Now for a bit of compare and contrast with a story that has some interesting characteristics.
In Love of Quidditch by Secondary Luminescence
This story shares a very similar premise to one of the best-written Harry Potter stories I’ve ever read… The Pureblood Pretense. In fact, judging by various plot elements, it’s actually a fanfic that does to The Pureblood Pretense what The Pureblood Pretense does to Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet.
I don’t really want to call it a fix-fic, because I feel that doing so would be disrespectful to the amount of effort that went into changing things up. It’d be better to call it a different take on the same concept. An AU of an AU, per se. It’s not as original, even when you only consider the elements they don’t have in common, but it’s clear that Secondary Luminescence really tried their best. (The sequel has problems, but I’ll be covering it in a separate review.)
Now, given that Pureblood Pretense is richer and more engaging than some of the print novels I’ve read, while In Love of Quidditch is a good but otherwise ordinary fanfic, I’ll try not to compare them too much on how they achieved what they aimed for. Instead, I’ll focus mostly on what they intended to do and accomplishments that were attainable for both stories.
What makes In Love of Quidditch an interesting story to analyze is the way Secondary Luminescence used finesse to solve the large-scale weaknesses in The Pureblood Pretense’s plot, which murkybluematter just powered through on raw skill. (The latter being made even more impressive by the explanation I got from murkybluematter that those flaws exist because they weren’t taking it as seriously in the beginning when said flaws were established.)
Like The Pureblood Pretense, this story applies the broad strokes of Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet to the Harry Potter setting: In an alternate wizarding world where a discriminatory law forbids her from pursuing her dream, a female Harry Potter trades places with a male relative in order to go to Hogwarts, disguised as a boy: In Pretense, studying potions under Professor Snape despite Hogwarts being for purebloods only. In this, playing quidditch despite women being forbidden from flying brooms.
In Pretense, Harry has a complete and loving family, which makes the deception more difficult to pull off while, in Quidditch, only James Potter and Remus Lupin are left, James cut off contact with Remus when the kids were 5, and Lily’s death has left him so distant and buried in his work as to be somewhat neglectful… making the deception much easier. (Though that does increase the risk of going in the other direction and making the story start to feel like hardship porn.)
Given that the most obvious form of discrimination was already taken by Pureblood Pretense, sports is a surprisingly well-considered alternative. There is a great deal of (under-taught) history surrounding sexist double-standards and outright prohibitions against women in the world of sports… not to mention that, for all it has appeared in artwork from time to time, riding a broom side-saddle as used to be expected of women on horses isn’t very practical.
That said, there is one major flaw which becomes obvious in hindsight later in the story. In Pureblood Pretense, Voldemort is still alive and reworked into the leader of the political party responsible for limiting Hogwarts to purebloods. It’s a clean and elegant way to justify a lot of other changes, and to shift many of the conflicts in the direction of political manoeuvring. In Love of Quidditch, on the other hand, makes a brief mention in chapter 1 that he hasn’t been sighted in six years and then reveals Quirrellmort, fairly unchanged and vulnerable to a similar “protection in Harry’s skin” despite Lily’s death being in childbirth, without any of the foreshadowing to justify that specific approach to things. This is sloppy compared to how well put together the rest of the story is and probably should have been my first hint at the flaws which crop up in the sequel.
Like both Pretense and Lioness, Quidditch only focuses on the experiential aspects of the gender-bending to the bare minimum necessary to hand-wave or justify bits of the plot. For example, mentioning her getting used to the feel of wearing boxers to set up how a prepubescent girl manages to get away with changing among the boys in the locker room.
(People who write gender-bending stories have a tendency to make the gender-bending itself the focus of the story and, while I do enjoy that too, it would be detrimental to the story in cases like this. Also, more generally, there’s a tendency for authors to lose perspective and have the story err too much on the side of gratifying what I refer to as their “non-sexual fiction kink”… a base interest that, while non-erotic, evokes similar emotional fixations. In other words, a strong antonym for “pet peeve”.)
As I mentioned in my review of it, the biggest weakness of The Pureblood Pretense is that “Rigel Black” is the type of literary hero who becomes a Mary Sue if written poorly. The success of the plot depends on her being the kind of prodigy that, while they exist (I was reading and understanding computer magazines at age 6), tend to feel uncomfortably convenient unless the author is so good that you’re having too much fun to question things. (thankfully, murkybluematter is that good.)
In Love of Quidditch does this differently, finding alternative plot points that are easier to justify. Here, the closest thing to being a hard-to-write prodigy that this Harry has is a love of flying stronger than in canon, a twin brother who was left terrified of it by a childhood accident, and a father who is so distant that, in the second book, it takes him a week to notice that she radically changed her hairstyle. (Even though it matters so much to him that, once he does notice, he grounds her until she agrees to use a hair regrowth potion… which she never does.)
Like canon Harry Potter, she’d do well in any house, but, unlike in The Pureblood Pretense, she not only refuses Slytherin because it would draw her father’s attention, she insists that the Sorting Hat use her memories of her brother to put her where it would have put him. Disgruntled, it shelves its second choice of Ravenclaw and puts her in Gryffindor. Also, like canon Harry Potter, she does accomplish things that hint at being magically powerful. (In canon, casting a patronus capable of driving off over a hundred dementors in his third year. In this story, casting a reparo powerful enough to fix the bathroom the troll trashed in her first year.) Both of these help to avoid the risk of her accomplishments feeling contrived when combined with her stated reasoning for studying like mad: To keep James Potter from having reason to come to Hogwarts and discover the deception.
