Fanfiction – The Pureblood Pretense

This time, I’ve changed things up as a side effect of finding a new way to slack off: This review is based on notes I took, but forgot to finally process into a review… so say hello to a “first time reading it” review for the first time since I started writing these again.

(Also, sorry for missing Wednesday slightly. I’d forgotten how much polish was left to apply and the tangent I spun out of this and published on time ate up more of the time I’d blocked out..)

The Pureblood Pretense by murkybluematter
Fandom: Harry Potter
Length: 229,389 words (plus sequels of even greater length)
Status: Complete (with two completed sequels and one actively being written)
Rating: 5.0 out of 5

This is a “FemHarry” Harry Potter fic, and some people might consider the main character a Mary Sue, but don’t be too quick to judge. The distinction between a not-too-bad Mary Sue and a room-for-improvement literary hero can be blurry and may rely heavily on whether you’re enjoying the story. I was so into this story that seeing her as a potential Sue never even occurred to me until I was part-way through the sequel and actively looking to revise my notes.

My verdict on those two points: Give the story a chance and see if it grips you. What makes this story so special isn’t the concept (which is sort of dime-a-dozen when you think about it), but how well it’s executed.

Anyway, the plot is basically a fusion of Harry Potter canon with Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet. (For those unfamiliar with Pierce’s work, the main character, Alanna, trades places with her brother to follow her dreams of being a knight. It’s been years since I read it, but I remember enjoying it so there’s my in-passing recommendation for that series too.)

Now, in more detail:

Harriet Potter’s dream is to be a potions mistress. She eats, sleeps, and breathes potions study, going so far as to read articles in the latest potioneers journals, and she’s determined to study under Severus Snape, the most brilliant potions researcher around. Unfortunately, because of reforms passed through the Wizengamot by a Mr. Riddle’s Save Our World party, halfbloods and muggleborns are banned from attending Hogwarts.

(Note: As a computer-obsessed early-reader who was reading and understanding old BYTE magazines by age 6, I consider this to be plausible in the real world, but tricky to make properly believable when there’s an author who benefits from convenient contrivances.)

Meanwhile, Arcturus Rigel Black’s dream is to be a healer. The best healer program in the world is at the American Institute of Magic, but his father, Sirius, a changed man after his wife’s death and not wanting to drift apart from his only son, insists that he go to Hogwarts.

Just like in Pierce’s novel, the two hatch a plot to trade places, with Archie going to the A.I.M. where he manages to play off the gender mismatch as a records error and befriends Hermione Granger as “Harry Potter”, while “Rigel Black”, the quiet, studious, male, body-shy loner goes to Hogwarts to learn potions from Professor Snape. However, this being Harry Potter, things get more serious and complicated quickly.

The first thing I’m going to say now: Don’t go into this anticipating moments when people discover her secret. Despite how much I enjoyed what I’ve read so far, I’d have enjoyed it much more if I’d known that, like Alanna, Rigel is clever enough that the deception lasts and lasts. (I haven’t yet started the third book, “The Ambiguous Artifice”, yet, so I don’t know whether this series follow Pierce’s decision to have her get found out at the end of the third book.)

OK, back on topic. In accordance with her ambition and admiration for Snape, “he” gets sorted into Slytherin where intrigue is just another means of social interaction and it doesn’t help that Snape has no idea “he” is the daughter of Lily Potter and not the son of Sirius Black.

Now, I don’t want to give away too much and ruin the experience, but,  given that Riddle didn’t die to his own killing curse, the story clearly needs a new “conflict of the year” plot and this definitely delivers. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I found it clever, believable, and highly original. (Though, having taken a few days off to let the story’s grip on me fade, I do worry about certain aspects of the problem and its solution. They skirt close enough to the limits of what’s believable that I worry murkybluematter might overreach in future volumes if there is a need to escalate things.)

So, with the plot I’m willing to spoil covered, let’s get on with the story’s strengths…

First, this is a damn good “Draco and other Slytherins as interesting characters” story. The interactions between Rigel’s friends remind me of Harry and co. in canon or the Scoobies (main cast) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I really enjoy reading about them.

However, appropriately, given that she’s the main character rather than merely a main character, one of the story’s big strengths is how well murkybluematter presents Rigel as having the character of a true hero. She’s constantly trying to just be left alone to pursue her dream, yet she’s such a good person that she keeps attracting new allies and building strong loyalties just by being true to herself. …and, despite that, she’s so caught up in the minutiae of her studies and keeping up her deception that she never seems to realize the true significance of her actions while the readers clearly see foreshadowing of the dramatic way they’ll come into play when she eventually gets into a head-on collision with destiny.

