Why You Need to Read: “Vita Nostra”

Metamorphosis: #1: Vita Nostra

By: Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Translated (English) by: Julia Meitov Hersey

Published: 2007 in Russia & Ukrainian; November 13, 2018 in the U.S.

Genre: Metaphysical, Speculative Fiction, Psychological, Bildungsroman 

Winner of the PocKoH 2008

Vita nostra brevis est,                                                 Our life is brief,

Brevi finietur;                                                             Soon it will end;

Venit mors velociter,                                                   Death comes quickly,

Rarit nos atrociter,                                                     Snatches us cruelly,

Nemini parcetur!                                                        No one is spared!

                                                                                                                       (Part One).

            I know I am late in writing this review but it’s here now. This book was my favorite book of 2018 and I’ve been raving about this book to anyone who would listen. I’ve been begging the publisher—Harper Voyager—for the translation of the other books written by this husband and wife duo. Vita Nostra is a novel that serves as a reminder that the speculative fiction genre has no limits and contains a reading experience that will have you question your limitations as to what is possible. 

            Alexandra Samokhina, or Sasha, is on summer vacation with her mother at the beach. She is looking forward to this trip before her senior year in high school in which, she plans to focus on her studies and to attend a university to study philology (the study of language in oral and written historical sources). Yet, before the 1st day of the trip can amount to more than a quick swim, Sasha notices a man in a “dark denim suit” watching her. At first, she shakes it off, but a few days later, Sasha sees him whenever she’s in town. From there Sasha experiences a few bouts of strange activity, but this only gains more unwanted attention. After many run-ins with the man, Sasha is given a task to perform, which she completes. Whenever, she doesn’t complete the task, someone close to her suffers the consequences. After her summer vacation, Sasha is given another task to complete each day throughout the school year. Meanwhile, Sasha’s mother starts seeing a man named Valentin. As expected from any adolescent, Sasha is going through academic pressures and a changing relationship with her mother. By the time she has graduated, Sasha’s grades have dropped, she doesn’t get into the university she wanted to attend, and her mother has married Valentin. However, because kept completing her “tasks,” Sasha is accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies in the town of Torpa, and the man—whose name is Farit Kozhennikov—is to be her advisor. Once at the school, Sasha—and her classmates—attend classes, follow strict rules, and complete their homework or face the consequences. Similar to any university, first year students have to adapt to all of the changes and study methods at the Institute. The difference is failure is not accepted and even the best students falter from time-to-time, even Sasha. Sasha studies and studies, and while she slowly comprehends her lessons and unlocks her mind to a new way of thinking, her punishments are as strange and as brutal as you can imagine. The Institute’s program lasts for 3 years, and then the students take their graduate final in order to “move on” to the graduate program. Sasha and all of the students at the Institute fear what happens if they fail, so they all study and perform as well as they can. Sasha realizes that she is outperforming her classmates to the point where she is not only at the top of her class, but also adapts to the Institute’s expectations. Due to these accomplishments, not only does Sasha becomes isolated from her peers, but also becomes more distant from her mother. Sasha’s mother, stepfather and friends develop in a more casual way. Sasha’s development is as complex as the story, but it is intriguing to read how she deals with life inside and outside the Institute. 

            The plot in Vita Nostra is the type of education being implemented at the Institute of Special Technologies through Sasha. The fact that this is the first book in the Metamorphosis series, should provide some hints, but not enough for readers to guess what will happen. Sasha is university student, which means she is learning how to balance her studies with any free time she has. And, like other university students, Sasha struggles with her classes and even misses a few of them due to exhaustion. Yet, she continues because she doesn’t want her mother to suffer for her failures. Eventually, Sasha not only grasps the meaning and the structure of her classes and her one-on-one sessions, but also exceeds beyond the expectations of her professors to the point where they have to set some rules for her to follow, so she does NOT get carried away with what she’s managed to accomplish so far. Sasha goes from struggling student to one that must be monitored so that she maintains control of herself. Sasha becomes so accomplished she becomes isolated from her peers. The subplot in this novel is the relationships Sasha struggles to maintain throughout her time at the Institute. While she remains friends with some of the other students, Sasha does all she can to hang on to her relationship with her mother. While Sasha is struggling with her studies, her mother is enjoying her new marriage (and later on a new baby). Sasha’s mother asks her constantly about leaving Torpa, but Sasha knows it’s best to remain there for her family’s safety, and to keep learning. The plot and the subplot converge around Sasha and everything she’s learning at the Institute, and its costs. She unlocks skills her professors want from their students. Once Sasha understands her potential and her skills, she cannot stop learning more. This imposes a new level of coercion set on her by her professors and her advisors. 

