wove her life within. Surely there was nothing in the world so necessary as a friend on nights such as these.

The Serpentine Subterfuge, Chapter 11

…or the impressively poetic bit of writing in book 4 (The Futile Facade) when she muses on her fear that the real her is slowly being consumed by the masks she wears. A passage I’ll also quote because of how it so beautifully captures so much of what makes this series great:

“You’re right of course, Miss Potter. Excuse me.” Then he left, weaving his way through the crowd toward where Narcissa was standing somewhat stiffly beside her sister.

“Just Harry,” she muttered after him half-heartedly. She had never been more aware that she was not ‘just Harry.’ She was Heiress Potter. She was Harry the Lower Alley Potions Brewer. She was Rigel Black. She was highborn, lowborn, pureblood, halfblood, powerful, average, mysterious, and unassuming. She was thirteen. She was fifteen. She was fractured and whole. She was a child and a criminal, a lady and a liar. She was afraid that by the time everything was over she wouldn’t be anything anymore. Just a collection of faces that hid a hollow void where there should be something real and solid and her.

The Futile Facade, Chapter 1

Speaking of which, the story doesn’t shy away from high-society events, and murkybluematter does a beautiful job of writing satisfying banter, both high-society and family-oriented. Here’s an example:

“Who knew you were such a hopeless romantic?” Harry affected a deadpan expression that set her uncle to chuckling.

“If I’m a hopeless romantic, then you’re a cynic, my dear niece,” Sirius informed her.

“Realists are always called cynics by optimists,” Harry said, not at all insulted by his words.

Sirius fingered a talking button absently. “Sounds like something a cynic would say.”

Harry smirked sideways at him. “You would know, Uncle.”

Her godfather had to grimace at that. “Aren’t you supposed to have a rose-colored image of your role models?”

“At my age?” Harry pretended to think about it. “I think I’m supposed to be recently disillusioned and largely mistrusting, actually. Maybe I should pout.”

The Futile Facade, Chapter 4

That said, the entire story isn’t like this… it’s just hard for me to find short snippets that capture the more ordinary day-to-day atmosphere of things.

Perhaps more importantly, having a main character who lives a double life provides a very nice opportunity to show how the warmest friend can be bigoted and uncaring when presented with a different face, purely because of their upbringing.

As for the second category the story’s cleverness falls into? The plot. This is a story which makes an effort to take themes and set pieces from canon and improve upon them.

Philosopher’s Stone had Ollivander, the Sorting Hat, and Dumbledore implicitly telling Harry that he and Voldemort are light and dark reflections of each other? This explores that theme in a way that feels both more subtle and more significant.

Harry Potter has a “saving people thing”? This uses a female Harry who wasn’t raised by the Dursleys to make you realize that Harriet Potter, Hermione Granger, and Lily Potter aren’t that different in that respect… In canon, Harry is reckless, Hermione starts S.P.E.W., and Lily defied Voldemort three times and sacrificed herself to save her child. In this one? …well, just read it and see. Three women, all fitting the description of “brilliant, but scary at times”, all characterized by their drive in some sense, none of them pureblooded, and all central to saving the world in their own ways.

Speaking of Hermione, she turns up at the American school where “Harry Potter” (Archie Black) goes and they wind up best friends in the healer track. (And yes, murkybluematter is one of those rare authors who can send a character to a pre-Ilvermorny American magical school without it feeling cheap and boring.)

As for Harry, she’s still distant from her parents, but it’s because they don’t understand her, rather than because they’re dead. See, for example, this quote:

“And James still thinks you’re the responsible one.” Remus sighed.

“He’s easily bored by me,” Harry corrected the man. “And he equates boredom with rule-following and risk-aversion and maturity. That’s why it was so easy to blame Archie for everything when we were young. Sirius and James both expect troublemakers to be boisterous and emotional, because that’s how they are. They understand the kind of mischief that makes your eyes laugh and your toes tap with impatience. They don’t understand the kind of trouble you can get into quietly and methodically and carefully.”

