For today’s fic, a little something I found because someone else thought I already knew it. Thanks a bunch, Aura Of The Dawn.
Harry Potter and The Iron Lady by mugglesftw
This is a story that had such potential for me to love it, and has a ton of excellent writing… but then messes it up because the author didn’t see what was trying to develop.
The plot starts simply. Suppose Ron Weasley’s squib uncle decided to join the military instead of becoming an accountant, and a chance encounter gave Margaret Thatcher’s frustration at Voldemort’s first reign of terror an outlet. She founds the “Committee of Magical Affairs” (or “Maggie Works” as its members originally from the military take to calling it) and things progress from there. They quickly discover Harry Potter’s situation and one of their members offers to adopt him, since he and his wife had been wanting a second child but the risk of complications in childbirth might kill her.
Up until Quirrelmort is forced to act early during Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, this works beautifully and it has two major aspects which make it especially unusual and satisfying for me.
First, it’s a story that goes above and beyond to make characters interesting. For example, Professor McGonagall’s obsession with quidditch is fleshed out with appropriate bits of flavour text. We also get to see this little treat during a snowball fight:
“We should just surrender,” Hermione said, shivering slightly in the cold .
“The Irish never surrender!” Seamus bellowed, managing to hit Fred with a snowball before he was beaten back under a deluge of icy missiles.
“But we’re not Irish!” Hermione said, dragging Seamus back to safety.
“Speak for yourself!” Neville yelled as he began digging in the snow to form a new barricade and switching to an Irish lilt. “Me mum’s maiden name was Murphy!”
“I knew there was a reason I loved you Neville!” Seamus sputtered, wiping the snow off his face.
Snape is probably the most interesting case of this, because he’s believably cast as a character you can like, without him having met Harry before he comes to Hogwarts, and without Harry having a terrible home life.
He’s still acerbic and self-interested, but didn’t let his hatred of James Potter blind him from seeing the true nature of this Harry who insists on going by his adoptive parents’ family name rather than Potter.
Likewise, when he manages to suss out the little conspiracy that Harry’s a part of, he sees a potential “third option” which won’t leave him trapped between an insane madman and a barmy old fool. It’s all done in a believable way and his loyalty to Lily’s memory over either of his supposed masters is done in a way which feels much more satisfyingly realistic than in canon, where the focus on Harry’s perception of him really crippled Rowling’s ability to develop him as a character.
The second thing this first act does well is that it’s a story explicitly focused on merging the two worlds.
Harry’s adoptive father, being an SAS member and part of the Maggie Works has raised him as most fanfic authors would expect a properly on-the-side-of-good Dumbledore to. He had a good childhood, but he was given martial arts lessons from a young age, as well as carefully supervised shooting training, and he was given ready access to superhero comics likely to give him the right outlook on his abilities.
As a result, by the time Harry is told that he’s adopted at age 8, and that he’s a wizard, they’ve developed mechanisms for hardening electronics against magical interference and Harry winds up seeing his abilities with an appropriately childish but responsible view: Like superheroes such as SpiderMan, he’s an ordinary person with special abilities and it’s his responsibility to use them to help others.
However, that isn’t at the front of your mind when you’re reading the story. (Which is a good thing because I’m rather tired of “super Harry” stories.) More time is spent on Harry either changing people’s minds or provoking people by like Draco Malfoy by threatening their flawed worldview, and his interactions with his friends.
Examples of that include introducing Ron and his siblings to non-magical entertainment like Tetris on Game Boy when they visit and Harry asking his parents to owl over his book on the Apollo missions, which causes a stir with Draco and rekindles Fred and George’s childhood obsession with space.
He also integrates Hermione into the group early, when Ron sees her use a knockback jinx against Draco and his goons on the Hogwarts Express, and befriends Neville Longbottom. I’m not sure what the magic ingredient is, but I find the resulting “golden four, not golden trio” dynamic that develops to be both quite satisfying and oddly unique.
The story puts a lot of effort into being familiar to canon, yet original… something both rare and the mark of an author who has skill in spades. From the troll being defeated by confusing it with repeated uses of Scourgify until Snape arrives, to McGonagall and Snape successfully pressuring Dumbledore to deal with Quirrelmort early and Harry’s friends being present for the drama while Harry is elsewhere and unconscious, the events leading up to Chapter 17 really do feel like a plausible alternative series of dominoes that could have fallen, given the small change at the beginning.
