Thu, Jul
26
2007

Searching for the next Harry Potter

I’m quite pleased to say that the latest version of Movable Type 4.0 Beta has corrected the commenting problem and you should no longer be experiencing errors as you try to leave comments. Of course, with beta versions, as one bug closes, another one opens. I’m having difficulty posting, now, without getting error messages. Most frustrating. It shouldn’t affect you readers, but if it does, please let me know by e-mail. Once all the bugs have been worked out, I’ll be doing a review of the new version of Movable Type. Despite the problems, they’ve done some really remarkable work.

Now, on with the post.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

At the midnight Harry Potter event, I asked people if they had predictions on what the next big craze would be. A wise old gentleman, with a chest-length beard and an Eastern European accent, told me that it wouldn’t happen, at least not for ten years. There was no new Gretzky immediately after Gretzky; it was years before Sidney Crosby came along.

He’s probably right, but I don’t think that’s going to stop the publishing industry from trying. There was no sense of impending apocalypse for hockey when Gretzky announced his retirement, whereas more than a few news agencies have been on a Raincoast deathwatch for this past month (as an aside, Raincoast is the Canadian publishing house that won the national distribution rights for the Harry Potter series. Previously it had been a small publishing house producing about twenty titles per year. The result of its good fortune was akin to a hardworking secretary suddenly landing a CEO’s salary, and all that is over now. However Raincoast has kept staff levels low and has invested its piles of money on a rock solid distribution system that should sell well to other publishers. They’ll be fine).

Harry Potter has sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. The next most popular book in the genre has sold significantly less than that. So there is a gigantic pool of readers that publishers everywhere are looking at greedily. The larger players in the publishing industry have considerable resources to invest in promotion, and they’ve already spent a lot of time and effort to ensure that Harry Potter had company on the shelves, hoping to ride his coattails or clone his success. Over the next couple of years, I think we can expect the publishers to fix upon various up-and-coming candidates, and give them a push. And, unlike in the days when Gretzky retired, there are good books for the publishers to fix upon — so you never know. The next J.K. Rowling may be a year away. She may be a he. He may even be Canadian.

The person I’m referring to, of course, is Kenneth Oppel — an individual who, in my opinion, is closer to being the Gretzky of fantasy fiction than Rowling is, at least in terms of talent.

Skybreaker

Kenneth Oppel, although only in his late thirties, already has a varied and lengthy publishing career, featuring many books which touch upon science fiction and fantasy. My favourite are two books, called respectively Airborn and Skybreaker, which are set in an altered version of early 20th century Earth, where gigantic airships are the primary means of travel, and sky pirates turn journeys across the Pacific into swashbuckling adventures. The two stories focus on cabin boy Matt Cruse and young debutante Kate DeVries, both struggling against the restrictions of their sex and class; lower class Matt aspires to be an airship captain, while Kate aspires to be a respected scientist in a man’s world. Of course their relationship is star-crossed. Think Titanic meets Pirates of the Caribbean with Zeppelins and far superior writing.

Kenneth Oppel won the Governor General’s Award for young adult literature for Airborn and a slew of other awards for both books. He has a fresh and accessible style, a deft touch at characterization, and a wonderful narrative voice. I was delighted to hear that he is working on his third book for this series; I may actually squee to get a copy in my hand (unfortunately, it’s going to be a while — fall 2008 at least). Harry Potter readers will be drawn to Kenneth Oppel’s sense of adventure and the romantic touches of his storytelling. They’ll stay because of the vividness of his setting, the strength of the themes, and the all-round coolness factor.

Kenneth Oppel’s greatest obstacle to becoming the next J.K. Rowling, however, could well be Oppel’s lengthy and varied publishing CV. He has over twenty books to his name, and the Airborn/Skybreaker soon-to-be-trilogy isn’t the best known of them (despite winning a Governor General’s Award and several other awards). Rather, Oppel is more closely identified with his Darkwing trilogy, about anthropormorphized bats — which might be too much of a jump for hardcore Potter fans. But there is no doubt that he is deserving of the shot. If indeed he becomes the world’s next Rowling, there will be justice in the industry, and we Canadians can film ourselves another heritage moment. Possibly for when the Airborn movie comes out…

Midnight for Charlie Bone

If Harry Potter fans want to tread more familiar ground, Welsh author Jenny Nimmo will provide it for them. Her Charlie Bone series features a number of familiar elements: a young boy living with unsympathetic foster parents (his grandmother and her two sisters) discovers that he has the ability to look at photographs and hear the ambient noises (including conversations) going on as the picture was being taken. When this magical ability reveals himself, the grandmother packs him off to a special boarding school (the Bloor Academy for the Endowed) to develop his abilities. This school is full of students which excel in areas of art, music or magic. There are friendships and there are fights, and Charlie Bone gets the definite sense that his grandmother, her sisters, and the head of the Bloor Academy have definite plans that need to be stopped.

To say that the book is a copy of Harry Potter would be unfair. This isn’t a story about a magical young boy leaving this world to live in a parallel, magical one; we’re still grounded in the present. Rather, Charlie Bone’s magic has its roots in the Celtic-style Legend of the Red King. The ongoing struggle between good and evil is tightly contained within the Bone family. Charlie lives with his mother, both under the near-tyranny of his grandmother. It seems that Charlie’s father tried to stand up to the old woman, but now he’s missing, and over the course of the first five books, it becomes Charlie’s duty to find him. The struggles are very personal — not save the world variety, but worse: fight the family.