The Futile Facade, Chapter 3

The intersection of plot and character also leads to a couple of fun running themes:

First, characters reinforcing false assumptions, simply because the truth is so outlandish… even Lord Riddle, the chessmaster villain who, in the end, gets outplayed by a teenager because of that one tiny assumption not even he could avoid making. (This manifests itself most clearly in “if only you knew how true that was” moments like Snape telling Rigel “I have never taught a student so dedicated to mastering the field”.)

Second, a theme I can only sum up as “people on the wrong side of history shouldn’t try to one-up a literary hero”, but done with sufficient skill that it doesn’t feel cheap or tacky.

All in all, for best enjoyment of these characters, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for such patterns.

For example, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that, under his playful jokester personality, Archie is essentially the “canon Hermione” of their little conspiracy… smart, brave, and intensely loyal, but Harry is The Hero™ because she’s the one who’s can’t just accept and work within society’s dictates. In fact, he’s sometimes used to illustrate just that, when, on occasion, he sees his honorary cousin through new eyes, and realizes just how much he’s underestimated some aspect of her character.

“On the contrary, it confirms my worst suspicions of your influence on my nephew.”

“Which nephew? The one you just met, or the one you thought was your nephew that you were so very proud of until you found out he was a halfblood?” Harry’s eyes were alight with something Archie had never seen in her before. It was like seeing a light bulb without a lampshade for the first time. There was something unapologetically sharp and bright and free in her eyes, and he wondered if that flame had always been there or if the events of the last 24 hours had ignited it.

The Futile Facade, Chapter 14

Speaking of the end of act 2, Lily’s perspective on Harry’s trouble-making, as has been touched on even before the end of act 1, really gives me hope for an arc between the two of them before the series ends:

”You’ve met our daughter, haven’t you? You know, Harry, the unassuming one always standing right next to Archie when something goes terribly wrong? The girl whose idea it usually was in the first place? Our daughter is capable of unimaginable trouble”

Lily Potter, The Serpentine Subterfuge, Chapter 13

(“Unimaginable trouble” almost literally, given how many ways murkybluematter finds for Harry to rise to the challenge as the series progresses. As one example, without Hermione at Hogwarts, “Rigel Black” is the exceptional student who gets the time-turner.)

At the same time, Harry herself is an interesting case, because she’s essentially built around Harry Potter’s greatest strength and weakness, seen through the lens of Alanna of Trebond… it’s not just that she doesn’t know when to give up, it’s that something in her is incapable of considering giving up. This is a girl who promised a friend she’d come to him for help if she gets in over her head, but doesn’t fall apart in his arms until after the deception has fallen and something unconscious in her sees that it’s safe to do so. She just can’t recognize that she’s in over her head until it’s too late. She’s the kind of hero who will fight until either she wins or the fight breaks her.

Likewise, she’s also an archetypal hero, in that, no matter how she tries to keep her head down, when destiny comes knocking and she has to choose between doing what’s right and what’s easy, she can’t help but take the high road. (Something that, in concert with other details, lends the series a feeling that the anticipation just builds and builds. This story is an epic and it feels like one… even if you’d usually expect a literary hero to be an ordinary person who has trouble come to them, while Harry was a decidedly not-ordinary child who sought it out.)

For that matter, she also utterly fails to hide her light under a bushel. One of the problems that crops up in a later year puts the ruse in jeopardy because Harry achieves something too distinctively tied to her particular innate talents, compromising her and Archie’s plans to remain interchangeable until their studies are finished and they’ve swapped back.

Not to spoil too much, but there’s a very interesting cyclical element when the deception finally falls and she manages to slip back into her old life temporarily. For all the progress she’s made, there’s this sense that she’s back where she started. Even knowing she needs to keep her head down, that’s just not who she is, or the story would never have started in the first place.

