JOHN OSTRANDER: Apres Harry
Well, wasn’t that an exciting conclusion to the Harry Potter saga?! And who could have seen that twist coming? You know, the one . . . the one where he . . . I mean, she . . . I mean they . . .
Okay, at the time I’m writing this I haven’t yet read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It hasn’t been released yet. I won’t go near the sites that purport to have the text and published it online. Through the miracle of weekly deadlines that have been shuffled about because of the impending San Diego Comic Con (or Spam Diego, as I like to call it because that’s usually how I feel after the end of it if I go to one – a can of Spam), I get to pretend that the last Harry Potter has been read and probably consumed and can ask the burning question on everyone’s lips:
The Harry Potter books took us to an alien world – England, to begin with, which is alien enough for most of us on this side of the Pond. (I once demanded of my good friend and excellent artist Steve Pugh why did the English persisted in driving on the wrong side of the road in their country. Steve smiled kindly and gently told me it was to confuse the French and we poor Americans simply got caught in the middle. “Well,” I said, “ so long as there’s a good reason . . .” Where was I? Oh yes – alien worlds.)
It took us into the world of magic and English academia; it’s hard to say which is stranger to Americans. It gave us a new experience vicariously, through the joy of reading. I once heard film critic Roger Ebert remark that one of the things he looked for in films – and one of the things he really liked about the original Star Wars – was when it took him to a new world, gave him a new experience. Or, I would add, make what we know seem new or give us a different perspective so it feels like a new experience. The Potter books, in my opinion, succeeded on both levels.
So, the Potter story is now complete. It’s a closed world. The remaining movies will translate that experience to the medium of film but it won’t be altogether new. Assuming, gentle reader, you want something more in that line, where can you go? I, like many others, have a few suggestions drawn from my own reading experience. Assuming that we take it as a given that they are not Harry Potter nor are they trying to be Harry Potter, they may be books that you’d enjoy.
They are also not intended as children’s literature, so don’t think of it as a sharing experience with the kids.
The first recommendation I’ve discussed before so I’ll do so again briefly: The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Please do not confuse these with the TV show of that name; the novels are infinitely superior. They are also very American. They combine wizardry and magic with the traditions of the American hard-boiled private detective. Harry Dresden is a “wizard-for-hire” (he’s listed in the yellow pages), working out of Chicago. It has that first person narrative sense of smart-ass that goes with good hard-boiled fiction, a great supporting cast developed over the course of the novels, and a world that is well thought out and coherent. (Chicago is certainly a real place but a magical Chicago is something else again.) The individual books work well on their own but the whole thing is adding up into a saga. Mr. Butcher started off as a good, promising writer and has developed into a first-rate fantasist. Highly recommended.
The only thing Mr. Butcher is not is English. For those of you who really want another English series to get into, or who just want that “something new,” may I recommend Jasper Fforde? That’s not the name of a character although even Fforde understands that it may sound that way. No, Jasper Fforde is an author and has two series currently running, both of which I recommend.
The first is a series of novels centering on the character Thursday Next. It’s set in a very alternate Earth where the Crimean War is still going on, Wales is an independent country, England is nearly a police state under the thumb of the Goliath Corporation; where there is time travel although tightly regulated and policed, dodos and Neanderthals have been re-created and are a part of everyday life and literature is important. Our gal Thursday is herself a SpecOp (Special Operative, a cop) working as a Literary Detective. In the first book, The Eyre Affair, the villain – Acheron Hades – manages to kidnap Jane Eyre from the original manuscript of the book, thus threatening to change it forever. Thursday must ultimately enter the book itself to foil Hades and save the day.
It’s not exactly magic but it feels like it.
I’m not even beginning to scratch the surface of the book. The Eyre Affair is satirical, whimsical, has more than a touch of Monty Python in it, but characters also do die in it. Thursday herself is a complex character and not above using violence as necessary. So, yes, it can be serious as well. Fforde delights in punny names (the nasty bugger who represents Goliath in this story is named Jack Schitt) and strange plot twists and the story is endlessly inventive but it all comes together in a very satisfying way.
Fforde’s novels, at least at my local mega-bookstore, appears in the fiction section rather than the sf/fantasy books or the mystery section. There are four books in the Thursday Next series with the fifth just out in hardback this week.
The Thursday Next series is what has gotten Mr. Fforde all the critical attention but the book that got my attention initially was the first book in his other series, his Nursery Crimes series, featuring Detective Inspector Jack Spratt who is aided by his contrary assistant, Detective Sergeant Mary Mary. It’s another odd England – this time, Nursery Rhyme characters live side by side and interact with regular people, not unlike in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which added Toons to real folk. The first book in the Nursery Crimes series, The Big Over Easy, is involved with the death of Humpty Dumpty, who may have been a very bad egg indeed and possibly murdered.
The Nursery Crimes books are not as complex as the Thursday Next series and are not as well regarded critically. Some critics actually resent them since they take Fforde’s writing time away from the next Thursday Next novel. However, I read The Big Over Easy before I read any of Thursday Next and, I confess, it is my fave. The second book in the series, The Fourth Bear, will be released in paperback at the end of the month.
It’s a given that none of these books will give the reader exactly what they got from the Harry Potter books and it would do them a disservice to suggest to the contrary. Any book that did try to do that would, frankly, be a Harry Potter clone – a pastiche or imitation – and none would have the same feeling or lifeforce in them. Tastes also vary from person to person and what appeals to me may bore the bejabbers out of you. Still, one of the pleasures of reading is being able to recommend books you’ve enjoyed to other people and all of these have given me deep enjoyment.
And if you have your own recommendations – I’d love to hear them. Always on the lookout for a good read.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. His own personal blog is at http://www.comicscommunity.com/boards/ostrander/.