No, it isn’t written by J.K. Rowling. But Mr. Lippert understands the thematic elements of Harry Potter, and that’s what makes his story worth reading.
This fan fiction novel, the first in a series, follows James Potter and his friends at Hogwarts, basically picking up where the very end of Deathly Hallows left off. Just like his father, James becomes fast friends with those in his train compartment, is sorted into Gryffindor, and is the subject of a great deal of attention.
And yet at the same time, this is not terribly familiar ground. In fact, calling this fan fiction seems a tad too insulting. While this clearly has many familiar elements from the series (including an appearance from Snape’s portrait), there’s plenty of new material. The American school comes for a visit (named Alma Aleron here, as it was released before Rowling gave us information about the canon American school). James’s friends, Zane and Ralph, have no connection to characters in the core franchise. While this story certainly takes place in the Harry Potter universe, Lippert wisely centers the story on characters of his own making, rather than usurping those of someone else, which few writers can do well.
That’s not to say that the writing is on par with Rowling’s. It isn’t. While certainly better than the vast majority of fan fiction, the writing is certainly amateurish at times, and James doesn’t stand out quite as much as a character as his friends do. But what he lacks in skill with dialogue he makes up for in plot. Everything he brings into the narrative has a distinct purpose by the end of the book. There’s very little wasted space here, and the pacing and plot development, particularly in the third act of the story, more than compensate.
But in all of this, there’s something deeper that I really like about this book. As I discussed previously in my review of The Sorceror’s Stone, the Harry Potter franchise is a vehicle for discussion on civil rights issues, particularly those connected to racism and other forms of prejudice. In the first book, Rowling explores prejudice in Harry himself being biased against Snape because of his connection to Slytherin (the direct connections to racism and slavery become much more apparent in The Chamber of Secrets). In like manner, Lippert explores prejudice in the heart of James, and how it leads him to make some egregious errors.
The most curious part of this theme is that, unlike in the original books, James’s friends do not end up in Gryffindor. Zane goes to Ravenclaw and Ralph goes to Slytherin. This creates an interesting dynamic between them where, even as Ralph is uncomfortable with a great many things about his house’s culture, James’s wholesale condemnation of Slytherin proves too much for Ralph.
None of this is made easier by the latest political controversy. The “Progressive Element,” spearheaded by Slytherin students (but supported by some in other houses as well) asserts that Voldemort was not actually evil, and that the Ministry’s Auror Department (of which Harry Potter is now head) are the true villains, twisting the truth until it is unrecognizable. So for James, the Slytherin House is home not only to past villains, but to modern-day enemies of his father, as well.
When this gets back around to Snape’s portrait, he sneers and says “Typical Gryffindor prejudice.” This all comes to a head in the wonderfully crafted third act, and while parts of the political story are a bit too on-the-nose, James does learn by the end to stop judging people’s character based on which camp they happen to belong to.
Certain elements of this story may not suit well with many fans. He approaches magic too scientifically, and fails to mention that Merlin (a major focus of the book) was himself a Slytherin, which would brought the book’s best theme out more. But he gets what Harry Potter is actually about, and uses that to great effect. It’s not quite the caliber of Rowling’s original work, but James Potter and the Hall of Elders Crossing is a fun and engaging work that’s deserving of the fanfare that has followed it.