“You’re like a rose in a graveyard. I wonder what you could have turned into without the war”
There are mixed feelings about the “Harry Potter” series in general. This once-loved world of flying owls, castles, and a destined boy could feel semi-tainted to some due to the creator’s personal beliefs. I will not discuss that, as that could be an entire essay on whether readers should separate art from the artist. This recent controversy, paired with the direction of my enjoyment of fantasy and what I seek out for myself, has driven me away from the original Harry Potter story. I love grimdark and darkly complicated stories with gray characters and fraught circumstances. And sadly, at this space in my life. The original “Harry Potter” story no longer does “it for me.”
It is too sweet.
But I posit to you, “dear reader,” as the illustrious Eleni would say, what if it wasn’t saccharine but filled with real and truly flawed human beings dropped into an impossible scenario?
What if the bad guys won? What if war were actually war, the winning side hindered by morals that had no place in war and a side that had no scruples against using the most heinous spells and magic? What would that look like?
“I have warned you. If something happens to you, I will personally raze the entire Order. That isn’t a threat. That is a promise. Consider your survival as much a necessity to the survival of the Resistance as Potter’s. If you die, I will kill every last one of them.”
It is an interesting thought experiment, and up until now, no fan fiction author has hit on the right tone and had the necessary skill to immerse you in a new version of Harry’s world convincingly until now.
First, something I don’t usually do is give you trigger warnings. This new story has violence, sexual assault, and torture. And certainly not if you are a minor or young person; save this story for when you are a little older and jaded. I believe that all of these elements served a purpose in service to the narrative. There is no fridging on my watch. But it is still hard to read.
Firstly, if you are unfamiliar with shipping, let me elucidate. Shipping is when you, the reader, want a story that veers away from the original, takes two other characters, and puts them in a love match.
Popular ones in the Harry Potter fandom can be anything from Harry and Hermione to Harry and Ron to Regulus Black at Grimgotts and a room full of frisky goblins. Have at it. That is one of the most excellent parts of fanfiction. It is done in love to the original story, and frankly, it is so outlandish that it is hilarious to read. The story Manacled is an 876-page masterpiece of the genre written by SenLinYu that has become the defining Dramione ship piece and currently is sitting at 34k views on Goodreads with a 4.67 rating. It is not just successful as a fanfiction piece; it is successful as a novel in general.
“If he’s a monster, then I’m his creator. What did you think was the source of all his rage?”
The plot revolves around Hermione and Draco Malfoy a couple of years after the start of the second wizarding war. Some creative license has been taken here. Instead of the story being rolled up in a “happily ever after,” People are dying in the most horrific ways, and the resistance barely survives.
We start the story with Hermione in the dark, in pure sensory deprivation, where she has resided for 18 months. She has held on to her sanity by sheer will alone. We don’t know when in the war this is; at this point, we know the harrowing experience Hermione has been through. Hermione is unceremoniously dragged from her cell by rough hands and put forth before the one and only Dolores Umbridge. Dolores has become the Dark Lord’s prison warden. And Hermione was one of his most protected prisoners. She is the last living member of the Order of the Phoenix, but oddly enough, she has memories buried down in her mind that are protected and sealed away from even the most practiced and skilled legilimentalist. The memories are the only thing keeping her alive.
A doctor examines Hermione and figures out that the only way that the memories might be recovered in any safe, usable manner is a magical pregnancy. Due to the sheer amount of death that this generation of living witches and wizards has had, Voldemort has started a birthing program, a la Handmaid’s Tale, that shuffles off living witches, manacles them, and gives them to trusted death eaters to impregnate. Along with the birthing program, Voldemort has decreed that people will be married and pairs off individuals in the hopes that more babies can be born.
“Be careful. Don’t die.
Only because you asked.”
While this chunk of the story borrows heavily from ideas found in The Handmaid’s Tale, it doesn’t feel hackneyed. The author makes these ideas of power and manipulation and the subjugation of women work within this narrative framework. For intents and purposes, the witches are handmaids; instead, they replace God with subservience to the Dark Lord. To control the magic the witches can wield and objects they can touch, the witches are manacled with a bracelet that stops the magic from flowing out of their bodies. No eye contact, talking, escape, or free will.
Because of the delicate nature of Hermione’s case and the pure paranoia of Voldemort, the father of the future babies that Hermione will have must be wholly and utterly loyal to Voldemort and be a strong legilimens. That man has become the High Reeve, Voldemort’s enforcer and truly terrifying individual. And he is none other than Draco Malfoy—Harry Potter’s bratty nemesis who has come to a very dark place in this story. At this point, dear reader, you might think, “Oh, ok, this is the part with the porn soundtrack. They look deeply into each other’s eyes and fall madly in love.”
You could not be further from the truth.
Hermione is psychologically flayed; she is broken down piece by piece. While the idea of a ship is lovely, people are people and are messy. Nothing that happens to Hermione is pleasant, nor to Draco. The world is ever-changing shades of gray. But all of it is necessary to support a complicated story that might have some of the most complex writing I have ever read. When the bough breaks and memories start to break through, we are shifted back to the height of the war when everyone was alive. Ron has become promiscuous; Harry seems to have aged a decade and, on particularly bad days, fights in underground clubs for release, and Hermione, the heart of the original story, is the glue that is holding everything together. Hermione becomes a chameleon with her brilliant brain, does whatever she has to do, and is whoever she has to be to save those she loves, even if they no longer love or appreciate her back. She sacrifices bits of herself slowly to give the resistance inches against the dark lord.
“But as she tried to unravel him, he grew increasingly tragic and terrifyingly human.”
The teenage bad boy sent to save the damsel trope is old and does a disservice to both of the characters involved. In real life, neither a “bad boy” nor a damsel are one-dimensional. People just are more challenging to figure out. And while this story could have stayed at that superficial level, it did not. Throughout the 800+ pages, we learn how incredibly complicated good and evil can be. That evil is just a matter of perspective.
There are a couple of things to overlook when reading this. This is fanfiction; a few chapters are a smidge repetitive, and given a good once-over by an editor would have sliced those away, along with the occasional grammar mistake. But it is few and far between.
“Pragmatism has stolen away any luster of heroism from her.”
To sum up, Manacled is a complex war story based around a well-known ship. It is one of the most complex stories of its kind I have ever read, and it now puts the original Harry Potter in stark relief for me. One who reads this cannot walk away unscathed in one way or another. Still, as an experience, this rich story has added much-needed nuance to Harry Potter’s best friend, Braniac Hermione, and Harry Potter’s nemesis Draco Malfoy. They are all so much more than the sum of their parts.