            The narrative in Vita Nostra is told from Sasha’s point-of-view and follows her growth from a candidate to a third year at the Institute. The book is in 3 parts, but there are no chapters. Instead, there are breaks that indicate when something else is occurring in Sasha’s life. This reflects the continuation of life of the characters and having chapters would disrupt the narrative. These breaks within the narrative allow readers to follow the story easily. This is because the narrative—while told in present time in stream-of-consciousness—there are moments where the sequence changes over to what may seem like a flashback but is actually a “do over” of these events. While this method of narration is objective—for it is essential for the novel—it presents Sasha to be a reliable, yet flawed, narrator because readers realize the extent of Sasha’s studies and accomplishments. Even before Sasha is accepted into the Institute, readers notice the beginnings of her change of her narration throughout the narration. Each part represents each year of Sasha’s time in Torpa, and the narration changes as Sasha changes; and, it is an experience unlike anything read before.  

            The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use fall under metaphysical fiction. Metaphysical fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which, “things like mind over matter, energy medicine, and places that which is beyond physical measurement, beyond the ordinary, into the very ordinary and mundane world we human beings inhabit,” (Newland, 2013). In other words, characters possess talents, skills, and/or abilities that defy physical laws, but only a small percentage of the world’s population have these talents, so the rest of the world remains ignorant to people like Sasha, the purpose of the Institute of Special Technologies, and the phenomenon everyone there undergoes. Vita Nostra is NOT magic realism! Magic(al) realism is a subgenre of speculative fiction where a story set in a real location and time with ordinary people living ordinary lives experience fantastical or magical elements that are a natural part of the characters’ lives but remain mundane and unexplained (Witte, 2015). For example, in Isabel Allende’s, The House of the Spirits, there are two sisters. One has green hair and the other one is a clairvoyant. No explanation is provided, the other characters are unfazed by these phenomenon, and the story continues. Readers are left to doubt whether or not those fantastic elements are real. In Vita Nostra, Sasha and her classmates possess abilities that are beyond the ordinary, but they are isolated from the rest of the world because it is not considered to be “ordinary.” Instead, Sasha and the other students are left to deal with these metaphysical experiences on their own at the Institute. The tone in Vita Nostra is the cost of learning and the cost of failure at the Institute, a form of terrorism. The mood is the bizarreness of everything the students experience and how Sasha (and readers) are intrigued to learn more. The authors provide a story of what is possible and what is actual in their own words while following the elements of the metaphysical fiction (sub)genre. 

            Vita Nostra is a translated work of fiction. The novel was first published in 2007 in Russian in Ukraine. The novel was very popular at the time of its release in Russia and won the PocKoH in 2008. Vita Nostra has been described as “a cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian…is the anti-Harry Potter you didn’t know you wanted,” by The Washington Post. I find the description to be very accurate. Other readers, including some authors, enjoyed this book as much as I did. While not everyone will appreciate the elements of dark fantasy and metaphysical fiction, they cannot deny the parallels to other works of Russian speculative fiction such as The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I’ve been told by other readers that fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins will appreciate and enjoy Vita Nostra the most. I believe this novel will have more of a cult following which will transcend to a must read in due time. Meanwhile, the popularity of Vita Nostra will help with the expansion of the metaphysical fiction genre. This novel is the first in the Metamorphosis series. Digital, or Brevis Est was released in 2009 in Russian, and Migrant, or Brevi Finietur was released in 2010 in Russian. Both novels are follow-up standalone novels that follow other students at other Institutes who undergo their own metaphysical experiences. There have not been any news surrounding an upcoming translation of those books, but both The Burned Tower (1998) was released in English in 1999, and The Scar (1997)—the sequel to The Gate-Keeper (1994) and NOT released in English—was released in English in 2012. The next English translated book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is titled Daughter from the Dark and it’ll be released in February 2020, and I can’t wait to read it!