Jenny Nimmo knows her art. She has been writing her stories, inspired by the legends of her country, for over twenty years. She is also known for the Snow Spider trilogy — a magical tale about a boy wizard coming of age, but has also written a wide range of books, from the mysterious selkie-inspired story of Ultramarine to such mature young adult tales like The Rinaldi Ring and Milo’s Wolves, but it has been the Charlie Bone series that has taken off. Publishers have now released book six (really, book one of series two), but she’s interested in exploring the world she has created and seeing where the story takes her. A Charlie Bone movie is also planned for next year.

Of course, it’s worth noting that a number of Harry Potter’s fans have been following the boy wizard’s adventures for almost ten years. An eleven-year-old picking up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 would be twenty-one today. J.K. Rowling ingeniously allowed her series to grow up with her readers, and now those readers might be interested in something more mature and adult. If a magical world is still of interest to them, how about a journey to the Discworld, by noted British author Terry Pratchett?

Terry Pratchett has almost forty books to his credit, most of them dealing with characters in a crazy fantasy world he has created called the Discworld — a flat disk sitting atop four elephants on a gigantic turtle drifting through space. Magic works on Discworld. There are wizards and witches and trolls and dwarfs, not to mention hard-fighting, hard-drinking Scottish-accented Smurfs. And then there is the anthropomorphic manifestation of Death.

Terry created Discworld over thirty years ago as a means of parodying the conventions of fantasy, but I get the sense that he abandoned parody and simply decided to have a whole lot of fun with his creation, tweaking the noses of everybody around him. There is the send-up of the newspaper industry in The Truth, or various police dramas in Night Watch and its associated sequels. The book Wyrd Sisters is a lot funnier if you know your Shakespeare and The Hogfather is just fun.

A collection as large as Pratchett’s is bound to be daunting; where does one begin? Your best bet, in my opinion, is to pick a particular character and follow along. I got in through the book Wee Free Men, which features nine-year-old Tiffany Aching going up against the evil Queen of the Faeries. It’s a wonderful book, as Tiffany is a super-sensible young girl and she’s aided by the Nac Mac Feegle (the Scottish Smurfs I mentioned earlier), and their journey is hilarious and frightening at the same time. Tiffany appears again in A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith, as she journeys to Lancre to learn to become a proper witch. This puts her in touch with Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, two witches who have anchored several Pratchett tales.

Death is a character who appears in a number of Pratchett’s books, including cameos in A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith. In the books which focus more directly on him, he becomes a wonderfully sympathetic character. As one who has dealt so much with humanity, he has grown to like us quite a bit, and he has fought back the forces of evil on more than one occasion. But at the same time, he does NOT get humanity, and his attempts to understand us are a joy to behold. Also delightful is his relationship with his granddaughter Susan, (Mort, Soul Music, The Hogfather and Thief of Time), a super-logical, half-human, half-immortal superhero that most desires a normal life. Between the two of them, you’ll pay a visit to the great city of Ankh-Morpork, which connects you to the Night Watch, led by the down-to-earth Sam Vimes, whom I’ll be following next. And I’ve only just scratched the surface.

Of course, for some Harry Potter fans, reading Pratchett might be akin to sleeping with the enemy, as he spoke out against what he saw as the disproportionate attention Rowling received amongst the British literary set, but with The Hogfather now a big-budget mini-series adaptation, he’s certainly getting the attention he deserves.

And speaking of attention, expect a lot more of it to come Philip Pullman’s way. A number of people that I spoke to at the Harry Potter gathering mentioned reading or wanting to read Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence. This trilogy of books is set in a parallel Earth where there was no Protestant reformation and the pseudo-Catholic magisterium controls a fair chunk of daily life. Wild, young Lyra, an orphan girl raised by the professors of Oxford University, soon becomes the focal point in a renewed battle of the heavens between the forces of Lucifer and God, and Pullman puts himself and his books squarely on the side of Lucifer.

These books are brilliant and, in the case of this Christian, challenged my faith and made it stronger — something staunch atheist Pullman probably did not intend, but something that perhaps he would not have minded. The fact that these explicitly anti-clerical books have not raised the ire of the “moral majority” in the way that Rowling’s books have, speaks more to the popularity of Rowling as a target than anything else and highlights the hypocrisy of those who would ban books. That lack of attention will change with the release of a big budget movie staring Nicole Kidman as the evil Mrs. Coulter. I’ve heard disturbing rumours that the anti-clerical elements of the stories will be watered down, to avoid offending Christian sensibilities, but I hope that’s not the case. If nothing else, the books are still there, and with the movie drawing everybody’s attention towards them, I think we can expect to see pickets soon whatever the movie producers do, so they might as well go for broke.

Although Philip Pullman’s atheistic agenda eats the plotline of the third book, entitled The Amber Spyglass, the series as a whole is among the most imaginative and well written set of young adult fantasy books that I’ve read, with the first book, The Golden Compass, being an outright classic. The second book, The Subtle Knife almost matches it, and introduces a new character, Will, for Lyra to bounce off of while taking the action into our modern world.

So many authors, so little time. I should take the time to mention Diana Wynne Jones, whose fantasy books are enjoying a renaissance thanks to the Potter effect. She’s another author that deserves to stick around after the buzz from the Deathly Hallows fades. I wonder if the publishers are having a similar difficulty picking just one author to be their next Potter push, but ultimately, it will be up for the readers to decide. Perhaps I should stop second-guessing how they’ll respond to the publishers and let them get on with the work of discovering the next big thing. Happy reading.


Okaaaaaaaaay…

Offered without further comment.


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