Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Books of Beginning: The Successor to Harry Potter That You Aren't Reading But Should Be

Putting aside Harry Potter, the landscape of children's fantasy is...strange. You have your classics (Redwall, various magical series from Lloyd Alexander, Fablehaven, etc), plenty of modern attempts to replicate Harry Potter or Tolkien (Eragon, anyone?). The modern stuff in particular repeatedly leaves me cold, though. Especially when you're looking for fantasy books with appeal to all genders, since most of the middle grade fiction that's not about sports or various wimpy/nerdy children is geared, intentionally or otherwise, toward girls, you really end up wanting something to fill that gap.

And, certainly, it's a hard genre. With the gender gap in reading so pronounced in the United States, fantasy especially becomes difficult to market and promote to a wide audience. Push a love story too much or even put a girl on the cover, and you're losing half the possible readers. Focus too much on aggression and you might turn off a lot of the younger female readers, but publishers don't worry about that because the gender gap results in fewer books being published for boys. It's frustrating.

So, with all this in mind? The Books of Beginning by John Stephens are absolutely some of the best middle grade fantasy written in the last decade, and not nearly enough people know it. The first book, The Emerald Atlas, came out to high acclaim in 2011, and the sequel, The Fire Chronicle, just came out a couple weeks ago. You need to be reading these books.

The Emerald Atlas is a book I got to read an advance of a few years ago, and it blew my mind. A fully-formed setting, a book that didn't mind borrowing from existing tropes while finding its own voice, kids who a) acted like kids and b) were allowed to grow into their own during the course of the book. Actions had consequences for everyone involved, and it wasn't a standard heroic journey arc for me. It felt epic for an adult, and I can only imagine what it was like for a kid looking for that same epic quality.

The Fire Chronicle is the long-overdue sequel. It takes place a little while after Atlas, but ultimately wastes no time. The Atlas itself is used and misused to expected and unexpected consequences, we see the story progress to the next viable part, and we again see the kids act and grow as one would expect. The voices are genuine, the story unique while being respectfully derivative, and the plot again takes chances you don't normally see in children's literature. A massive breath of fresh air.

What's rock-solid about these books is really how they don't talk down to the kids like so many other books do. That was one of the positives of Harry Potter anyway, that it was age appropriate without being condescending, and this series is very much the same. It also understands that Potter could go to dark places without sacrificing the optimism of the series and without worrying about scaring kids away, and then stays somewhat dark itself. I firmly believe part of the draw of Harry Potter was this attitude toward the readers, one John Stephens is smart enough to employ.

I have no idea how The Emerald Atlas did, but I know it was buzzed about constantly prior to publication and then I basically never heard about it again. I'm really hoping The Fire Chronicle renews interest in the series, because this is one I'm looking forward to sharing with my future spawn and with people who love fantasy, because it's really a hidden gem across the board.

Available to buy at Book Depository.

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