Away in a Manger is an extremely sweet and heart-warming tale, something which may come as a great shock for many, given that much of it is told from the perspective of Severus Snape.
In this AU world, much of what we know in canon is the same, with a few sharp differences which set the stage for a much better life for young Harry. On Christmas Eve 1981, less than 2 months since his parents’ deaths, Harry is abandoned by the Dursleys. I’ve seen several stories which begin with a similar abandonment premise, but Snapegirl uses the unique, dramatic (but not overly so) setting of an outdoor nativity scene, with Harry left in the manger, freezing and unprotected, by his disgusting relations.
That startling opening scene is an early indication of Snapegirl’s gift for writing understated yet vivid scenes which pack a powerful emotional punch. In the hands of others, the scene might have been embellished with a lot of flowery, emotional melodrama, as an inexperienced author told us what we were supposed to be feeling. However, Snapegirl’s matter-of-fact, bald narrative is so utterly lacking in any emotional histrionics, that it actually serves to emphasize the enormous scale of depravity we’re witnessing. The full weight of it struck me more harshly than if I had been distracted by a profusion of hand-wringing, blathering descriptions. That concise tone works well, too, when Snape is introduced, as it nicely matches his inner, no-nonsense voice.
The Severus Snape who discovers and eventually comes to care for the young Harry is somewhat different from Snape in canon. Those differences didn’t strike me as much in the beginning of the story as they did by the end, when that separating gulf was much wider. Initially what stands out is that this Snape never became a Death Eater. Thanks to that decision, he appears at first to be in worse circumstances, since Dumbledore had no reason to offer Snape his protection. As the story progresses, though, we come to see that the lack of a Dark Mark on his arm opens up numerous opportunities for Snape which our canon anti-hero never knew. And it is as a result of those opportunities that there is such a difference between canon Snape and this Snape by the end of the story. Lest you think that means they are so vastly different as to make this story unenjoyable for you Snape fans, ask yourself this: What would Snape have been like if he had not been deeply miserable for decades? If he were not buried in regrets?
Aside from the dynamic characterizations and excellent writing style, this story really works for me because of the snappy, rapidly-paced plot. It is not a major action piece, with huge explosions and battles in every chapter. In fact, much of the first half of the story is almost told as a series of one-shots, with the author skipping between important moments in the protagonists life, primarily around the Christmas holidays. I like this method, as it keeps us from getting bogged down with pointless details, while still giving us a clear picture of what Harry’s and Snape’s lives are like.
I’ve read this story several times, and I find something new in it to like each time.