            Vita Nostra is a unique read that will introduce readers to new authors and another subgenre of speculative fiction. The combination of breaking reality with this coming-of-age story will remind readers everywhere that no matter the genre, themes such as family dynamics and education are universal. The story alone is enough to capture your attention and decides when and how to answer the questions you and the protagonist want answered. The expectations readers will have from the authors will match the expectations Sasha’s professors have for her. The Institute of Special Technologies is listed alongside Hogwarts, Sinegard Academy, and the Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy as challenging and excelling educational institutes. I desire and I dread the existence of these academic institutions! 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

                                                            List of Works Cited

Newland, Tahlia. “Guest Post: Setting the Stage: Visionary & Metaphysical Fiction.” Tahlia Newland, 23 January 2013, http://www.tahlianewland.com/guest-post-setting-the-stage-visionary-metaphysical-fiction

Witte, Michelle. “Elements of Magical Realism.” Michelle Witte: Read Write Edit, 29 September 2015, http://michellewittebooks.com/2015/09/elements-of-magical-realism

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The Mirrors of Jamie Lannister: Who Does the “Kingslayer” Remind You Of?

(Note: Spoilers from A Song of Ice and Fire series, the Harry Potter series and the Legends of King Arthur.)

Jamie Lannister—the prodigy of the Seven Kingdoms, the youngest ever to join the legendary Kingsguard, the eldest son of Lord Tywin Lannister, the man who fucked his twin sister—the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. The “Kingslayer,” at first, appears to be your typically over-confident rich boy who uses his family name to get what he wants. Well, that is true. And yet, by the time he becomes a P.O.V. character in A Song of Ice and Fire series, we view things from his angle (obviously) and get a full understanding of the man.

Jamie Lannister is a very complicated person, almost at the level of Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series (I mean that in terms of personality, nothing else). For instance, both characters proved to be very talented in their areas of study that were expected from them. Severus Snape was so talented as a young wizard at Hogwarts he corrected the “mistakes” in his spell books. Jamie Lannister was deemed a prodigy swordsman by age ten.

Next, both men appear to be haughty and fixated on “revenge” against an individual, but we later find out that it is self-pity and annoyance surrounding the ignorance of past events that drives them. Snape joined the Death Eaters while he was still at Hogwarts. As time past, he eventually realized that the group had more hatred than he could handle. But, when he tried to protect his childhood friend, Lily Potter, from Lord Voldemort, he failed and never forgave himself for her death. Throughout the series, Harry Potter believes that Snape hated him because he was more like his father than his mother. Yes, Snape and James Potter never got along because both of them were in love with the same woman, it could be argued that Snape hated Voldemort more for killing Lily.

Jamie Lannister joined the Kingsguard after being “persuaded” by his sister Cersei. What neither of them knew was that the relationship between Mad King Aerys and their father, the Hand of the King, was on edge. It was widely believed that King Aerys accepted Jamie only to humiliate Tywin Lannister by disinheriting his “heir.” It was also immediately after joining the Kingsguard that Jaime realizes that the vows of knighthood did not mirror the vows of the Kingsguard. Jamie believed that the duties of a knight were “to protect the weak and the innocent.” However, Jamie felt worthless the longer he remained within the Kingsguard. He wasn’t even allowed to protect Queen Rhaella when her husband was ravishing her violently. It was at the Sacking of King’s Landing that Jamie decided he had to step in for the “kingdom” instead of the king. He killed Mad King Aerys and his pyromancers before fire could be set to the entire capital. Unfortunately, the only witness to the incident was Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, and he had gotten inside the throne room after the deaths. Jamie knew that no matter what he said, truth or lie, he—a member of the Kingsguard—killed the King. Ned Stark would have seen it as dishonorable either way. So, Jamie becomes hateful towards Ned Stark simply because Ned Stark would not hear reason behind King Aerys’ murder.

