We Won’t Feel A Thing: A Different Kind of Love Story

A Review of We Won’t Feel A Thing by J.C. Lillis

Self-published, 2014

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. Lillis

by REBECCA, April 14, 2014

I am delighted to be reviewing We Won’t Feel A Thing on the blog today. Check back on Wednesday, when the mega-delightful J.C. Lillis will be joining us for an INTERVIEW and a GIVEAWAY!

hook

Riley and Rachel are best friends who have just found out something horrible: they’re in love. With each other. But with Rachel headed for New York next year and Riley going to California, they know that all their love can lead to is heartbreak. So, they do what anyone desperate to fall out of love with their best friend would do: they sign up for WAVES, a self-help program that promises they’ll be back to just friends in six easy steps. But sometimes, as the blurb says, “when you fight love—love fights back!”

review

diagramming sentencesRachel and Riley are not only best friends, they live together with Riley’s parents and share everything—a room that’s partitioned only by a sliding door that is never closed, a clock with a ceramic mermaid queen and king, and one of those close friendships where you know just what the other one is thinking. Rachel moved in with Riley’s family when they were eight and they’ve been inseparable ever since. Rachel wields her red pen like a weapon, diagraming sentences into submission. “This was her favorite thing: caging an untamed sentence, pinning down subject and verb, making all the other words fall in line around them . . . She shot lightning bolts of prepositional phrases from her scepter.” (Note: so for-the-love-of-god excited for a character who corrects phraseologies like “you’ve got another thing coming”!) Riley is sensitive and anxious, most at peace when he’s working on his mosaics: “he always trusted that with work and time and patience, the thousands of pieces would mirror the picture in his head.”

cupcake of truth!

cupcake of truth!

Now, though, Rachel and Riley each have a secret to share with the other: Rachel that she’s gotten into college in New York City and plans for Riley to come with her, and Riley that his aunt has invited him and Rachel to come live in a coveted suite in her motel in California, a dream they’ve both had since they were eight. That afternoon, Rachel and Riley go with Riley’s parents to a DERT seminar—Dyad Enhancement through Revelation of Truth—and, after eating too many truth cupcakes, accidentally blurt out the truth: they are not just best friends, but also in love. THE HORROR!

Upon fleeing from the DERT seminar after this revelation, they run into another self-help guru, David A. Kerning (a delightful reference to the space between letters in typography—somehow the combination of Rachel’s editorial sense and Riley’s mosaics). David promises that with his experimental Forbidden Love Module, he can help them. “DERT is a menace, as you’ve seen. Fortunately for the world,” he says, “my collective and I have devoted the whole of our enormous brainpower to the science of destroying Gary Gannon and everything he stands for.”

Thus begins a hilarious and touching story of what happens when you’re willing to try almost anything to avoid the pain of love.

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. LillisWe Won’t Feel A Thing is J.C. Lillis’ second novel. Her first, How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, was pretty much the most adorable book I’ve ever read, not to mention one of the awesomest explorations of how fandom can provide a vehicle for figuring out some deep-ass personal stuff. Like How To Repair A Mechanical HeartWe Won’t Feel A Thing is a love story set against the backdrop of passion for other things, delightful characters, and prose that made me laugh out loud (at work, where I was not supposed to be reading).

I am not much for your generic love story, particularly love stories about nice-looking, straight, white kids. There has to be something else in order for me to be interested. But here’s the thing: We Won’t Feel A Thing is not so much a love story as it is 1.) an exploration of how romantic love is based deeply in friendship, and 2.) an excavation of how truly terrifying love can seem. We Won’t Feel A Thing opens with a fairy tale: “Once there was a boy and a girl with a kingdom in their room.” Like all good fairy tales, this is the safe, comfortable world of prepubescence, where fantasy is make-believe and a boy and a girl can live together in peace. Also like any good fairy tale, with love comes threat: the terror of losing friendship, childhood, safety, and self.