I will say, however, that year 1 has one of the most satisfyingly original replacements for Quirrelmort trying to get the Philosopher’s Stone, despite it being year 2 when the seeds are truly planted for Harry/Rigel to step up in the second act and consciously set herself opposite Lord Riddle. (Which touches off everything that causes the plot of the series, as well as the intrigue of the deception, to soar to dizzying heights.)

It helps that Lord Riddle is such a well-written villain. Polite, but menacing. Always composed… except for the one time we hear him (but don’t see him) in a towering rage near the beginning of the second act. A man who diverged from Lord Voldemort when he felt remorse after killing Myrtle… but at the thought of giving up a part of his very soul for his ambition. A man where the readers are never entirely sure how much of his propaganda is genuine belief and how much is merely him being wilfully blind to searching out solutions that don’t also feed his ego.

In fact, there’s another element which has its roots in earlier chapters, but comes into its own in year 3, which becomes so significant that it pains me to not say it. (Partly because I can’t talk about my favourite character without spoiling it.) …but I will say that there is a threat to the continuation of the Wizarding World that Riddle is doing horrible things to try to avert, Harry winds up on the path to a better solution, and it also ties in with several other subplots which are very satisfyingly original.

One of those other subplots also shows what makes Harry Potter not just a protagonist, but The Hero™. Harriet Potter and Lily Evans were both given a choice. Lily Evans did the same thing any other rational, reasonable, responsible human being would do (you included), and turned away… but when Harry Potter tried to be led in her mother’s footsteps, destiny refused to accept “no” for an answer, and, in doing so, forced Harry to consider alternatives that run counter to centuries (if not millennia) of conventional wisdom and discover that one of the wizarding world’s most deeply cherished beliefs is wrong.

This is related to how, for reasons that actually do get explored, Harry habitually suppresses her magical aura. This scares her new baby sister. For this and other reasons, Harry, Archie, and Hermione wind up spending a lot of time (mostly off-camera) researching the nature of magic.

Pair that with the undercurrent of Harry being misunderstood by and emotionally distant from her family, and I’m left with the sense that, aside from the big “face down Lord Riddle for the soul of the Wizarding World” bit, the final act is probably going to include the following two elements:

  • An arc where Harry finally forms a proper connection with her mother and, in the process, “the hero” “saves” Lily from that decision she made so long ago and guides her to reaching her full potential.
  • A related arc where at least Harry, Hermione, and Lily combine magical breakthroughs all three have already made or will make soon to save the Wizarding World from their self-destructive ignorance.

As for other interesting characters, well…

  • Regulus Black and his relationship with Sirius play a significant role, both personally and as the head of the Black family. I also get the impression Regulus is being set up to serve as a personification of Harry’s progress in winning the hearts and minds of Lord Riddle’s followers.
  • Remus Lupin gets a fair bit of recognition, partly because Harry asks him for self-defense training. I suspect he too will get more screen time now that the final act is likely to keep Harry closer to his usual haunts.
  • There’s a second pureblood-aligned faction that develops and a well-developed original character in Harry’s generation who I suspect might become Regulus’s counterpart in that faction now that things have come to a head. I’d say more about why the character is well-written, but then I’d risk spoiling who it is far too early.
  • Aside from just being interestingly written, Pansy Parkinson is the closest thing to a Hermione Granger that “Rigel” and Draco have, and she develops into quite the interesting character.
  • Aldon Rosier, as I mentioned previously, is an intriguing character with that air of “Sherlock Holmes, the man tormented by gnawing boredom” to him.

So, all in all, what’s my closing statement?

It’s a beautifully written A.U., but an A.U. nonetheless. Harriet Potter is more OC than you may be used to, but most of it will feel familiar to anyone who’s read Song of the Lioness and the most important core elements of Harry Potter are there if you look for them. The setting gets expanded on a fair bit, but it all feels canon-compatible. There’s a lot of focus on characters who are either OCs or so under-explored in Harry Potter canon that they’re effectively OCs, but you still get to see well-written takes on familiar staples like Hermione Granger, the Weasley twins, Ron, Ginny, Severus Snape, the other professors, and so on. The plot is an elegant mix of canon and new elements that keeps it feeling familiar without feeling stale or boring, and I’ve undersold a lot of things I adore in the name of not spoiling significant plot twists.