Last, both characters are seeking redemption for their past actions. As of right now Snape managed to gain redemption, after death. According to J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter shares the memories of Snape with Professor McGonagall and several other wizards after the Battle at Hogwarts. Thus, it is proven that Snape was working with Professor Dumbledore the entire time and is praised for his actions. Jamie Lannister is trying to redeem his honor and that of the Kingsguard. While the Kingsguard is beyond his control in terms of “structure,” Jamie is focusing on making fair decisions throughout the kingdom and attempting to search, to find, and to protect the daughters of Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard Stark, Sansa and Arya. Based on what George R.R. Martin has said, Jamie will attempt to, but never complete his journey for redemption. It is here when the comparisons between Jamie Lannister and Severus Snape stop. However, there is another fictional character that Jamie Lannister can be compared with.

Sir Lancelot is a character (or even a true person based on the legends) that many people throughout the world are familiar with. Most notably, he is one of the famous Knights of the Round Table, from King Arthur’s kingdom of Camelot. He was a good-looking, talented swordsman whose deeds proved him to be a “true” knight. That is the tale told within the numerous editions and variants of the story of Lancelot. However, no one is perfect. When Mordred—King Arthur’s bastard son with his half-sister, Morgause—reveals the love affair between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, Camelot is thrown into a civil war, which brings about the end to the legendary kingdom. Hmm, this sounds very much like another popular story.

Jamie Lannister is most likely based on the character of Sir Lancelot, and to some extent King Arthur, from the Arthurian tales. Both men are handsome, are talented in the art of fighting, and are able to provide their talents for their king. Then, they commit adultery with their queen, and everything falls into chaos when the affair is revealed.

Sir Lancelot was said to be one of King Arthur’s best knights, and he was allowed to become part of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Jamie Lannister joined the Kingsguard when he was fifteen-years-old, the youngest ever to join the order in the Seven Kingdoms. Another thing both of these knights have in common is that they both love the queen they are supposed to serve and to protect. Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere (also spelled Gwenhwyfar) were in love with each other, but obviously Guinevere was already married to King Arthur (sounds like another romantic pair from A Song of Ice and Fire series, R+L=J!). In fact, some of the variants state that Sir Lancelot saved Queen Guinevere a few times when she was abducted or was in danger. However, this did not stop them from carrying out a love affair. When the affair is revealed, it is the distraction Mordred needed to start a war with King Arthur for rule over Camelot.

This is where Jamie Lannister mirrors King Arthur. King Arthur unknowingly sleeps with his half-sister, Morgause (or Morgan), and the result is Mordred, the (unacknowledged) bastard son of the king. Mordred was believed to have had a violent nature, and when his father left Camelot to fight a war, Mordred took complete control of the kingdom. Jamie Lannister carries an affair with his twin sister, Cersei, the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and that affair resulted in three children: Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen. The children are believed to be the heirs to King Robert Baratheon, until his brother, Stannis, and Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, begin to suspect the parentage. Joffrey has a sadistic nature, and when Robert Baratheon dies, Joffrey ascends the throne and starts a full-out war within the Seven Kingdoms. Like Mordred, Joffrey dies, and everyone is happy to see him go.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Mordred mortally wounded King Arthur, and Arthur is “buried” at Avalon. As of right now, Jamie is still alive and nowhere near his remaining children. In addition, Jamie displays no grief after Joffrey dies because he believed him to be an ineffective ruler. On one hand, in comparison to Sir Lancelot, Jamie and Cersei have ended their “relationship,” and Jamie, like Lancelot, decides to live the rest of his life honorably while seeking redemption. On the other hand, Lancelot lives the rest of his life as a hermit and in penitence. When Lancelot does die, he is buried at his castle where his tomb was already waiting for him. Jamie Lannister is making his way across the Seven Kingdoms with several companions, which include other knights and members of his family. When he does die, will be buried where he died, like the other members of the Kingsguard before him. It is unlikely that Jamie will be buried at Casterly Rock with his ancestors.

In all, Jamie Lannister is based on two Arthurian characters: King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. However, I argue that Jamie Lannister reminds fans of Severus Snape. I know GRRM does NOT want his fans to assume that his fantasy series will be anything like J.K. Rowling’s, but there are times when it cannot be helped. It means that these fictional characters are so well developed that we can automatically think of another rounded characters. At the same time, because we have an idea of the inspirations surrounding A Song of Ice and Fire (and Harry Potter) we have several theories and educated guesses as to what could happen to these characters in future tales.

