Spellcaster – by SGCbearcub
Note: Linking my old personal copy because I cannot find any hosted copies. Many fanfiction sites have gone down recently and I think this fic must have been another victim. You can see here – http://sgcbearcub.livejournal.com/ – in a recent LJ update that the author is still actively working on the sequel, so I assume she has no problem with people reading this fic.
Rating: Exceeds Expectations
The Basics: Half-Blood Prince Era, Action/Intrigue/Drama/Angst, 140k
Warnings: NC-17, Violence, PTSD, Dark!Hermione
Hermione Granger, furious and bent on revenge after the death of her parents and the Ministry’s new Marriage Law, plans to bring down Voldemort and even the entire Ministry, if she has to. Step one? Marrying Severus Snape.
I am excited to review this one – it’s a real treat, very unique, and I think a lot of you will really enjoy it. I should say, though, that I’ve been reading this one for almost a year, so my review will focus on the last half, which I read more recently. (During a long break from fanfiction, I forgot which fic I was reading and read another one before I picked this one up again.)
All right, with the disclaimers out of the way, let’s get in to it. As you can tell by the summary, this is a pretty dark Hermione, similar to Cloak of Courage (actually, a lot of things about this fic reminded me of Cloak of Courage, but we’ll touch more on that later.) This is not the Hermione that we know, but the author exhaustively goes out of her way to explain why this Hermione is the way she is, both in terms of psychological trauma and in terms of added backstory (lost her link to instinctual magic as a result of a childhood accident, causing her to rely obsessively on brains and books.) This Hermione is very independent, full of secrets, ruthless, oftentimes mocking or cruel, and even a bit insane. It’s like Hermione mixed with Bellatrix Lestrange. There are definitely scenes that feel totally out of character, but it’s explained well enough for me to accept it. The author works hard to establish the changes that she has made and earns the alterations in my opinion – but this Hermione will not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Snape is also in character, although he’s a bit weak at times to me. This is becoming a trend Half-Blood Prince era fiction, it seems – there are many, many fics with an emphasis on an extremely strong Hermione and that tends to weaken the Snape. He’s manipulated by her more than once, and again, the author sort of ‘earns’ that by the way she’s written Hermione, but it’s still unsexy to me to see him outsmarted and out-magicked by this crazy Hermione.
The prose in this fic is absolutely excellent. It’s written in a bit of an unusual style; it’s exciting to me to read an author who has such a strong stylistic signature. She writes a paragraph describing something, and then has a statement standing alone, like, ‘That sad little letter was a symbol of all she had lost,’ before moving on to the next paragraph. It’s not every paragraph, of course, but often enough that I noticed it and really began to enjoy it. Her descriptions are unique and vivid. She makes bold, interesting choices like having the climactic Voldemort-defeat seen entirely through the eyes of Lucius (a character with no other screen time.) She invents a TON of fabulous Wizarding World ideas, from Rivening to the Spellnet to Binding/Copying to breaking down the science of spellcasting and linking it to Muggle science (while simultaneously exploring the ‘instinctual’ and ancient side of spellcasting which links to ancient bog-witches and druids!) The intense delve into the nature of magic also reminded me of Cloak of Courage, as I mentioned earlier, as that fic also has a vengeful Dark!Hermione exploring the nature of magic. She also invents a whole set of social rules for Pureblood culture (also done in Cloak of Courage!) There is a ton of wild, unbridled, spilling-out-in-all-directions creativity on display here that was very exciting to me.
As for the bad – the romance in this fic is a bit disappointing, I’m afraid. The author seems much more focused on plot and world-creation than the actual relationship. I suppose not all SSHG fics NEED to be romance – I’ve given good reviews to plenty of fics without it, like ‘Dark Gods in the Blood’ which is strictly a friendship buddy-cop fic. But Spellcaster seems to WANT to be a romance novel, so the lackluster romance is a problem for me. The romantic pacing is perfect; the climax of their relationship occurs simultaneously with the climax of the warplot. So few fics manage that! Amazing, right? Except…not, somehow. The romance had no pulse or body; it just seemed to happen between the pages, between the plot points and exciting ideas. There are sections devoted to it, but even those sections seem more focused on warplot than each other (which makes sense, between a Death Eater spy and a ruthless insane witch bent on revenge), but I still wish there were a bit more heat and interest in the romance. I think the author’s determination to have Hermione be so strong, secretive, and supremely clever made a romance impossible, because she doesn’t ‘need’ Snape. He feels like a means to an end, and like he has no agency, and that is no relationship. I think if Snape had actively decided to heal and bring peace to this raging Hermione, and he was able to calm her insanity and that’s what allowed her to defeat Voldemort, then the relationship would have felt real. But as it is, Hermione is in control of all secrets, power, and cleverness the entire time, and that’s not much to build a relationship on. Despite the author’s best efforts, the relationship never really feels ‘there.’
I have one other major problem with this fic – and that’s that the author’s too-strong focus on theorizing, conceptualizing, brainstorming, world-building, and politics-twisting. That’s all great, but the frenetic energy of an always changing plot wore on me after a while. I started to feel that the things that happened in one chapter were barely connected to the next. The author seemed far more in love with her ideas than with sensible plotting, romantic or otherwise. Hermione wants a bunch of Grimiores. Hermione wants a bunch of Dowries. Now she’s putting Grimoires in Dowries…you mean the last 15 chapters of social maneuvering and power plays have just been for a tiny side project of Grimoire-Dowries? How long is this fic going to go on? Next, Hermione bombastically and bloodily demonstrates her role as Secret-Keeper to the Slytherin pureblood leader at the school, Yardley, for…some reason? And it’s never mentioned again? Much of fic is social maneuvering for reasons that are never really explained. Every scene, Hermione and Snape are mind-racing through the political ramifications of their actions and playing chess pieces far in advance. This is really, really cool, except that the puzzle pieces don’t seem to form a picture. I love the idea of a political intrigue dystopian Evil Ministry fic, but this doesn’t quite get there. It felt like a lot of great ideas all thrown together in a pot and shaken up.
I will say, though, that the author managed to reign herself in about 4/5 of the way through and focus on writing an excellent wrap-up. The author says in her notes that she is running out of time to work on the fic and needs to wrap it up, and apologizes for the time-jumps and heavy-handed plotting. I actually appreciated it, because it brought the focus the fic was missing back and things really started to make sense and happen in a linear fashion. I usually hate ‘tacked-on endings’ but this was done extremely well and stopped the fic from expanding beyond the author’s ability to complete, like Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time.’ (RIP Robert Jordan, I love you.)
The bottom line: A really, really excellent Dark!Hermione fic with a lackluster romance. The beginning and the ending are especially great. The middle spins out of control for a while with seemingly unrelated scenes of new ideas and new characters, but the author manages to cut to the end, eventually. If you can stand the lack of romance, the Dark!Hermione, and the frenetic idea-stacking of the middle section, you will absolutely love this fic. The quality of the writing and the fabulous ideas more than outweigh the problems.