This ties into the second point: murkybluematter really has a talent for good pacing. The ebb and flow of threats and resolutions kept me on my toes beautifully and, if the foreshadowed build-up in the series-level conflict arc is delivered upon, this is going to be one amazingly satisfying read when I get into the later volumes.

Again to this fic’s credit, I don’t detect any attempt to pander to anyone’s specific “fiction kinks” so far. When Polyjuice is used, it strikes an elegant balance for how much description to use (barely any, but enough to avoid the feeling that it’s being avoided to cover up poor authorship). In the only case I can think of where a trope comes up which has been horrendously abused by poor authors, it’s used merely as a threat on the horizon, to ratchet up the tension.

So… why is Rigel at risk of being a Mary Sue? Well, the gist of the problem is that it takes a lot of skill to justify a story about a prodigy whose talents have some kind of relevance to each arc’s driving conflict. There are several specific manifestations of this:

  1. Despite being a child the same age as Harry Potter, “Rigel Black” comes across as relying significantly more on skill to deal with the story’s challenges than Harry, who relied more on luck. (Once the story’s over and you’re no longer really in the thick of it, that draws attention to how authorially convenient it is for such a young heroine to be such a prodigy.)
  2. In canon, the structure of the first three years gives Harry some chance to grow, as Voldemort never really has the time and resources to care about Harry in more than the abstract until his resurrection. In this story, Tom Riddle is the leader of a major political party. He has ample time to be interested in the quiet, studious, introverted boy who, as a first-year, not only somehow thwarted his attempt to undermine Dumbledore that had the adults in Hogwarts stymied, but also happens to have befriended the heirs of several of his high-ranking underlings. (This draws more attention to how abnormally well such a young heroine is doing under a heavier burden than in canon.)
  3. Unlike Alanna, who lives in a middle ages setting where it’s expected that youths will mature quickly, Rigel lives in a contemporary setting, but the author has done little to justify how capable she is of pulling off the deception beyond some brief comments about how it’s normal for Slytherins to be raised mature. (Which we are forced to assume may have also hastened the onset of certain aspects of maturity in the Potter and Black households.)
  4. Unlike Alanna, Rigel and Archie are both prodigies. It’s always difficult to justify a character being gifted in a way which directly benefits the plausibility of the story (normally, you write a prodigy who struggles with being introduced to the first major problem their talents can’t solve), but, in this case, I really worry about what will happen in the later books when things need to escalate but escalating Rigel’s talents might push her over into full-on Sue-dom. (The general rule people tend to intuitively derive is “If your plot would be impossible without making the main character a shining exception, your main character is probably a Mary Sue.”)
  5. One of the defining traits of a Mary Sue is that the characters love or hate her pretty quickly. The heroic aspects of Rigel’s character that I’ve already mentioned have a similar effect, since she tends to earn loyalty and admiration from those she helps and draw the attention of those whose plots she foils. (A hero can legitimately do that, but it’s one of those traits that puts you in the hazy region between a well-written Sue and a badly written hero unless you’re really good at it.)

At the moment, I’ve only read first of the sequels but, if they’re representative of what follows, I’d guess that every potential sticking point in the first story and beyond can probably be traced back to the author not having put much effort into justifying how smart the two main protagonists are, given their ages. Now, admittedly, that is somewhat mitigated by accelerated maturity being part of a standard pureblood upbringing, but that detail, though stated, is somewhat brushed under the rug. While the risks in the story have been upped to match, a brilliant protagonist who attracts loyal friends and allies is always at risk of coming across as a Mary Sue and, while I don’t personally perceive Rigel that way, she’s pretty close to the line.

That said, given that this was still the most enjoyable fanfic I’ve read in a long time and I do mainly notice the potential Sue-ness after I take a break, I’m willing to count it as “unpolished hero” rather than “polished Sue”. In fact, my biggest concern is how much of a house of cards this is. (Or, to put it another way, the author clearly has quite the talent for making the story engaging, regardless of the fact that their talent is being applied to a flawed concept. If you’re the type who thinks Rigel is a Sue and writing Sues is turd-polishing, then this is one damn shiny turd.)

Either way, there’s not much murkybluematter can do to change things this late in the game. The reader’s expectations have become locked in and kicking Rigel because things have been too convenient for her is one of the biggest sloppy “ruin a story by overreacting to a flaw” mistakes I see bad fanfiction authors making. …especially since one of the hardest things for a fanfiction author to learn is to put their main character in danger in a way that still earns the readers’ trust, so they’ll allow themselves to open up and ride the emotional roller-coaster.