Choose: A Movie Based on a Book or Your Religious Beliefs

With The Hobbit movie trilogy ending and with one more The Hunger Games movie left to be released, the public awaits the other movies within the same genre (Book to Film): Insurgent, Fifty Shades of Grey, Child 44, etc. (I will discuss comic books and their media adaptations in another post). While movies based on books are nothing new (i.e. The Exorcist, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs), we have been seeing more of them since the turn of the century. Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, Twilight (it makes me cringe to mention that one) are some of the franchises that were the most successful and saw all of the books in the series adapted into movies.

Children’s books are always popular for media adaptations. And, the same can be said bestselling novels. Fans and audiences of both books and movies are always curious as to how the movie will look and how true to the book the movie will be. This is the main issue people often see in media adaptations, but it is NOT the only one. Recently, there have been complaints as to why there have been series in which there is only one movie, and then the rest of the books in the series do not receive the same translation.

Now, with franchises that have had more than one movie adaptation, audiences are wondering whether or not the movies will ever be completed. The Chronicles of Narnia saw three out of their seven books get translated into movies (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). However, the actors were also signed to doing an adaptation of The Silver Chair; and, as we figured out, the movie never got made.

Ironically, the situation surrounding The Chronicles of Narnia was not just about public and studio interest, but also about the religious overtones found within the remaining novels. The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle all contain allegories and allusions to Christianity. C.S. Lewis, the author of the series, also included some mockery of the Islamic faith in those same novels. Many of us who have read those books as children and/or adolescents did not even notice the insult within the pages. However, as adults you tend to look at what is written into children’s books more intensely. I will admit that it was a pastor I know who pointed out to me what was really taking place in the pages of those books. He is a fan of C.S. Lewis, but he said that those insults should not have been placed in a children’s book. Given the fact that there is still a religious war within the Middle East, one can quickly understand why filming those books into movies would be an issue.

On the opposite end, there was the planned movie trilogy based on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Material trilogy. The Golden Compass/The Northern Lights was a success in North America and Europe, but due to the anti-Christian themes found within the books, the movie was met with several protests. While Phillip Pullman is an atheist, the trilogy is a retelling of the classic work Paradise Lost. Plus, the author is a professor at Oxford University—just like C.S. Lewis was—so there are more allusions within the text that readers might have missed during the first reading.

For instance, “dæmons” are not based on present day society’s belief of “demons.” The former comes from Greek and Roman mythology. They were invisible beings assigned to every individual—masculine for men and feminine for women—who acted as guides for the duration of that person’s life. These dæmons sound more like angels, consciences, etc., not the “evil demons” we have transcribed them to be in modern society. I believe Phillip Pullman used these ancient deities within his novels to point out how much Christian mythology twisted other mythologies to where we forget the actual origins of them. To be honest, I am a little surprise that Rick Riordan did not mention dæmons in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series. Those books were perfect to include such a reference.

This is the scenario that Hollywood has had to deal with, adapting books into films regardless of the backlash they might get due to religious institutions. His Dark Materials halted the series after one movie because too many people called the first movie “anti-Christian” while The Chronicles of Narnia films was halted because people feared that the Muslim community would be offended by them. Other movies have poked fun at religion regardless of the protests and the backlash from society (i.e. the Catholic Church with The DaVinci Code). South Park has mocked all religions for several years (18 seasons), but the creators saw protests when both Islam and Scientology (Isaac Hayes, who voiced “Chef,” quit the show afterwards) were parodied.

Throughout history, many challenged religion with “new” knowledge and these people were either threatened or executed (i.e. Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, etc.). However, it seems that the bigger concern within the religious powerhouses are how they are portrayed in within society, and it appears that the “new” threat is coming from children’s books. While some of the religious themes will most likely be glanced over by younger readers, it is the adults that make something as trivial as messages within a book to be a big deal. The Harry Potter series, while not religious, was met with several protests throughout the world because the books were about a school of witchcraft. Ironically, all seven books were adapted into eight movies, and those novels contain more lessons on morals and ethics than other modern children’s books. The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials also contain choices involving morals and ethics, but remain somewhat controversial as well. When you think about it, there is not really that much of a difference amongst these children’s literary series.

