The third book in the Harley Merlin series and one would think we would see some significant progress in the overarching plot of the series. Book 1 The Secret Coven started off pretty strong introducing a compelling, if not entirely unique, mystery while Book 2 The Mystery Twins had a unique twist of perspective for character development. Harley Merlin and the Stolen Magicals continues the character development style of The Secret Coven however it lacks certain qualities that hurt it’s own story and the overarching plot of the series.
The style of character development taken for this series so far, while somewhat unique, feels a bit damaging to the overall development of the supporting cast. Where The Secret Coven chose to focus on fleshing out Tetyana’s character and story, The Stolen Magicals chooses to focus on Santana this time around. The problem with this style of story telling is that it puts a pause on the previous character while focusing on the current character alongside Harley. While Forrest focuses on Santana, it feels like Tetyana’s development is just put on pause for the time being. It’s a very strange thing to introduce a different point of view in the second book in a series, drop that character to develop another character, all the while focusing on Harley through both characters. The fact that the other POV still focuses a lot on Harley feels almost like a black hole effect where Harley is the center and the other characters serve more to develop her than themselves.
Though I will say this criticism isn’t entirely fair. Santana does have a good amount of development for her on conflict and struggles. The problem, however, is that it feels relatively surface level and somewhat shallower than what I would have liked. It’s not so much the tropes she gets wrapped up in I dislike rather that it is what feels like a missed opportunity. Often times magic has a very Eurocentric basis in storytelling and this felt like an opportunity to delve far deeper into a different cultural view of magic. Instead it’s hard not to read the entirety of Santana’s story and feel that it was basically all about a boy and his problems rather than her own goals and aspirations.
At this point it’s starting to feel like the plot in the overall series is really starting to drag on. Normally this isn’t too big of an issue as it’s meant to allow for deeper character development for the cast so that major plot points have more of an emotional impact. However, the way character development works in this series, the major plot points feel more like the story is going through the motions as opposed to building up to something. A major series plot point happened, and it had almost no emotional impact. I couldn’t really place why that was until I thought about the overall structure of the series plot line. It’s a bit strange and disappointing as the plot of the current book feels like it’s more important than the overall plot line.
To add on to my disappointment with Santana’s point of view story, the worldbuilding in Harley Merlin is starting to feel a bit questionable. It almost feels like Forrest is towing the line between a soft magic system and a hard magic system with little explanation as to why. It seems like there’s limitations to what Harley and her team can do while Shipton’s side seemingly gets a lot of convenient spells and curses that makes Harley’s life harder and more complicated. While I do love that the hero’s story is far more complicated because of this, it seems strange to me that the antagonists can just do these things without much explanation when they all operate within the same magic system. It makes it seem more like there’s a hard magic system for the protagonists and a soft magic system for the antagonists allowing for more difficult but often contrived scenarios that Harley and the team have to work through.
Forrest’s writing style doesn’t change in The Stolen Magicals and that is, for the most part, a good thing. Her word choice is good and the flow from paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter is smooth and easy to keep reading. The way Forrest builds on to Harley’s empathy through her thoughts makes it feel like an integral part of her as it should. However, and this might be more my old man take, the way the dialogue is written feels like someone who isn’t a teenager trying to write how teenagers would talk to one another. It doesn’t come up often, but every now and then there’s a bit of dialogue that feels out of place or wrong in how it’s delivered. But that aside, the writing style is pretty solid.
What writers can learn from this book.
Consistent and meaningful character development is vital to the success of modern day storytelling. A story with a band of characters working together needs to have each character feel like their developing alongside the protagonist as the story moves forward. Right now, based on books 2 and 3, it seems like the development of Tetyana just stopped despite her being a POV character in book 2. It almost feels more like the characters are given some time in the book and then set aside for potentially a later date. It’s a bit disappointing as a writer can develop characters without them being a POV character. Knowing that this series has a lot of books, one could see how this method of development could give more time for characters to grow into their own. But the problem is that a reader starting a new series needs to be invested into the story in the first few books before committing to an incredibly long series. Luckily the mystery of Harley Merlin is intriguing enough to capture some interest to continue.