This is such a threat, that Rachel and Riley (mostly Rachel—Riley follows her lead) are willing to go to any lengths to allay it. The book, then, is an excavation of their love in the form of an attempt to ameliorate it, a brilliant plot device that turns the love story inside-out, pairing each revelation of Rachel and Riley’s simpatico with their despair and frustration that it’s still there. This turns what could be a twee romance into an emotional adventure that strikes a perfect balance of comedy and drama.

mosaic waveJ.C. Lillis is the master of a particular kind of character + detail pairing that makes everyone in her novels feel alive. Rachel’s passion for grammar perfectly expresses her desire to control things around her, and the comfort she takes from knowing the rules that govern things and enforcing them. It is no wonder, then, that love—that uncontrollable and unwieldy force—would scare the shit out of her. Riley’s anxiety is explicit. “He told himself the fear was just one more entry in his Index of Senseless Worries, right after #378 (flash mobs), #379 (brown recluse spiders), and #380 (the dreaded DERT seminar they’d be marched to that afternoon).” Where Rachel breaks apart sentences to prove her mastery over their parts, Riley does the inverse: putting together disparate pieces of glass and ceramic to create something whole and beautiful. Their anxieties and coping mechanisms are in complementary distribution, and that is how their love works too.

Rachel gripped the waiter’s vest. ‘Did you know,’ she said, ‘that if you hooked my brain up with his brain, you’d be able to watch one long continuous movie of our life?’

‘How beautiful.’

‘I remember all the details he forgets. He remembers mine.’

‘You’re fortunate. Both of you.’

‘We are not. No no no.’ Rachel shook him by the lapels. ‘We’re extremely unfortunate. You have no idea.’

‘What’ll we do this year?’ Riley gulped the last of his coffee and poured another cup. ‘Who’re we going to be without each other?’

[The waiter] pointed heavenward. ‘You don’t believe you’ll be . . . reunited?’ . . .

‘We’re not sure of anything,’ said Rachel. Which was the truth.'”

As in How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, where Lillis created an entire fandom, in We Won’t Feel A Thing, she creates two self-help programs, both of which are quite funny. “Welcome to DERT!,” they’re greeted at the seminar by a cavegirl with a clipboard, “You’re late, so I’ve prejudged you as rude and selfish. May I have your consent forms?” And, “Thank youuuu . . . I hate your purse. It reminds me of my mother.” At dinner the next evening, armed with the DERT@Home box, Riley’s parents have a Splatter Session:

‘Is there any white bread?’ Mr. Woodlawn asked, taking a swig of strawberry milk . . .

‘I hate that,’ Mrs. Woodlawn said.

‘What?’ Mr. Woodlawn blinked, a forkful of peas midway to his mouth.

‘The way you ask me if there’s any bread, as if it’s somehow my responsibility to know.’ She drummed her hands faster. ‘Also, I hate that you drink strawberry milk. It’s emasculating.’

She balled up a pink paper napkin and tossed it at her husband’s face.”

strawberry milkIn a hilarious sub-plot, Riley’s parents embrace the DERT program of calling out truth with such aplomb that they end up in their basement, throwing mud and truth at each other. These scenes of his parents’ marriage breaking up are the backdrop to Rachel and Riley’s conviction that love can only lead to pain, but are also hilarious.

The last thing I’ll say about We Won’t Feel A Thing is how much I appreciate the gender dynamics here. One of the reasons I generally find heterosexual love stories unsatisfying is that they often go hand-in-hand with very stereotypical gender profiles. J.C. Lillis not only avoids this, but she has written, in Rachel and Riley, two characters who don’t need to be any one gender at all. It isn’t that gender roles are swapped (which still reinforces them), but rather that there are no markers of gender that matter here. Rachel and Riley like qualities about each other, and it’s those qualities that make up their characters. There were some murmurings on Goodreads when the blurb for We Won’t Feel A Thing first went up that people were disappointed because this wouldn’t be another queer love story, like How To Repair A Mechanical Heart. It is, though. It’s not a homosexual love story, but it’s a love story between characters full of queer potential.

We Won’t Feel A Thing is a delightful book, as well as a feather in the cap of independent publishing. I would put it up against any release from a major publisher in every category—prose, plotting, characters, cover, and copy editing (Rachel would be proud!). I cannot wait to see what J.C. Lillis comes up with next.