Current events within society have allowed us to witness what happens when there is no balance between literacy and religion. Boko Harem and Al-Qaida are doing everything they can to limit knowledge within their communities (especially amongst women). However, we cannot want every popular book to become adapted into a movie. At the same time, we cannot protest against every movie and/or book with influences to religion due to fear that a mob might be opposed to what is written in the text.

My question is: how many of these “protestors” take the time to read the book? Many people go by what they “hear” about the book instead of reading it. Also, it is known that media adaptations are not always similar to the book! Yes, Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code are books that go against organized religion. However, they are also great stories with interesting information. And yet, I did NOT see any petitions for the continuation of The Chronicles of Narnia movies! Protests work both ways!

To me, it looks as if we must choose between literature and their adaptations and our religious beliefs. No decision needs to be made because not many people want to do one or the other. Movies are straightforward, you either want to see them or not. Religion on the other hand, contains more layers. There are the devout, the spiritual, the ones who take part in it a few times a year, etc. Those who are leaders of these foundations assume the worst before they see what happens. Thus, everyone suffers because of it.

To prove my point further, the novel The Satanic Verses is (supposedly) an excellent work of literature (I just started reading it). However, the amount of backlash the book received upon its publication (1988) and the number of death threats its author, Salman Rushdie, received makes the book sound too dangerous to read. And yet, the book has been read and translated into languages all over the world. Unfortunately, no one has tried to make a media adaptation of the book because everyone is afraid of protests from the Muslim community. Has it ever occurred to you that some of them might have read the book and want the same thing as the other fans/readers?

We should not have to choose between the two because both of them have more in common than we know. Both The Bible miniseries and The Red Tent were successful adaptations based on religious texts. However, we also got Exodus, the visually acclaimed, but historically inaccurate adaptation of the story of Moses (Egypt has refused to show the movie for obvious reasons). There should not be a choice because everyone—even if they are in the same religious community—has a different way of interpreting a work of literature. As long as it is done appropriately, no one should have to choose. Plus, the author almost always includes a personal belief within the pages of their book.

Why I Enjoy…the Harry Potter Series

           In honor of Harry Potter’s 34th birthday, I wish to discuss my experiences with this very popular fictional character. Like many readers, I grew up with the Harry Potter series and I even recall the first time I saw the books in a bookstore. It was the late 1990s and the first two books were available for anyone to purchase and to read. I was still reading the Animorphs series, and while I was curious enough to read the blurb on what the first book was about, I was unsure whether or not I would enjoy this series. No, I did NOT get the book that day, but keep in mind, I just started my adolescent years and I still wanted to read The Babysitter’s Club and Goosebumps.

            After my junior year in high school, Harry Potter caught my attention again when someone recommended the books to my younger sibling. By then, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was published and the plot of that book caught my attention. Keep in mind, I was still unsure if I should read the novels or not. However, one of my childhood best friends—I am still friends with this person—explained to me both the plot and the subplot of the series, and that it was more than the traditional stories of witches and wizards we read as younger children. Then, I asked if I had to read the books in order (most children’s series do not have to be read sequentially) because I wanted to read the third book first. My friend told me that I had to read them in order because of the references made to the previous books in the current ones. My friend understood my eagerness to read Prisoner of Azkaban—my friend enjoyed that one the best as I did—but warned me against skipping Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. I had my secondary exams that year (both college and high school), so I had to read them during summer vacation.

            The books were not just about the protagonist’s identity and school life, but learning about what to do with yourself when faced with a decision. Harry, Ron, and Hermione make decisions in which they can get killed, or expelled, but they do so because they believe them to be the best choices at the time. Most of the time, they are the better decisions: going after the teacher who is trying to steal the Stone, going into the Dark Forest to gather information, making the decision on who to trust based on what everyone else believes or what you alone know. Plus, these books read more like mystery novels rather than fantasy because readers were not sure what the “big secret” was and/or who the “betrayer” is within the magical world. Keep in mind that these people did not have to be tied with the main plot of Lord Voldemort in order to go against Harry and Albus Dumbledore. Remember how Harry gets treated by everyone at Hogwarts when it is believed that he was the “Heir of Slytherin” and when the Triwizard Tournament begins? And, Harry gets shunned by the entire community when he attempts to warn the other witches and wizards about Voldemort’s return. Let’s face it, just about everyone was ignored by their classmates and friends at school for something we did or did not do. It was then up to us, as an individual, either to stick with that one decision, or to change our views to reflect what everyone else (wanted to) believe.