I’d also like to mention a few other details I have yet to see anywhere else:
First, the antagonistic relationship between Harry and Sirius. I think this is the first time I’ve ever read a decent fic where they’re at odds because Sirius refuses to accept that Harry sees two muggles as his real parents to the point where he changed his name.
Second, showing a werewolf’s first full moon from their perspective. (I won’t say who, because it’d be a spoiler.)
Third, this brilliantly creative little quote:
Ginny just shrugged. “Who knows? Luna knows all kinds of things that she probably shouldn’t, because her father doesn’t really monitor what she says or does. Do you know, he put her in muggle school for a few weeks, then forgot about it and my dad had to send in the obliviators everyone because they thought a child was missing?”
(Why is it that the typos always seem to prefer to show up in the most quotable bits?)
Broadly speaking, when it comes to the good parts, I’ve read various stories which incorporate the elements it uses, but none as satisfying. All the others either don’t go far enough, or implement them in too crude a manner.
The problems start to mount around chapter 15 when Quirrelmort is forced to make a break for it… and kills three named characters.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who is categorically against killing off named characters… but it just feels shallow and sloppy. From this point on, the story gets worse, then better, then much worse, because “upping the drama” crowds out everything that made the chapters before so special.
It also doesn’t help that the author seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Harry Potter setting. Rowling worked very hard to leave things like religion in the HP setting up to the reader’s imagination, with the few elements that one would associate with religion being a self-neutralizing mish-mash of secular contemporary elements and things you’d expect to keep pagan beliefs alive. (eg. Ron Weasley saying “Happy Christmas, Harry” and being focused on the presents rather than talking about Yule, while things like ghosts and the Deathly Hallows suggest that, if anyone’s right, it was the pagans.)
Most good fanfiction authors (and even the mediocre ones) either preserve that feel or build a suitably canon-compatible conception of “wizarding paganism”. This story, on the other hand, is clearly written by a Christian who didn’t stop to think about whether the elements of their faith would be compatible with the elements shown in canon.
For example, chapter 18 feels like a phoned-in Christmas special of sub-standard writing quality and, aside from the Weasleys using “Merry Christmas” multiple times and acting as if they were at some kind of non-magical vernacular cram session while off-camera, they also talk about “praying for” people… something that lends a distinctively “American Christian” feel to these British members of a minority who were canonically persecuted by Christians. (See “Witch Burnings”)
Yes, the latter half of the chapter is spent with muggles who are probably Anglicans, but they’re still saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Christmas” like muggle Brits do and, given that things like the bible are never mentioned in HP canon, which does depict Christmas, it still feels gratuitous and unnecessary and contributes to making the chapter feel out of place. My advice is to just skip it. You won’t be missing anything important as far as I can tell.
(To be honest, the overall writing quality of chapter 18 compared to earlier chapters with similar elements sort of reminds me of the difference between Rick Cook’s The Wiz Biz and its sequels. He wrote something great, but then didn’t properly understand what made it so special, so the sequels feel like cheap cargo cult copies, matching the superficial details of their successful predecessor, but without the deeper underpinnings which made it work.)
Now, the good thing is that the Christian stuff is shoehorned in and the story wouldn’t feel like it’s missing anything if you were to copy the text into your favourite word processor and delete all mentions of God, the church, and prayer. The bad thing is that, if you don’t, there is a really problematic bit where the author arbitrarily adds holy water to the list of things that can destroy a horcrux, but then writes it out for being known to strip away a wizard’s magic and, thus, kill them.
I could write an entire blog post about how fundamentally broken an idea that is in the Harry Potter setting, but, in the name of brevity, I’ll just say that it reminds me of a particularly sick and twisted piece of rhetoric from American Christians that basically says “If you use God’s power to murder someone, you’ll go to heaven. If you use magic not of God to heal someone, you’ve earned eternal damnation.” (That is, that even the most sick and depraved things are moral if God says so, but power not from God will damn you no matter how virtuous a use you put it to.)