Remember, J.C. Lillis will be joining us for an interview and a giveaway on Wednesday, so join us then!

readalikes

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan (2010). Like We Won’t Feel A ThingWill Grayson, Will Grayson is a story that’s equal parts hilarity and heartbreak set against a backdrop of art and music that propel the plot forward. Tessa and I joint review Will Grayson, Will Grayson HERE and HERE.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead Liar & Spy Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me (2009) and Liar & Spy (2012), by Rebecca Stead. Rebecca Stead’s latest two books share a certain quality with We Won’t Feel A Thing—a combination of true vulnerable sincerity and a sense of the absurd. Also featuring boy-girl besties, these middle-grade-ish reads capture a similar spirit. My full review of Liar & Spy is HERE.

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. Lillis

How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, by J.C. Lillis (2012). But of course you have to read Lillis’ first book, the story of Brandon and Abel, fans who set out on a road trip of Cons for the sci-fi show Castaway Planet and end up falling in love. It is a complete and total delight. My full review is HERE and our interview with J.C. Lillis about the book is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of the book from the author (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. We Won’t Feel A Thing by J.C. Lillis is available now!

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We Don’t Need No Thought Control: Deviant

A Review of Deviant by Helen FitzGerald

Soho Teen, 2013

Deviant by Helen Fitzgerald

by REBECCA, June 10, 2013

Abigail Thom has been living in foster homes and dodging trouble in Glasgow nearly her whole life. When her mother dies, leaving Abigail a mysterious letter, a wad of cash, and a plane ticket to L.A. to go see a father and sister she never knew existed, Abigail thinks that a ticket out of Glasgow may be the only good thing her mother ever did for her. GlasgowWhen she arrives in L.A., though, Abigail quickly realizes that things are more complicated than she could have imagined. In addition to trying to find her place in a new country and a new family, Abigail soon realizes that her new-found sister is has discovered something—something people are willing to kill to keep secret. And now Abigail is right in the middle of it.

L.A.When we first meet Abigail, all she wants is to get the hell out of Glasgow. She’s organized, smart, savvy, and has perfected her “robot mode” over the years—a detached affect that accompanies all stressful or emotional situations. When she gets news that her mother has died, all she really feels is a slight pang of regret for a life she might have led. She’s grateful for the chance to go to America and start over, and excited to meet Becky, the older sister she never knew she had. Becky is rich, privileged, beautiful, and full of life, and from the moment Abigail meets her she realizes how much she’s longed for someone she can feel a connection to.

This first third-or-so of Deviant reads like a gritty contemporary YA. Abigail is a sympathetic character who combines the appeal of a street-smart badass with the vulnerability of someone who has longed for a family and is, therefore, willing to do almost anything to fit in. Her contrast with Becky is particularly poignant, and Helen FitzGerald does a subtle job of showing moments where Abigail sees who she might have been had she lived her sister’s life.

Deviant by Helen FitzGeraldBut then Becky takes Abigail along with a few of her friends as they graffiti the back of a freeway sign, and Abigail realizes that Becky is part of a group that the L.A. media has called vicious vandals. Their stencil is of a group of zombielike teenagers (on the cover), and each time they do it, they tag it with a letter. Abigail is furious, thinking about the trouble she could get in if they were caught, whereas Becky and her friends have powerful parents who can set things right for them. But . . . something seems a bit off about one of Becky’s friends, and Becky is so secretive about what the letters might mean. Abigail is happy to ignore the weirdness around her, though, because she’s so happy to be getting to know her sister. This second third of Deviant starts the mystery percolating.

Finally (no spoilers), things escalate, and Abigail realizes that what Becky and her friends are pointing to with their graffitied letters is larger than she could have imagined, and has the possibility of harming not only her newfound friends but millions of teenagers around the world. Shit gets serious, y’all, and the final third of the book is action-packed and tightly plotted. It also takes on a science fiction shade, but it’s subtle enough that it could be real, which is awesome.

Deviant is a book that’s doing several things simultaneously, and it’s doing them all well! This is a well-plotted mystery that is actually a mystery. Not that I only like books where I can’t figure out the mystery, but many YA mysteries are bit light on the mystery, if you know what I mean. Deviant, by virtue of beginning with a solid, character-driven family story, backs into its mystery, and it’s the better for it. Details from the first part of the book become important to the mystery later, and though the plot is tight, there is a lot of room for things to be filled in later, or for the reader to imagine. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be the first in a series, even though it read like it was winding up for one. The ending is wide open in a way that seems to set up a sequel, but it isn’t unsatisfying as a standalone, either.

