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 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 different 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.