An urban fantasy novel about a secret world of witches and warlocks, sounds very familiar doesn’t it? Throw in an orphan learning about her magical abilities and the “real” magical world that she’s a part of and it’s a little too reminiscent of Harry Potter. Considering the Harry Potter universe has been a fundamental part of a lot of reader’s childhoods, it can be hard to stand apart as another urban fantasy novel revolving around a magical world.But even though there’s a lot of similarities, there are enough differences between the two to really let Harley Merlin stand out as it’s own series. Harley Merlin and The Secret Coven by Bella Forrest is a promising, if safe, start into a new magical world.
Harley is a fun and endearing character to follow along with on her journey. Now as I was reading through this book, it was impossible not to make constant comparisons between Harley and her world to that of Harry and his world in Harry Potter. Both are orphans, both don’t really know much about their parents, and both of them are introduced to a world of magic hiding practically in plain sight. However this is where the similarities mostly end. Harley is a much more jaded character and really emphasizes the harsh conditions she’s grown-up in. Her life as an orphan has shaped her personality and explains her defense mechanisms and her cautious attitude towards others. The consistency in how her past shapes her approach to the new and mysterious is really well done and makes her feel like a real person. Her growth through the book is gradual and feels natural, really focusing on the idea of a found family which, admittedly, is one of my favorite tropes.
But there is one glaring problem with Harley’s character and it’s the emphasis on her empathy. It is constantly referenced throughout the book and Harley always talks about it and what it does to her. But despite how often it is brought up and talked about, it doesn’t really come into play in the story in a really meaningful way. It feels so under-utilized when you consider how integral it seems to Harley’s character. Something mentioned so frequently and so core to a character’s design needs to be utilized in a way that gives it meaning, otherwise t’s very much a scenario of Chekhov’s gun not popping off. It felt a bit lacking as it doesn’t feel like it develops into a meaningful payoff. However, it is possible it could be more relevant in a later book but for this book it feels lacking.
The supporting cast, apart from Wade Crowley, feels underdeveloped and, to an extent, not fully realized. The majority of them are given an introduction, some character traits and descriptions to justify their acts and way of speaking, and then it stops there. It feels strange as they don’t really develop into their own which one might expect from the start of a series. There are hints that these characters will eventually grow to have more depth and Harley Merlin #1 feels more like an introduction to the series and universe in that sense. While it’s not necessarily bad as it helps to focus the story on Harley and Wade, it feels somewhat like a missed opportunity with how diverse and interesting the characters are.
The main story, when looking at it’s overall structure, is very much an introduction to the series but doesn’t have a realized self-contained story. The plot feels almost like a background detail as Harley’s interactions with the characters and her investigation into her family and this world of Magicals is far more interesting. There’s a lot of threads for the beginning of a series arc and several sub-plots involving the side characters that the main story for Harley Merlin #1 feels almost inconsequential until it all of a sudden rushes into a climax that feels lacking in it’s set up. I have to admit that I barely paid attention to the main plot until it was suddenly shoved in my face by an unexpected and, truth be told, rather rushed transition. While the book was fairly long, it wouldn’t have hurt to add in a few more chapters to set up the climax a bit better.
The main issue I could take with Harley Merlin is how familiar the worldbuilding feels. While it’s not exactly 1:1 with Harry Potter, it’s clear there are some heavy influences of Rowling’s worldbuilding alongside other urban fantasy novels. In a way, it somewhat feels less developed than Harry’s world did in the first Harry Potter book. A lot of the “Magical World” felt very similar to the human world just with a slight magical touch. It can be hard to create something truly unique in a story focused on warlocks and witches but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible. While the story is enjoyable and the characters are delightful, the way the world is structured doesn’t create enough to set itself apart from other magic worlds of it’s contemporaries.
In a way, it feels as though Forrest took a very safe approach to her worldbuilding which can have some appreciative elements. Depending on the reader, fantasy stories can be difficult to digest when the world is so massive and complex. Worldbuilding can be a complex beast on it’s own and, in some cases, can drown the reader in information that detracts from the main story and character development. However, arguably the best stories will interweave new and interesting ideas into the world their story takes place in not only to develop a truly unique world but also an engaging and exciting story. There are elements here that could turn into something truly unique, however it feels as though we won’t see those until the next books in the series.
Forrest does an excellent job in conveying Harley’s view of the Magical’s world as well as the emotions she picks up due to empathy. While the use of empathy feels underutilized, the way in which it is described each time really makes it more impactful in how it affects Harley in the moment. There’s also the questions she asks herself as a result of the empathy and whether or not she’s feeling those emotions or if it’s the person she’s reading. It really helps to illustrate the difficulties and emotional burden that Harley feels from the impact of her empathy. Aside from this, the writing is what you would expect from most young adult novels. It is very easy to pick up, the flow is good from chapter to chapter, and nothing ever feels like it drags on too long.
What Writers can Learn from this Book
Harley’s empathy is mentioned so frequently, explained so often, and plays such a key role in her interactions that it feels like a missed opportunity with how under-utilized it is. Part of that could be due to the fact that a lot of what is introduced in Harley Merlin and The Secret Covern feels more like set up for future novels rather than it’s own self-contained story that contributes to the start of the series. It results in the main plot of book 1 feeling almost forgettable and rushed when it comes to the climax of the story. While the amount of intrigue and questions that come up with the Magicals that Harley meets alongside the potentially interesting expanded universe is exciting, it leaves book 1 feeling hollow in it’s conclusion.