After over 200,000 words of building a certain expectation for the balance between success and danger that Rigel experiences, it’ll be difficult enough to ramp up the tension without turning off the readers. Actually trying to fix the delicate balance that is Rigel Black’s narrative in order to reduce the Mary Sue element would almost certainly make it feel like a collapse into “hardship porn”.

In fact, it’s something that’s ruined so many fics I’ve read that I had to spin out a whole separate article on it after I went off on a tangent while writing this.

That said, I think one of the biggest pieces of praise I can give is that this is the first “I have a secret” fanfic I’ve ever read where I wound up wanting the reveal to take longer simply because it would give more time to build up to the pay-off. (The thing I love most in stories is reactions to worldview-challenging stimuli)

Normally, I either read a story to get laughs or see hypotheticals for how characters would respond to novel stimuli. Normally, if a fic tries to stand on its own, it destroys the implicit promise of being a Harry Potter fic… but this story does it properly. Rather than trying to introduce new elements willy-nilly, it simply pours a ton of effort into the nuances of how the aforementioned pacing and intrigue affect the reader. Sure, I’d never have picked it up if I weren’t curious about a Lioness Quartet-inspired Harry Potter fic, but I strongly suspect I’d have enjoyed it no less if I had given it a chance without even having read Harry Potter.

All in all, this is one of the best fics I’ve ever read. Of the multiple gigabytes of fanfiction I’ve chewed through in the last 15 years, I’m not sure I can find half a dozen which came this close to the satisfaction I get from a good professionally published novel.

…or, to put it another way, out of all the fanfiction I’ve read, this is one of a literal handful where the writing is good enough to make me fully enjoy it on its own merits, rather than simply as a vehicle for what I typically look for.

Normally, when I see the phrase “marriage law” in Harry Potter fanfiction, I run the other way (unless it’s one of those “how it’d really go down” oneshots) because it’s a pretty good indicator that the story is going to be what I broadly refer to as “suffering/victimization/powerlessness porn”. In this story, when such a bill gets proposed and the light-side families block it, I grin in anticipation at a clear Chekhov’s gun. I trust it won’t get used until our heroine is ready to resist and win. The more you can throw at a great hero without breaking them, the more satisfying the eventual triumph will be… as long as you don’t destroy the reader’s faith in their ability to carry the load.

Likewise, for the other Slytherins’ views on Rigel and “his” secretive nature, I trust that Rigel’s secret will come out in ways that leave her position stronger when the dust clears.

Here’s a short list of common pitfalls this story has dodged so far:

  • It’s a gender-bending story which doesn’t obsess over some non-sexual kink (for lack of a better term) to the detriment of the story.
  • It establishes itself as its own entity, rather than a “mere” fanfic, without alienating people for being too original.
  • It’s a “girl in a hostile environment” story that, so far, doesn’t seem to be risking devolving into “hardship porn”.
  • While it acknowledges a trope I don’t want to name for risk of spoilers, it doesn’t let it dominate the story and seems to be using it only as a credible threat to the character, given the context.

I’d say that, aside from part of its punchiness coming from not having to introduce the reader to the Harry Potter setting, this could stand quite well on its own.

It really is a shame that I almost missed this, given how many different ways in which I look for good fiction on FFnet (spidering from author to author via favourites lists, using a custom filter script combined with sorting search/category results by faves or follows, recommendations elsewhere, etc.).

Specifically, I discovered this fic almost by accident when, for the first time in at least half a decade, I was so hard-up for what I was in the mood for that I decided to wade through the muck in the C2 lists and got curious about what C2s might exist which were gender-bending themed. If it hadn’t been mentioned as Lioness Quartet-inspired right in the summary I wouldn’t have been curious enough to give it a chance among all of the other fics I saw. (In the intervening years, I even left Fanfiction.net for a while to go to sites like Twisting the Hellmouth and FiMFiction simply because I’d walked down the curve of diminishing returns so much that I was willing to switch fandoms to get a site with more advanced filtering, a recommender system, and/or a community with higher standards.)

Definitely a 5 out of 5, even with the aforementioned flaws.

UPDATE: Now that I’ve started reading the third volume, I’ve been reminded of how flat-out gleeful I feel at each new twist and turn of the plot. It really is hard to express my feelings in writing when I find something I enjoy reading this much. (Heck, most professional fiction doesn’t hook me this strongly.)

CC BY-SA 4.0 Fanfiction – The Pureblood Pretense by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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