It starts out as what I’d rate at 5 out of 5 and just keeps getting better as the series progresses, so I’d say it deserves an award (and not one of those cop-out “best of [time period]” awards either). If you’re OK with giving an A.U. like this a try, I’d recommend it as the best Harry Potter fanfic I’ve ever read.

Oh, but the chapter numbering is deceptive. Whether intentional or not, each story starts out with more normal length chapters and then they trend longer and longer as the story progresses.

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Fanfiction – Loopholes

I decided that this story is so different from the usual Zero no Tsukaima/Familiar of Zero fare that it deserves a full review of its own.

Loopholes by DschingisKhan

The basic plot is that Louise summons Tabitha from across the field (after she summons Sylphid, though that’s not really emphasized much) instead of Saito from another world.

Naturally, this throws the canon dynamic completely out the window even before Kirche invites herself into the group and it’s the feel and focus that makes this story so noteworthy. It focuses a lot on the characters’ thoughts and emotions.

For example, when the tone swings light, like the the time Kirche grabs the suspicious cloaked figure coming to Louise’s room, only to discover she’s just molested the princess, the overall dynamic actually feels like what I might come up with if I were to try to take the feel I enjoyed in harem romantic comedy anime like Ai Yori Aoshi and then stir in a liberal dose of what I’ve seen in shoujo manga. A lot more focus on their thoughts and feelings and minimal tacky fanservice-y stuff aside from Kirche occasionally being too Kirche. With no male protagonist, there’s instead hints at a possible future intent to blur the line between friendship and romantic interest between multiple female characters.

When the tone swings more serious, we get to see Kirche showing her more serious, more competent side… and her emotional baggage. Not for too long at a time, of course. Kirche wouldn’t be Kirche otherwise.

With her familiar being female, a fellow noble and mage, and not someone who irritates her, Louise has little provocation to act her canonical tsundere self and, combined with the amount of focus spent on seeing things from her perspective, I actually spent the first couple of chapters double-checking that she was sufficiently in-character because it’s such a departure from the norm.

That said, It does feel like there’s room for improvement in the writing style at the beginning. There were parts that felt like they were missing something they needed to connect. Given other evidence, like the short length of the early chapters and one of the examples I was able to put my finger on, I think it’s that the writing style was too brief and didn’t have enough flow.

On a couple of occasions when I’d stayed up late reading, I found the process grinding to a halt. I’d slipped into skim-reading, and the style made it too easy to miss an important detail which completely changed the mental picture for the following few pages.

For example, in chapter 6, in the “under ordinary circumstances” sequence, I somehow missed the fact that Tabitha had whistled for Sylphid and taken Louise airborne and didn’t realize something didn’t match up until a whole screenful of text later, at which point my befuddled mind had to read backwards up the page to figure out what I missed. It’s very rare that I run into something where the implications of such a major change don’t flow into the prose after, providing a supporting cue that I was about to skim over something very consequential to the mental imagery.

I’m still not sure about the later chapters to be honest. It’s just such an alien feeling to see Louise knuckling down and being that reliably serious and competent.

That aside, once it gets over its teething problems, it’s a very pleasing read and I like how it takes proper advantage of the opportunity to address canon events differently. For example, with Tabitha managing to get Fouquet/Mathilda’s story out of her, recognizing a kindred soul, and insisting that she come back with them so they can try to help her… which then flows into a very significant divergence from how canon events unfold.

Overall, it’s definitely worth a read and I’ll give it a tentative 4.5 out of 5 despite its flaws. Given how significant a divergence from canon and shift in tone it makes so close to the end of the chapters which have been written, I don’t yet have enough information on the author’s strengths and weaknesses to guess whether it’ll maintain that rating going forward.

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