I really enjoyed Deviant and, more than anything, it read like an extremely confident novel. Helen FitzGerald doesn’t overdo any one element, be it character, explanation, or prose style. And, bonus, it’s a really wicked class critique. It unfolds quickly and with panache, and I was definitely left wanting more—I’ll let you decide if that’s a strength or a weakness.

procured from: I received a copy of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Deviant, by Helen FitzGerald, will be available tomorrow.

Six Teens From Around the Globe + One Locked Ward = a New SciFi Mystery

A Review of Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon

Soho Teen (2013)

Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon

by REBECCA, May 1, 2013

characters

Sophie: California terminal cancer patient who doesn’t mind dying, she tells us, as she dies … or does she?

Declan: charismatic petty thief from Galway who rips off the wrong people and gets shot … or does he?

Anat: the fierce military trainee from Tel Aviv is risking it all for love … including her life

hook

Sophie, Declan, and Anat would have died at the same moment. Instead, they (and several others) wake up in an unfamiliar deserted hospital. Where are they? Or when? And why them? In order to escape the hospital, and figure out how to get home, they have to work together. But some of them know more than they’re letting on. And some of them are not what they seem.

worldview

The Midnight Club by Christopher PikeFrom the blurb and the first, say, ten per cent of the book, I thought this was going to be a kind of supernatural tale about human experiments with death, or teens delving into the afterlife. You know, a kind of The Midnight Club meets Flatliners. And I was into itThe Midnight Club is like totally my fave Christopher Pike and stuff. Five terminally ill teens living in Rotterdam House meet (at midnight) to tell stories as a ward against the fear of death; they pledge that the first to die must send a sign to the rest of them . . . from the other side. The theme of trying to touch the afterlife is particularly poignant with teens since they’re, like, the opposite of death, so I had high hopes here, and loved the idea of death as a universal fear bringing together teens from all over the world. 

Well, anyway, that’s not really what Strangelets is about. But you should all read The Midnight Club in case you haven’t (since sixth grade).

Still, the first quarter of Strangelets is intriguing. We are introduced to Sophie, Declan, and Anat, each in the moments leading up to their almost-deaths. When they wake in the hospital, they meet Zain, the friendly boy from New Delhi, Yosh, the shy and soft-spoken girl from Kyoto, and Nico, the hale blondie from Switzerland. Together, they have to find a way out, determine where the hell they are, and figure out why the parking lot outside looks like the broken-down cars have sat there long enough to grow moss and amass inches of crud on them.  If they want answers, they’ll have to venture outside. But something is out there, and it’s not just the bears (oh my). There is genuine creepiness here (the creepiest of which I won’t spoil) and atmosphere that has some serious promise.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The first half-ish of Strangelets is a taut, well-paced mystery with sci-fi tendencies and I really enjoyed it. Gagnon doesn’t give too much away and her characters have distinct, recognizable personalities. It’s nothing particularly revolutionary, but it’s confidently done—more locked-room mystery than dystopia. But oh, holy jesus, the second half reads like someone took a wrecking ball to Jurassic ParkThe Island of Dr. Moreauand a few of the wackier Torchwood episodes, and then Mod Podged it all back together. That isn’t to say that Gagnon won’t attract fans of this mashup; it’s certainly not the dystopian fare many publishers have been rolling out lately.

Strangelets by Michelle GagnonAnd here’s the thing: if Strangelets’ only issues had been the grab-bag nature of its genre choices, I wouldn’t have thought much of it except, oh, ok, not really satisfying to me, but sure. It’s that this (unsatisfactory) science-inflected twist on a dystopia doesn’t mean anything. Where the conceit (no spoilers) might have shown true pathos or raised interesting questions about scientific ethics, or even—even!—taken a shot at saying something about how everything is connected, à la The Butterfly Effect, it would have been more interesting than what it did. Which is nothing. I love a good ole sci-fi romp, believe me, but what makes the best sci-fi delightful is how it expands our notions of the possible (or the impossible!), and how it shows us how deeply that which is most familiar to us resonates with that which is most alien, neither of which Strangelets even approaches. And I’m not going to even dignify the “romance” with a comment.