            The Harry Potter series allowed readers to grow up with the characters as well. As the characters grow from children to adolescents, we see the changes they go through because we were currently going through those phases ourselves. Indeed, J.K. Rowling went further and included a little of everything a student could go through while growing up, and not just with the main characters. We learn that Hagrid’s mother left him when he was very young and his father died while he was at Hogwarts, Severus Snape’s parents divorced when he was a kid, and Neville Longbottom is raised by his grandmother because his parents are hospitalized (in the mental ward). Then there is the issue of balancing school and homework with after school activities. Hermione helps Harry and Ron with their studies and she has to learn to balance her own school schedule (one can only take so many classes). Friendships and romance begin to merge as they decide whether or not you want to date one of your best friends or a classmate. Then, we witness the losses that occur during the school year. Classmates and relatives die during the school year due to accidents and/or murder. 

            This brings me to the end of my senior year in high school. After I finished the last of my exams (they were in May), I picked up Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and almost dropped the book after reading the first chapter. Even now, I cannot think of any children’s and/or teenaged fiction I’ve read—except for the ones where the tragedy occurred before the beginning of the novel—where someone, anyone, dies that quickly into the novel. Then, there are the other two deaths; yes, there are two more, read the book again! I think it is safe to say that the surprising, and somewhat expected, deaths in Harry Potter prepared me for when I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire series. And, numerous characters get killed off in that series too! Once, I completed that novel, I was floored by everything that had taken place, and I was already checking the internet for when ‘Book 5’ was to be released (thank you mugglenet!).

            Between book release parties and the midnight showings of the movies, Harry Potter introduced another level of fandom to the world, and this time it was for children and adults. These events gave me something to look forward to with my friends and my relatives (my mother is a fan too!). In addition, it introduced me to popular culture on a larger scale, especially the merchandising (DO NOT EAT THE VOMIT FLAVOR JELLYBEAN!!!). My father is a huge James Bond fan and I thought it was always weird how he would get excited for the next movie and watch the movie marathons on T.V. like it was no big deal. Ironically, he did not understand anything about Harry Potter and for a time believed them to be ‘silly kids’ books.’

            By the time Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince were published and released, I came up with my theories as to who was going to die and what the latter part of the titles were referenced to (one of my college buddies correctly guessed the identity of the “Half-Blood Prince”). And, by the time Deathly Hallows was released in 2007, Harry Potter was fixated into everyone’s minds everywhere. Those ten days of celebrating Harry Potter—between the fifth movie and the seventh book—had everyone, everywhere anticipating their releases. Not that everyone was interested in reading the books and watching the movies, but people knew that it was a pretty big deal.

            The main reason I enjoy Harry Potter as much as I do is because one, it made reading thicker books cool. Since the series was extremely popular, no one cared that the later books were over 600 pages long. In fact, I remember classmates and coworkers asking if the series were worth reading. Another reason is because unlike The Chronicles of Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time Quartet, you were not sure whether or not your favorite characters, including the protagonist, were going to survive to the end. In most children’s novels, even if they were in danger, you knew that the characters were not going to die. Last reason is because the “Harry Potter Universe” was supposed to take place within the actual ‘Muggle World;’ thus, elements of the real world must be written into the fictional series. It made that magic world more realistic and on the same level within human society.

           J.K. Rowling wrote a fantasy series for children and adolescences that included adult themes which served as an emergence into adulthood because the child characters grew up as the story continued. So, the aspects of growing up and seeing the world for what it really is like, and learning how to control magic within the boundaries of our world, the real world, makes this series on equivalence with the real world. Some muggles know about the existence of magic and they have different reactions to this knowledge, some like it and others do not like it. And, what happens when both worlds collide? This we saw in Half-Blood Prince. Except for maybe Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, I am not sure as to what other children’s/adolescent fantasy series reflects our reality that well.

            So in honor of both Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling, I want to wish them ‘Happy Birthday.’ And, to J.K. Rowling, thank you very much for sharing both your story and your creativity with the rest of the world. I will continue to read all of you works (except maybe Causal Vacancy) and watching all of the Harry Potter movie marathons.