November 6, 2003

The B List

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Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, right? But how far can one take the whole flattery bit? Sure, having someone admire you so much that they dress like you, act like you, even write stories similar to stories that you have written is very flattering. Oh, wait, that last part is actually sort of illegal, isn’t it? And yet, that’s exactly what’s happened to J.K. Rowling following the phenomenal success of her Harry Potter series. Little Harry and his entertaining shenanigans have spawned a veritable smorgasbord of fantasy books that ape both Harry and his magical adventures with Muggles. Some of these books are actually pretty decent all by themselves. Other books are nauseatingly horrible and to be avoided at all costs. Let me take you through a run down of these imitations. And really, if you want to argue that they’re not imitations, that’s fine, but just be aware that they would probably never have been published if Harry Potter hadn’t come first. So there.

Tanja Grotter

Yeah, this book is pretty much a direct rip off of Rowling’s work. The semi-plagiarism is so bad that the Amsterdam District Court cancelled the publishing of the book in the Netherlands when Rowling stated that the book was a little too close to her own book for comfort. Written by Russian author Dmitry Yemets, Tanja Grotter and the Magic Bass is a tale of a little girl with a magical mark on her face who attends a school for fledgling witches and wizards. She also plays a sports game involving flying on a broomstick and tossing balls around. Russian publishers insists that there similarities between Grotter and Potter reflect the author’s conscious use of parody. Apparently the book has found a large and responsive audience in Russia where it has become quite a success. Read only if you feel like dulling your brain on second-rate material. If you can even locate a copy, that is.

Nathanial and Bartimaeus

The first book in this new series, The Amulet of Samarkand, introduces us to a trainee magician named Nathanial and the powerful Djinni (yes, with the ‘i,’ how you pronounce it is really important) Bartimaeus. In a departure from Rowling, the magical world that these characters inhabit is fully integrated into the world of humans: magicians and civilians exist side by side. Taking place in the past, during the Victorian era, magicians are actually the ones in power and hold sway in British Parliament. It is here that Nathanial is humiliated by a very powerful magician, Simon Lovelace, on whom he vows revenge. Enter the Djinni Bartimaeus, whom Nathanial commands to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace. Chaos ensues, and it’s a lovely easy read to the ending. The writing is excellent, the setting is novel and unique, and it basically sounds like good fantasy to me. If you’re looking for something to read in your spare time (that is, if you have any), I’d give it a spin.

Artemis Fowl

In the series written by Irish author Eoin Colfer, the main character, Artemis, is a plain, regular kid who gets involved in some rather interesting adventures. Well, regular aside from the fact that he’s a genius and also ridiculously wealthy. While Artemis himself is not magical in any way, he does discover a whole world of magical beings who live underneath the earth, the fairy people, who have retreated underground to avoid the clumsy humans aboveground. However, the twist here is that Artemis is actually a bad guy, a twelve-year-old criminal mastermind who is on the prowl for money and power. In a side plot, he’s also searching for his Dad, a man everyone assumes is dead. The writing is pretty good, the action always exciting, and in general this is one of the better series written today for kids. You can check out the first few chapters of each of the three books in the series on the official website,, so you don’t even have to get a real copy of the books in your hand to get hooked. A really easy and entertaining read, something you can burn through.

I truly love the Harry Potter books, and even though there is now a bunch of fantasy crap flooding the market, I still think this renewed interest in children’s literature is a fabulous thing. Many classic works are categorized as juvenile, even though they deal with incredibly mature themes. Take C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia for instance. Yeah, these books were great forays into fantasy that entertained kids with battles between talking lions and witches, but the series was really about good and evil and the constant struggle between them [Ed. Note — realizing the whole thing was a Christian allegory was the most traumatizing event of my childhood]. Re-reading these sorts of books now that I’m older, I have a much different appreciation for them. So why not take a look at some of those books you remember from childhood, you might be surprised by what you find.

Archived article by Sue Karp