Equally frustrating was that while Strangelets held out a hope of being one of the very few YA novels—and even fewer sci-fi YA novels—to bring us an international cast of characters, it ended up reinscribing some pretty troubling conservative international and racial politics. Thea over at The Book Smugglers says it well: there is a “potentially worrisome, stigmatic portrayal of the characters of color (Anat, Zain, and Yosh) – one of these characters is the first to die, the other a villain, and the other meets a sad, cruel fate. Meanwhile for the white characters (Sophie, Declan, Nico), one holds the key to understanding everything, and two live happily ever after.” This is made worse for me because our happy couple are the least interesting characters. Sophie is totally boring in every way. Even the grace with which she accepts death after being ill for so long, which, ordinarily, I might find refreshing, smacks of  an annoying kind of Little Eva-esque woe-is-me-she’s-too-good-for-this-cruel-worldiness. And Declan is a pretty predictable collection of generic charisma and obligatory Irishisms. It’s Anat who I was most interested in, and who seemed to be the meatiest character in terms of the potential for a dynamic ending to her story. Alas, it isn’t to be.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book by the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon is available now.

Perfect Is As Perfect Does: Review and GIVEAWAY of Origin

A Review of Origin by Jessica Khoury and a GIVEAWAY!

Razorbill (Penguin) 2012

Origin Jessica Khoury

By REBECCA, September 24, 2012

characters

Pia: genetically engineered to be immortal, Pia is working to become a scientist so she can make more like her

Eio: boy from the nearby village, he teaches Pia that some things are more powerful than scientific logic

Uncle Paolo: Pia’s main teacher and mentor, he cares only about creating a race of immortals

Sylvia: Pia’s biological mother, she too sees Pia as a means to an end

Uncle Antonio: treats Pia like a real girl rather than just a science experiment.

Aunt Harriet: a new arrival to the jungle, she brings with her a boarding school girl’s knowledge of escape routes and lies

hook

Pia is genetically engineered to be immortal. The first successful one of her kind, she has grown up in Little Cambridge (Little Cam for short), a research facility in the middle of a jungle, where she is being groomed to join the team of scientists whose job it is to create a race of Pias. On her 17th birthday, a storm gives Pia the chance to enter the jungle beyond the walls of Little Cam for the first time. There, she meets Eio and begins a relationship with him and the other Ai’oans (the native tribe near whom Little Cam was settled). Little by little, Pia begins to doubt the total scientific detachment she has always been taught to value, and as she does, Little Cam begins to disgorge secrets that make Pia doubt that its single-minded devotion to science is as pure as she once believed. In the end, it may come down to a choice between being perfect and being human.

worldview

In Forever Young Adult’s review of Origin, Jenny suggests that this is a novel that will appeal more to some younger readers (teens, that is), and I absolutely agree, because Pia’s mindset is very sheltered. Pia knows nothing of the world outside Little Cam, not even which jungle she’s in (the Amazon). She isn’t taught history, politics, or the humanities. She can draw, but learned to do so to render specimens. She didn’t grow up with any other kids. She knows that nothing can hurt her and that she’ll never die. As such, she’s incredibly naive and non-analytical. Despite the author telling us that she is genius-level smart, we never see her intelligence in any way except her memory of chemical compounds and the Latin names for plants.

For all of these reasons, Pia is, for me, a totally unappealing character. I think she’s sympathetic, sure, and I imagine that many people will be able to identify with her frustrations about not having access to the secret of her own immortality, and her immediate attraction to Eio. But, while I’m sympathetic to the fact that Pia has been treated like a science experiment, it doesn’t make reading about her any more interesting. And, while I enjoyed learning about the secret backstory of Little Cam (because, of course, as well all know, every scientific facility that a main character thinks is squeaky clean is hiding a horrible, gruesome past), it was just one variation on a theme I’ve read many times before.

