Saturday, July 25, 2020

Book Review: "Fantastic Schools Vol. 1"

Once upon a time, the mighty Chris Nuttall reviewed on his blog my debut novel The Thing in the Woods, I believe in exchange for my review of his telepathic sci-fi novel The Mind's Eye. Now at long last the Thing sequel The Atlanta Incursion is here, and he's reviewing that for me in exchange for my review of his newest project, the collection Fantastic Schools Vol. 1 that he edited in addition to contributing a story.


The Plot

Most people are probably aware of the Harry Potter series that takes place at the magical boarding school Hogwarts, but the "magical boarding school" genre is actually much older. Chris and several other authors have written stories of their own set in these types of environments--Chris himself has a lengthy series entitled Schooled In Magic--and this volume collects fourteen of these magical tales into a book of respectable length.

The Good

*The collection is pretty long for an anthology--the Kindle version has 500-odd pages, as does the paperback. You're definitely getting a lot for your money with this one.

*The collection ends with "Gennady's Tale" by Chris himself. I haven't read any of his Schooled In Magic series, but I know enough that this is one of the villains' Start of Darkness. This story starts out with him as a crippled boy treated horrendously by the superstitious ignorant villagers he grew up among. And though magical school brings many improvements to his life, it also brings more bullies. His need to be respected, his need to be powerful, is understandable under such circumstances, but how he goes about trying to get these leads down a very dark road. This story serves as a warning to those whose bad circumstances might tempt them to envy, resentment, and spitefulness. 1 Corinthians 10:12 comes to mind--everybody who thinks they're standing should take heed lest they fall. You can see the train wreck coming, the temptation he falls to, but it's relentless. Our hero definitely has an arc, but it's a very bad one. Definitely well-done, and rather sad.

*One of the other top stories in the collection is "The Last Academy" by G. Scott Huggins,  a parody of Harry Potter with a dash of Lovecraft. The Chosen One has defected to the Dark Lord and the only bastion of wizarding society not under his control is a school for magical misfits meant more for containment than teaching them how to function in society. I enjoyed the evil counterparts to the HP Golden Trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermione), especially evil Hermione, and there's a good joke in there about the misuses of the Invisibility Cloak. Not going to go into any more detail for reasons of spoilers.

*Another story I really liked is "How To Get Into A Magic School" by Erin N.H. Furby. Not only do they touch on some deeper topics like high-stakes testing and apply the whole "hidden magical world" to an American setting rather than Harry Potter's British one, but it made me care about the characters and the choices they make. It also touches on Native American mythology in some interesting ways.

*Another story with well-developed characters that makes me care about them is "Metamorphosis" by Roger D. Strahan. Although some of the stories set in pre-existing worlds didn't stand on their own--more on that later--this one followed a completely new character and made the protagonist of his novel The Witch of New Orleans a side character. That seems like a good technique for writing short works in an established fictional universe and it's something to keep in mind.

*I also liked the opening story "Little Witches" by Mel Lee Newmin. It takes a lighthearted approach to a fairly heavy topic--sexism among British wizarding schools in the Victorian era, with the girls' school getting the short shrift on funding. It doesn't appear to be set in a broader fictional universe based on my googling the author's name and checking out their Amazon page. That's helpful because there's no need to be more familiar with a broader fictional universe to understand it, which was an issue with some other stories in the collection.

*Another interesting one is essentially a LitRPG story featuring a Christian seminary student from our world who ends up as a wizard in a Dungeons and Dragons style fantasy. Who knew that knowing Koine Greek could be so helpful? :)

The Bad

*Some of the stories are set in the authors' pre-existing fictional universes and don't really stand well on their own.

*In "Gennady's Tale," a couple characters' actions seem rather out of character and severe and happen far too quickly. It seems like they're there for plot purposes rather than happening organically due to the characters.

*Unfortunately "Metamorphosis," despite being one of the best stories in the collection, begins with what appear to be formatting problems. The paragraphs aren't indented, nor do they have spaces between the paragraphs. The rest of the story looks normal, so I assume this is an error rather than an artistic choice.

*The shadow of Harry Potter hangs heavily on the stories. Although some hang a lampshade on that and even poke fun at the Potterverse, one story does have something that looks to me like the author was copying the Sorting process.

*One of the stories has an absolutely unsympathetic, two-dimensionally evil Complete Monster lead whose capabilities and actions reach Villain Sue territory. The story would have been much better if the reader were able to sympathize with them at all.

The Verdict

Definitely a good concept and with some very good stories in it. Some weaknesses though. 8.5 out of 10.

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