This book is about a young woman named Emily Tinker, who is hired to teach English Literature at Merlinfirth Academy. Merlinfirth is a boarding school, isolated, with odd traditions and customs, inclusion four different houses into which students are sorted (Gryllenbar, Rowlingstone, Hathaloath and Syliname), and a number of peculiar students, none more so than Ariana Tolliver, who is always getting involved in weird and dangerous adventures.
On one level, this book shares a theme with several of Bertocci’s other books: it’s about a young woman who feels adrift. She’s been working in retail and service jobs, never getting a chance to put her knowledge of the Western Canon to use. Until now, when she begins teaching with earnest zeal, only to discover the students at Merlinfirth are more interested in practicing magic than in learning the finer points of literary symbolism.
On another level, it’s also a commentary on the state of modern education. Merlinfirth is facing pressures to modernize as much as any school, and its older staff feel the threat to their traditions. Also there’s some deal with a dark wizard who threatens the school. But you probably expected that much.
There is another layer, of course, which is that it’s a parody. I think it’s pretty obvious what it’s parodying from what I’ve said already. Probably it’s best if you’ve read some of that popular series to get all the references, spoofs, satires, and other such elements. For good or for ill, I think most people have done this.
Here’s the thing, though: this is more than a takeoff of a popular cultural phenomenon. Because now we get to the final and most important aspect of the story: it’s about Miss Tinker’s love of language, and her efforts to help her students discover the value that words and literature have.
Bertocci’s style, and this book especially, is highly reminiscent of Wilde. I think it’s pretty much how old Oscar would take on modern books: with wit, playful use of language, and some keen insights into human nature.
If you follow me on the rapidly-collapsing but still oddly fascinating behavioral experiment once known as Twitter, you may know that I have a proclivity to complain that modern entertainment is being drowned in endless sequels, prequels and reboots.
Here’s what I may not have made clear: I don’t hate derivative works. One author taking the works of another and building upon them is an old tradition, and one that has produced some fantastic stories. Every author is influenced by others. Why, Wilde himself was known to borrow from others: The Importance of Being Earnest was heavily inspired by W.S. Gilbert’s play Engaged, so much so that the Victorians probably would have called it a reboot, if they’d had the concept of rebooting.
The healthy way to capitalize on a fashion is to tell a story with the same trappings as whatever is popular, but add innovations that make it stand out as your own. The unhealthy way is to keep doing the same damn thing again and again with only trivial variations.
Bertocci has done the former. He has used the common form of the YA wizarding adventure to tell his own tale of the value of language and stories.