Just after finishing Origin, I was telling my sister about it, trying to explain why it had bored me. Because, don’t get me wrong: Origin is well-written, totally competently-plotted, and has a fair amount of world building. But it felt completely brittle to me—a novel engineered to be enjoyable by combining the right ingredients, just as Pia is engineered to be perfect. A strong effort in all the particulars that shattered at the slightest nudge. In particular, I was explaining to my sister that it’s the characters that really made it fall flat for me. Pia is brilliant and immortal. Brilliance and immortality are concepts that totally interest me. Yet, Pia’s immortality had no impact. Partly because she’s 17 and most 17-year-old characters don’t have to worry about mortal threats anyway; partly because she has never experienced what death is (except in lab animals) so it’s a merely quantitative characteristic for her; partly because until pretty late in the book she views immortality as a totally desirable trait; partly because everyone in Little Cam is brilliant, so it’s a meaningless distinction? Probably all of the above.

Ender's Game Orson Scott CardAnd unlike the genius of a character like Ender from Ender’s Game (who my sister cited as another character whose genius is often described as cold and detached), who is valued because of his ability to innovate, Pia is valued for her ability to execute. She’s been fast-tracked to single-mindedly dedicate her life to the scientific pursuits for which her mentors have trained her. In this way, Jessica Khoury sets up what will be a book-long battle for Pia, between, on one hand, perfection, detachment, and the noble work of creating her race, and, on the other hand, imperfection (humanness), love, and happiness. In short, that is (as Khoury sets it up), the battle between science and nature, the battle between scientist and “savage”, the battle between knowledge and intuition, and the battle between control and impulse.

Friends, say it with me now: binaries aren’t real. Therefore, they make boring tensions in books. So, while I think that this might be a great read for someone who hasn’t had much exposure to the idea that science and nature are connected rather than opposite, or that there are different kinds of knowledge, some of which come from study and some of which come from intuition or peer-wisdom, to those of us who’ve thought such thoughts before, Origin is pretty flat.

what was this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

I feel confused about the book’s intentions because, as I mentioned, it struck me as kind of a paint-by-numbers book that took things the author or publisher knew would be appealing and applied them formulaically. If the intention here is purely to entertain, then I think many people will be entertained. The plot moves quickly and there is suspense. Oh, and there’s a jaguar that is Pia’s pet, so that’s fun to think about. There’s a romance . . . kind of. I think this is what the kids are calling “insta-love.” I was totally weirded out by Eio. For one thing, Pia has no exposure to the notion of beauty in humans, except that people tell her she’s perfect looking (in the context of being perfect in every other way, too, though). Yet, she still refers to Eio’s “abs”! I found this outrageous. Even if she had a biological reaction to the play of muscular strength under skin, I refuse to believe that she—scientist that she is—would shorten a scientific name for a muscle group and use it to describe something attractive. There, I said it. That’s been bugging me for days.

Scott Westerfeld Uglies SeriesBack to business: Eio is a nice guy. He certainly loves Pia (we don’t know why—being able to love immediately seems to be part of his “jungle-ness”), cares for children, is polite to his elders, and does brave and idiotic things, like risking his life to “save” a girl who cannot die. But . . . there’s just no other way to say it: Khoury has made Eio the stereotype of the noble savage, and made him “more attractive” than the other Ai’oans (with their “flat noses” and “slant[ed]” eyes) by giving him mixed parentage (113). Meh, I dunno, y’all. I just thought Origin had it wrong on all counts. It was squirmingly exoticizing when describing the Ai’oans and their charming native myths, and it was annoyingly anti-intellectual in the picture it painted of science. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as taken by a story of science pushed too far as the next person. It’s just that there are so many books that have done it well (Frankenstein, the Uglies Series) and Origin sets up false binaries and then depends on us buying into them to wring suspense from their demolition. And did I mention that the ending is mega-predictable?

So, this is Khoury’s first novel and it got the Penguin treatment (meaning, who knows if she was asked to commercialize certain elements, etc), so I’m curious to see what she does next. Overall, I think Origin is a very competent novel that will likely appeal to a wide audience. I just don’t happen to part of that audience. But, that doesn’t mean you won’t be! So:

GIVEAWAY!