I’m also worried about how the author presents a conclusion Dumbledore and company have jumped to that Harry gave up The Potter Family Magic™ and made Neville the Boy Who Lived when he took on his adopted family’s name. It’s bad enough that unbreakable vows exist in Harry Potter canon (where there’s ceremony and some degree of knowledge that you’re making a consequential decision) without doubling down on what makes them a problem. I’ll admit that it’s possible that Dumbledore and friends are mistaken and grasping at straws, but the way reminders of it are paced makes it feel more like foreshadowing. Leave this “names have power that you can use to hang yourself without realizing it” stuff to settings like The Dresden Files which are supposed to be inherently dark. (Especially when it’s such a stupid idea to imply that all canon Harry had to do to achieve being “just Harry” like he wanted was to literally cast off the Potter name at the horrendous cost of “becoming ‘just Harry'”.)
However, fundamentally, the problem with the story is that it has three phases: Great, Good, and Mediocre… in that order.
After Quirrelmort makes a break for it, the story just isn’t the same. The parts which showed the most promise (like the battle of ideas between Harry and Draco, the Weasley Twins’ interest in rocketry, and introducing Harry’s friends to the muggle things they’ve been missing out on) get crowded out, some parts (eg. chapter 22) feel rushed, and the plot swings in a direction that I’ve already read a million times before and grown tired of.
Then, near the end, it kicks out into open war against the Voldemort-infiltrated ministry and muggle Britain’s emergency broadcast provisions are used to shatter the Statute of Secrecy.
I will have to admit, despite not being the “Military, F*** Yeah” type, I did find it satisfying to see the incredibly rare twist of having open conflict break out between a secret branch of the British muggle military and aurors sent by the Voldemort-infiltrated Ministry of Magic. However, while it is satisfying in the moment to see the muggle side uses their emergency broadcast provisions to shatter the Statute of Secrecy, I’ve yet to see a fic which survives such a drastic change. Given that the final author’s note makes it clear that the sequel will be even more different, I’m not sure if it would interest me but, if I do decide to read it, I don’t have high hopes. Even before you include the implications of all-out world war, chapter 52 is already feeling far too similar to various other fics I read and found wanting. (Mostly male power fantasies with horribly simplistic views of human nature and the causes of our social problems which enable the hero to become a benevolent dictator.)
When you break from canon that drastically, you “cut the umbilical cord”. Just counting the ones that are either pure Harry Potter or have it as the primary story in a crossover, I’ve read over a thousand of these fics and only one of them readily comes to mind as being written with the requisite skill to pull that off and survive. (The Pureblood Pretense series)
That said, I can at least try to analyze the problem, and it seems to stem from three issues: First, it’s just plain difficult (possibly impossible) to properly prepare readers for such a drastic shift in the kind of story that’s being told. Second, when you have a story that’s had this kind of character focus, it’s like threading a needle to acknowledge something of such a massive scope as the outbreak of a world war while still maintaining a healthy character focus, and this didn’t feel like it pulled that off. Finally, Harry Potter fanfiction is almost universally written around a worldview that works in pure fantasy and some kinds of science fiction, but is unacceptably simplistic when applied to a contemporary setting where history and personal experience make it abundantly clear how complex human society is.
The story would have flowed much more naturally if chapter 52 had been omitted and the relevant details were fed to the reader slowly, as they were made known to Harry and company. Heck, the best solution would have been to follow the slow-burn progression in the Queen Who Fell To Earth series. It’d have allowed what worked so beautifully about the pre-Quirrelmort chapters to continue to shine.
I think the biggest thing the story does get right is the amount of time and effort spent on characters and ideas who/which were present in canon, but could have been developed more. I didn’t notice many technical errors, but there are a few. The most consistent one seems to be using “Mrs.” to address or refer to characters like Nymphadora Tonks when “Ms.” seems to have been intended.
Overall, I think I have to give it a 3.7 out of 5 (0.7 on a more intuitive scale from -2 to +2). The early stuff is at least a 4.5 out of 5, chapter 18 is a 2.5 out of 5, what follows is more of a 4.0 out of 5, and the breakout of hostilities at the end is a 3.5 at best.
(While the early stuff has a spark and uniqueness, the drama which takes the forefront following Quirrelmort’s break lacks that spark and isn’t particularly novel, regardless of how well-executed it is.)
If it weren’t so easy to edit out the out-of-place religious stuff without leaving any traces that something had been removed, I’d have rated it even lower.