Furthermore, unlike “Rigel Black”, she doesn’t keep her secret from everyone for years on end. Within the first few chapters, the Weasley Twins have figured it out (no doubt, thanks to the Marauder’s Map) and agreed to keep her secret in exchange for help in pulling off some of their pranks and getting material from the library. (After all, they did get banned from it for destroying some of the old newspapers that had her picture in them.)
By chapter 6, Madam Pomfrey has also found out, but her oaths prevent her from telling anyone and, during the encounter with Quirrellmort, he reveals the deception to Cedric Diggory, who is with Harry in this version of events, promises to keep her secret after it’s all over and done, and becomes more of a main character going forward.
This is a perfect example of the difference in approach. The Pureblood Pretense does what could be contrived, but you get so into the story that you don’t notice. This has the hero sometimes getting outplayed, but in ways where it makes perfect sense for it to further the plot, rather than ending it.
Now, there is a spot where the fic really convinced me of its intention to be an homage. In chapter 7, Harry’s efforts to be too perfect a student for James Potter to have reason to come to Hogwarts have caught Professor McGonagall’s attention. As a result, she gives Harry a book titled “Transfiguration Lessons for the Newfound Prodigy” and “his” thoughts on the matter are
She knew she was good, but she wouldn’t have ever called herself a prodigy. That and the more subtle detail that, like Rigel, Harry’s effort to avoid drawing attention has backfired in some sense, are both elegant nods to murkybluematter’s work.
In a way, you could say that it’s like a fix-fic, but on a much more abstract level. It takes the concept of The Pureblood Pretense, and then does a good job of finding much less demanding ways to go about all the bits that make “Rigel Black” walk the line between a rough literary hero and an exceedingly polished Mary Sue.
Pretense definitely has a richer and more engaging cast of characters, but Quidditch isn’t exactly slacking and spends a fair bit of time exploring minor characters too. I especially enjoy how the Weasley twins wind up taking about as big a role in this as Ron did in canon and how Cedric Diggory starts to take on a significant role near the end. (The choice of the twins is quite the elegant one when you think about it. Not only are they Harry’s teammates, but it makes a surprising amount of sense for Ron to be rebuffed from befriending Harry by the amount of interest the Twins show in “him”.)
Some things are still a bit of a stretch, such as Harry learning sufficient legilimency so quickly after finding someone who can teach her, but it’s not immersion-breaking… especially in the context of Harry being a candidate for Ravenclaw and a voracious student. (And, also, it’s a side effect of borrowing a plot point from Pureblood Pretense which, in my opinion, cut off or postponed more productive elements of the narrative.)
On that note, now for the problems.
First, the most minor couple: I do think Hagrid’s accent is written a bit too thickly. I have to slow down and concentrate to make sense of what he’s saying on occasion and you don’t really want to pull the reader out of their immersion in the story like that. Also, the story uses “sorcerer’s stone” rather than “philosopher’s stone” which is a pet peeve of mine. Regardless of what American publishers say, the philosopher’s stone was the name of the real-life goal of real-life alchemy that Rowling was referencing.
Next, something that does work, but, as I mentioned, feels like it’s stifling stuff that the author had the potential to develop: While the mechanism and motive are different, it borrows the “sickness that traps people in their minds” idea from Pureblood Pretense (which it does make sufficiently fresh and interesting). The problem is how the side effect of doing so squashes the developing teacher-favoured student relationship between Harry and Professor McGonagall. Yes, it does make it easier to avoid Harry’s skill level feeling contrived, but I think what was lost was worth more than what was gained… especially when it could have instead been handled by reducing the progress Harry was making without the help a bit, so the results of the added help would be easier to justify to the readers.
This is the root of the biggest problem, as well as the core issue that causes so much trouble in the sequel: Secondary Luminescence seems to have trouble making the broad strokes of the plot truly original. Instead, borrowing bits from canon or bits from the Pureblood Pretense and reworking the details enough to keep them interesting.
In this book, the biggest problem manifests in the climax. For all the mystery built around the crisis of the year, the climax winds up being Quirrellmort, when there’s practically no mention of Voldemort or Quirrell in the story up to that point. That could still work… but not when you just assume details like Harry’s blood protection which depended on canon events which didn’t happen in this version of the story.
All in all, while it does stick closer to the source material than would be best for it, it mostly manages to form its own identity, leaving a sense that it’s adapting ideas from The Pureblood Pretense in the same way that The Pureblood Pretense adapts ideas from the Song of the Lioness Quartet.
It may not have murkybluematter’s “5 out of 5 is an understatement” writing skill, but, it’s still got an uncommon amount of novelty worked into the events and character relationships. Even with the “comes out of left field” aspect of some of the details from the climax, Secondary Luminescence has done a good job of switching up the “flavour text” enough to make familiar events interesting again.
(Including one change which is noteworthy enough that I want to mention it. When you’re writing an Alternate Universe fic like this one, you’re allowed some leeway to bend the “single divergence point” rule of good fanfiction as long as the changes feel sufficiently unimportant. In this case, it’s used to have Harry and friends assume that Fluffy is male but then have Hagrid correct them on that. It’s a nice little way to poke at the human tendency to make assumptions about gender based on preconceptions and unrelated characteristics as long as you don’t take such opportunities often enough for it to become gratuitous.)
I’d give it a 4.3 out of 5… and it would have been a 4.5 out of 5 with a fix to the climax. (And it definitely helps that, if you explain it to someone else, there’s no need for any “Trust me. The author makes it work.” justifications.)
Finally, to address the elephant in the room. Yes, the title does annoy the crap out of me. My inner pedant can’t help but scream that “In Love of Quidditch” is wrong and it should be “For Love of Quidditch”, dammit!.