Because I like you so much, I want to give one lucky reader my copy of Origin! There are four easy ways you can enter to win. Just remember to tell me how you entered in the comments or your entry can’t count! You can:

1. Follow us on Twitter (@we_eat_YA)

2. Follow Crunchings & Munchings via email (go to the right sidebar of the blog and enter your email where it says “follow blog via email”)

3. Follow us on Facebook

4. Link up to crunchingsandmunchings.wordpress.com somewhere on your blog

I’ll announce the winner here in one week!

procured from: I received an ARC from the publisher with no compensation on either side. Origin is available now.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

by Tessa

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is the only fanfiction I’ve yet read. I have enough trouble keeping up with original works of fiction and a suprisingly scant history of being obsessed with something enough to track down more iterations of it and its characters.  However, if my friend James recommends something to read I’ll usually try it out, because he’s thoughtful that way – he’ll have actually considered my tastes in relation to the work that he’s recommending.

James is into reading about a lot of things, and rationality is one of those subjects.  He also blew through all of the Harry Potter books in a couple of days a few years back. Then he found out about Eliezer Yudkowsky, rationalist, researcher of Artificial Intelligence, founder of the Singularity Institute, autodidact, friend of hedge-funder/venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and author of a massive piece of fanfiction based in Harry Potter’s Universe.  It is, as far as I can tell, massively popular and has been translated into ten languages so far, by volunteers.

fan art by Zerenity @ Deviant Art

The premise of Yudkowsky’s story is that Harry Potter did not grow up in a cupboard under the stairs, bullied by small-minded, imagnation-averse Dursleys. He grew up the adopted son in the very happy Evans-Verres household and learned about science fiction, philosophy, science, and anything else he was interested in knowing.  This happened because Petunia begged her sister, Lily, to make her pretty.  She was dating a man named Vernon and knew that she wanted more in life, so she begged and begged until her magical sister used a potion to give Petunia beauty and, therefore, Petunia believes, a leg up in life.  So Petunia stopped hating her sister and herself, and when Harry was dropped on her doorstep she raised him lovingly.  Of course, in a household with a science professor at its head, she couldn’t say anything about magic. So the acceptance letter from Hogwarts is still a surprise.

Instead of running from the letter, Harry and his stepdad discuss with his stepmother why magic can or can’t be real.

“. . . some part of Harry was utterly convinced that magic was real, and had been since the instant he saw the putative letter from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Harry rubbed his forehead, grimacing. Don’t believe everything you think, one of his books had said.

But this bizarre certainty… Harry was finding himself just expecting that, yes, a Hogwarts professor would show up and wave a wand and magic would come out. The strange certainty was making no effort to guard itself against falsification – wasn’t making excuses in advance for why there wouldn’t be a professor, or the professor would only be able to bend spoons.

Where do you come from, strange little prediction? Harry directed the thought at his brain. Why do I believe what I believe?

Usually Harry was pretty good at answering that question, but in this particular case, he had no clue what his brain was thinking.”

You can see that from the start this is a more curious Harry than the one we know.  Yudkowsky uses the characters and world that J.K. Rowling made up, changes a basic fact about Harry’s life, and sets him out to explore the very things that Yudkowsky has dedicated his life to. . . but in a magical universe.

So, Harry doesn’t just accept the money his parents left him. He figures out the exchange rate. And bargains to get more than McGonagall wants to give him.

Harry doesn’t just accept magic. He has to figure out how it works.

Harry doesn’t accept the House system at Hogwarts, or the bigotry against Muggles. He tries to change Draco’s mind by introducing him to the concepts of the Scientific Method.

Harry can be really annoying at first because he spends so. much. time. infodumping about science, scientific method, skepticism, scientific history and science, but it’s worth waiting for him to settle into Hogwarts and for the other plot points to start their machinations. Yudkowsky is still not done with the school year and he’s on Chapter 85. There may be no real mention of the Philosopher’s Stone yet, but we do have military theory, a trip inside Azkaban, a murder trial, and more to read about.  I’m totally and utterly hooked on the interpretation that he’s creating, even if I still don’t get some of the science that Harry knows inside and out.

HPMOR works because, even if it pokes fun at the inconsistencies in Rowling’s magic / emphasis on Quidditch / structure of the Hogwarts school system, it knows the power of her story and manages to capture some of it.  Yudkowsky has to be a fan, otherwise his fanfiction would be all snark and no heart.

It’s available free (of course) online, in RSS, EPUB, PDF, and more.

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