Trying to get back into the groove of reading regularly, I thought to continue the Harley Merlin series to see if it improved on what I thought were a few shortcomings. The first book was actually pretty good despite feeling like an overall safe attempt to capture the magic of the Harry Potter universe but in a new way for an older audience. To my pleasant surprise, though it’s not perfect, Harley Merlin and The Mystery Twins by Bella Forrest expands on its own worldbuilding and sets itself apart in the urban fantasy genre in a meaningful way.
Harley’s character is a very strange yet interesting dilemma to think about. She’s a well written character who makes mistakes and learns from them yet, at the same time, teeters on the verge of becoming a “Mary Sue” like character. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “Mary Sue” is a character that is overpowered, everyone likes them, and they seemingly can never do no wrong. Harley’s no “Mary Sue” as she doesn’t quite check all of the boxes, but it’s hard not to see some of the ugliness of the term coming to the forefront. The main concern is the possibility of Harley falling into this category as the series progresses. While it’s not obvious right now, the seeds are being planted for that to become a reality. But that aside, Forrest has taken care to make Harley still endearing, learning from her mistakes, and growing as a person. I was personally super happy to see her empathy have a more impactful role in the story and be developed.
The Rag Team proves to be developing into more endearing characters rather than just side characters to Harley’s story. Harley is still the central character to everything that happens but book 2 sees Tatyana become a point of view character. Truth be told, it was a rather jarring change as book 1 didn’t have jumping perspectives so it took a moment to realize that was the case. But this is often the best and easiest way to develop the other characters and make them more understandable and realized to the reader. The only issue though is that Tatyana’s story was still revolved around Harley and, in a sense, served to progress the main story and Harley’s personal story but not so much development for Tatyana. While it’s not terribly bad, it’s a bit disappointing as Tatyana could have been given a lot more focus and development.
The mystery of Harley Merlin and The Mystery Twins was pretty interesting and engaging at first, but by the end of it comes off as a tad bit disappointing. The “mystery” isn’t much of a mystery relating to book 2 as it’s more of a mystery revealed in the greater story arc of the Harley Merlin series. The main plot of book 2 feels almost brushed aside by the end of the book and then quickly resolved due to the idiocy of the antagonists. It honestly does come off as ill-conceived as the antagonists could have easily succeeded in their goals had they not succumbed to the trope of villains being cocky and dumb. It’s not necessarily that it can’t be done and done well, but here it just doesn’t fit. Throughout the story they seem to be very intelligent and cunning in how they execute their plan and are always one step ahead of the coven yet they are only defeated because they chose to be stupid. Despite the ending for the plot line of book 2 being rather poor, the overall story was still pretty enjoyable and the additions to the overall plotline of the Harley Merlin series is shaping up to be exciting and interesting.
Harley Merlin and The Mystery Twins did a much better job building upon it’s world and differentiating itself from it’s contemporaries. Part of this was done through the eyes of Tatyana and using her knowledge to explain the world to the readers which is always helpful. But the principle method of exploring the world is through Harley interacting with and finding new and fascinating parts of the magical world. While it’s not exactly super innovative and ground breaking, it’s enough to make it so that there’s some life, depth and creativity to explore in future books in the series.
The change from sole point of view to multiple points of view (albeit two in this book) is a welcome change that can serve to give different insights and help to develop additional characters as the story progresses. However, the downside to this is that each perspective needs to feel different enough from one another. Had it not been for Harley’s frequent referencing to her empathy, it would have been difficult to tell her perspective apart from that of Tatyana’s. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if the characters are similar to one another, but Harley and Tatyana always came across as quite different characters with Harley being more hot headed and emotional while Tatyana was cool, calm and collected.
A lot of care went into the dialogue and descriptions of some of the characters while others suffered from what felt rather forced and unnatural. Unnatural being that no one in a contemporary setting would ever say something like that. It’s hard not to look at some of the dialogue, especially that of the antagonists, and not think of it as strangely worded or a tad bit “cringe”. However dialogue is a difficult beast to tackle and, for the most part, Forrest does a great job with characters that have more screentime and importance. Harley and Wade’s chemistry is really well done because of how well their actions and vocabulary serve to illustrate their dynamic.
What Writer’s can Learn from the Book
The lesson here is almost a cautionary tale from a story that isn’t a cautionary tale. Harley Merlin almost comes close to being a “Mary Sue” to the point of dangerously destroying her character development and her endearing qualities. What book 1 did was set up an interesting character with limitations and ignorance of her world to create an engaging mystery but book 2 risks potentially disrupting that set up. But Forrest also does something really important when it comes to Harley’s character development. Harley is able to make mistakes and those mistakes do have tangible consequences. Often times a “Mary Sue” is not allowed to make mistakes or if they do they’re later proven to be the correct choice in the end. This does save Harley, however it’s hard not to be concerned with how easily she can cross that threshold.