Fanfiction – Mastermind Hunting

When I was in my teen years, I read a lot of stuff that isn’t as good as I remember. Normally, I don’t review it but, for a change, let’s review something that’s a bit of a study in contrasts. It’s an interesting way to get some perspective.

Mastermind Hunting by Louis IX is a story that stuck in my memory for its distinctive details, even as I forgot how deeply flawed it was.

On the broadest level, you could say that the first half to two thirds of this 616,225-word story matches the synopsis: A “Where in the world is Harry Potter” story …but even that is flawed.

The first story arc does have Harry and the Dursleys wandering through Europe and the Middle East… but neither Dumbledore nor anyone else in the wizarding world is actively pursuing them in any significant fashion. You’ve got roughly a novel of a pre-Hogwarts wandless magic prodigy wandering through 1980s and 1990s muggle world events… not really being chased by muggle intelligence services so much as wandering in and out of intrigue because they have no idea what he’s capable of.

…and that’s a recurring theme that doesn’t help the story. It feels like the movie Shanghai Nights was still fresh in Louis IX’s memory but he didn’t properly understand how to make that sort of “alternative history for real-world people and events” writing work. (Rule #1: Shanghai Nights works because it’s dedicated to being a comedy. This just feels like the author coming up with implausible alternative causes for real-world events because it makes him feel clever.)

You could also say that recurring theme is “[Insert scene about some tangent] …but that’s not important to our story.”

That said, some of those tangents are also why I remember it, because they’re so unlike anything I’ve ever seen before… such as young Harry accidentally apparating into a particle accelerator, going a bit Doctor Manhattan, crossing paths with some mesoamerican gods, and recovering but with eyeballs made of magically contained seawater… in the process, creating a digital clone of himself.

Those are all things which could make an interesting story… maybe even an interesting Harry Potter story… but not here and not all in the same story. In Mastermind Hunting, elements which would need to be the central focus of a story to be done properly are set up, then allowed to languish… and yet I kept reading to the end, which has to say something for Louis IX’s writing instincts.

It’s also one of those “the guy who wrote this is either a teenage boy or a sociopath” stories, where the author clearly doesn’t understand the problem with certain writing decisions… first and foremost, how liberally Harry uses mind magic to fix problems. Harry ran into a terrorist or death eater sympathizer? Let’s just mind-rape him to install a better moral compass. Sure, its interpretation of an “inner world”-style occlumency is creative, but tons of stories have done that and some in more creative ways. (Though its interpretation of how apparation works and why wizards have trouble doing it over long distances is more novel.)

As you might expect from such an author, narrative structure also isn’t ideal. By Chapter 22, it feels like it should be nearing the end of an arc, but no… and at the end, Voldemort gets defeated with two large chapters to go, and then Umbridge is introduced, only to be gotten rid of before the chapter is over so two more brief “It’s not over yet” arcs can be done.

Spoiler: It involves letting the readers become convinced that a very major character is dead, then having Harry fail to use a Time Turner to prevent her death, then having Harry’s digital copy (who became a flesh-and-blood copy and then spent off-screen time becoming an unrecognizably divergent OC) get a better time-travel solution from the Department of Mysteries and engage in a cheap knock off of a James Bond thriller that seems to be intended as a tacked-on way to close out plot threads that were allowed to languish so much that I’d honestly forgotten they needed to be closed.

It’s kind of impressive that, in less than the entirely of the second-last chapter, he managed to kill off my ability to care as far as he did.

…which reminds me of another problem that isn’t a one-off thing: Not understanding how much preparation goes into keeping the death of a named character from feeling cheep and ill-fitting. Even J.K. Rowling fumbled that in killing off Cedric Diggory after four books of letting the readers get used to the idea of Voldemort being about as effective as a Saturday morning cartoon villain.

Anyway, next point… “crossing paths with some mesoamerican gods”. This includes not only mesoamerican gods, but also Wadjet, and the Archangel Raphael, and, like the mind magic and character death, they give a strong sense that the author didn’t think deeply enough on the implications and effects of including them. Harry Potter canon was careful to avoid leaning toward or against anything religious beyond mentioning the witch burnings and, even if you’re going with the easy choice of old Celtic gods, it takes a lot of skill to keep divine beings from destroying the Harry Potter atmosphere.

I also don’t like that they take away his metamorphmagus ability at the end because it was a gift he “doesn’t need anymore”. That sort of “implicitly lording it over the mortals” is why I don’t like gods in settings in the first place. Aside from that, why did Louis IX think it was even necessary? Because it made him too overpowered without Voldemort to balance him? That’s the mark of a bad author who doesn’t understand that “even Superman can’t punch clinical depression”. (If Wolverine’s healing ability didn’t break X-Men as a story, then Harry keeping his metamorph abilities wouldn’t here. I find that the best conflicts are the kind that superpowers can’t solve.)

…it doesn’t help that, for a final story arc and a third “it ain’t over yet” in two chapters, Louis IX decided to reaffirm his perception that it doesn’t irreparably tarnish your hero for them to invent a “stop being evil” mind virus. (I have only read the spin-offs, but I get a strong impression that was the core evil of the infamous “The Conversion Bureau” fanfic in the My Little Pony fandom.)

Again, “either a teenage male or a sociopath”… but, given how the final chapter falls apart into a mish-mash of “isn’t this cool?” stuff, and the touches of “didn’t think about the implications” that show up in other ways, I’m leaning toward teenage male. If you want to see sociopath, look at fics by Jared Ornstead under his Perfect Lionheart identity, like Partially Kissed Hero or Chunin Exam Day… those start out “definitely gonna hook you” great and then screw with you… and that’s not the only reason to think sociopath. Nugar wrote a great analysis (mirror) of why those two fics exude sociopathy.

However, despite all those flaws, I didn’t find it too difficult to re-read it when preparing to write this. Trial by Tenderness by Cevn McGuire also has a similar number of memorable elements, but I had to give up on it when I tried to re-read and review it. It also helps that Mastermind Hunting is one of those rare ultra-long stories that’s actually complete, rather than just dying when the author’s muse did, like with Guardian, Millennium, and Big Human on Campus by Black_Dragon6.

In the end, it’s a hard one to rate because it’s too sloppy for 4 out of 5 to feel right, but I didn’t get the firm sense of “I don’t want to put this down, but I can’t figure out why” that 3.5 out of 5 would suggest. I’d say 3.8 out of 5 if you stop reading before Harry’s special abilities are taken away in the wake of Voldemort’s defeat, or 3.6 if you continue reading until the end.

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

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