I just finished Robert Beatty’s “Serafina and the Twisted Staff” and it. Was. Excellent.
Beatty continued to take his character, Serafina, catamount and protector of the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina (a real place and one I would very much like to visit for Christmas one year. PLAN!), through a southern Gothic tale of betrayal, black magic, and an understanding of who we truly are. A brilliant read, albeit a little above the heads of the intended age. I wouldn’t recommend this for anyone below middle-school unless they were an advanced reader, but nonetheless, another great entry in a series I’m very much looking forward to continuing.
Which leads me to my main point:
Where are they in a book? Are they forever lurking on the horizon, a force in the far off distance sending waves of blackness through the land, probably arriving in 3-6 more books if sales are good?
Are they there, right front in center, confronting the hero at every turn of the page. If not directly, then only direct-adjacent, a degree or two off?
Because I’ve read a lot of books where the young hero (Who knew, this happens in a lot of YA books. I wonder if there’s a reason…) is forced to prepare for the arrival of a villain and never once deal with them until the very end. Sure, they may have henchman. Sure, their machinations might be in motion, but it’s never them who’s carrying it out in any meaningful way. It’s Followers, or Believers, or lower-class staff so unimportant you’ll never remember their names past the first book.
Serafina doesn’t have that issue. Every problem she encounters is directly or directly-adjacent (Separated by 1 degree? Maybe 2, at most?) caused by the old man of the forest. It’s his doing.
You know where this doesn’t happen?
Harry and Voldemort won’t ever meet, obviously, until the 7th book. (4th book doesn’t count.) Now, Rowling did an excellent job of building up the confrontation so, when it did happen, it felt huge. A big fight feel, you know?
But for the six books prior?
They were two stars, orbiting a sun, just waiting to collide into one another.
I’m calling it the “Dumbledore Effect,” and I haven’t plugged that term into Google to see if anyone else has used it so don’t sue me if you’ve trademarked it and have it on a bunch of shirts already.
Essentially, is your protagonist in any real danger or is there a wise-bearded man keeping the boogymonster at bay? Throughout the entirety of the first, let’s say, 6? (Yeah. 6, 6 is good.) Harry Potter books not once do you feel a twinge of fear for Harry from He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Given-A-Name-Because-This-Is-Super-Important-To-Keep-Doing-For-As-Long-As-The-Fanbase-Likes-It. Never shall he touch Harry…so long as Dumbledore is alive.
Story wise, that makes sense.
Structure wise, that can be a bit of a problem if done wrong, and it can really easily be done wrong. See, until Dumbledore is taken out of the equation in “Half-Blood Prince,” (SPOILERS: For a 13 year old story.) you can’t feel scared for Harry because we know Dumbledore has his back. He’s the guy in all those awful YouTube videos backing up his homies as they fight in the parking lot of a QuikTrip.
And that mentality has carried over into other YA books, emulating that stories’ unique success.
Think about it. Is there a Dumbledore Effect in a book you’ve read recently?
Not in “Serafina.”
From the get go, the barriers between our protagonist, Serafina, and the antagonist are non-existent. Every turn of the page there is a real fear that this could be the end of her. She’s constantly battling him, encountering his personally sent minions, and doing her best to stay alive. There is no “base” like in tag where she can go be safe. Even the ever-present Biltmore Estate is no safe sanctuary, as the evil of the book infects every corner of Serafina’s world.
It’s brilliant, and made the book fly by.
Do you have the “Dumbledore Effect” in your book?
(NOTE: These are half-formed thoughts, cultivated while buying ingredients to make my VERY pregnant wife homemade mac & cheese, so forgive any misgivings, please, we’re having twins... #Twinmaggedon)
Thanks for reading,