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Review: Young Adult Fantasy Sequels from John Stephens and N.D. Wilson this Fall

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Over the last fifteen years, two British authors have had a greater impact on young adult fiction than anyone this side of the Atlantic.

The first is, hopefully, obvious. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels were the publishing phenomenon to end all phenomenons, a perfect blend of humor, classic children’s storytelling, and a cast of immediately memorable characters. They have already passed into the pantheon of modern classics, so it’s no surprise that so many Young Adult authors are trying to emulate them. The dollar signs alone are enough to keep a wannabe bestseller hooked.

The second is probably less obvious. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy never enjoyed the widespread, all-conquering success of the Harry Potter books, and the one attempt at turning them into movie gold fell flat, despite its A-list cast. To those who love Pullman’s books that will come as no surprise – they represent a true literary achievement rather than a pop culture phenomenon, and the three books brought Young Adult fiction as close to high literature as may be humanly possible. They’re smart, packed with original ideas, incredibly well written, and almost unputdownable from start to finish. J.K. Rowling got all the fame; Philip Pullman got all the literary kudos.

N.D. Wilson would appear to be one of latest wave of Rowling acolytes (the clue was in the name), and while his novels stand head and shoulders above most of the Young Adult crowd, don’t expect them to rewrite the rule book. The Drowned Vault is the second book in Wilson’s Ashtown Burials series, and it’s another enjoyable romp through a contemporary fantasy world. Wilson’s debt to Rowling is obvious in the style and the pacing, and his magical world is not a million miles away from the fantastical adventures at Hogwarts. The most noticeable difference is his reliance on classical mythology and American history for his background material, and it gives The Drowned Vault enough character of its own to lift it out of the mire of Potter wannabes. The series is highly recommended for young readers still pining after the end of Harry – adult readers may find it a little too simplistic and action-dominated to successfully cross the age divide.

John Stephens’ The Fire Chronicle is similar in many ways. The plot relies heavily on fate and destiny, the lead characters are children who have lost their parents, and there’s a clear divide between the mundane world and the ‘real’ magical world that hides alongside it. While Wilson works solely from the Rowling play book, however, Stephens also owes a debt to Pullman’s more sophisticated fare. It helps that Stephens has a unique and highly readable voice, honed through his years writing for TV, but his imagination also proves to be a surprising treasure trove of inspiration. The Fire Chronicle crosses time and space in its epic scope, finally settling on major story lines set in turn-of-the-century New York and a hidden volcano at the South Pole. There’s something truly magical about Stephens’ lightness of touch too, as he weaves humor and high-stakes adventure together in his own unique way. While the Books of Beginning series isn’t destined to enjoy Rowling-like success, this second installment suggests that it should at least earn its creator a similarly fanatical (albeit smaller) following.

Both The Drowned Vault and The Fire Chronicle are available now from all good bookstores, and via the Random House website.