Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

The magic of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling lies in its combination of simplicity and familiarity. Like a three-chord pop song, Harry Potter sticks in your head, causing pleasant sensations as it bounces around your brain.

We know this story; an unlikely hero with a regal destiny is sent on an epic quest. We know these characters, too, from source material as diverse as the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, Greek mythology, and Disney movies.

The star of the show, of course, is Harry Potter himself, a downtrodden elementary school student who must contend with the sudden responsibility of fulfilling a magical destiny. The well-known coming-of-age tale of finding (and re-inventing) yourself in a new school gives Harry Potter’s high fantasy a connection to real-world grade school drama, which is what makes this book so appealing to readers of all ages.

Harry embarks upon a hero’s quest to find the elusive Sorcerer’s Stone.

The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.

Harry Potter has stock villains (the real ones, and the ones you only think are bad) and stock friends. Even the guard dog feels like a hybrid of the Minotaur and Cerebrus. Bumbling-but-lovable sidekick, Hagrid, strikes me as part Luca Brasi from The Godfather, and part Bigfoot from The Howard Stern Show.

“Now, don’t ask me anymore,” said Hagrid gruffly. “That’s top secret, that is.”

There’s the wise and patient old teacher, Dumbledore, who walks a trail blazed by Gandolf and Yoda, and gets the lion’s share of the book’s most meaningful quotes:

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.

To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

This last one is interesting, since Rowling plays an annoying name game with the characters in Harry Potter. The school bully is named Draco Malfoy and his thug friends are Crabbe and Goyle. These characters are snakes in the grass and they live in Slytherin House. The school nerd is Neville Longbottom. A wicked teacher is named Severus Snape. Maybe younger readers find these over-the-top character names endearing, but they took me out of the story a bit every time I encountered them.

Naming quibbles aside, Rowling’s writing is sharp, lean, and constantly moving forward. This is the stuff that page-turners are made off. Keeping her younger readers in mind, Rowling sometimes goes straight for juvenile gross-out:

“Can you smell something?” Harry sniffed and a foul stench reached his nostrils, a mixture of old socks and the kind of public toilet no one seems to clean.

He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue. “Urgh – troll boogers.” He wiped it on the troll’s trousers.

Other times, Harry Potter skirts the fringes of horror fiction (while conjuring the legend of Edward Mordake):

Harry would have screamed, but he couldn’t make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.

And sometimes Harry Potter brushes against the madness of Alice in Wonderland.

A piercing, bloodcurdling shriek split the silence — the book was screaming! Harry snapped it shut, but the shriek went on and on, one high, unbroken, earsplitting note.

Part of the fun of Harry Potter is the interactive games, wizarding spells, and puzzle solving that keeps the reader engaged the way an old Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen mystery might.

“Wingardium Leviosa!”

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Dumbledore serves up the novel’s main theme—undying love versus ancient evil—for young hero, Harry:

He (Voldemort) didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.

Isn’t this the wish of all living beings, to be loved by our mothers, and to be watched over by those who came before us? To be marked by a love so powerful and eternal it will protect and guide you through life?

It’s no wonder the Harry Potter franchise is so popular. It contains characters and situations we can all relate too (even if they’re cloaked in the fantastic) while quietly fulfilling humanity’s deepest wish.

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The Book of Paul by Richard Long

The Book of Paul by Richard Long
The Book of Paul by Richard Long

 I didn’t know what to expect when I dove into Richard Long’s debut novel, The Book of Paul, other than Stephen King endorsed it and the novel was billed as “ a paranormal thriller.” Based on the cover, I figured The Book of Paul was a mythology-based tale of pirates for young adult readers. The skeleton keys on the cover look like a skull and crossbones on ancient parchment paper, you know?

But by Chapter Four a tattooed Goth girl with labia piercings is blowing a big-dicked muscle-head, so I had to toss my assumptions out the window. This wasn’t young adult fiction.

I’m sure this happens a lot with The Book of Paul. It’s a wild genre-bending ride through mythology, magic, and white-knuckled action adventure.

According to author Richard Long:

The Book of Paul is the first of seven volumes in a sweeping mythological narrative tracing the mystical connections between Hermes Trismegistus in ancient Egypt, Sophia, the female counterpart of Christ, and the Celtic druids of Clan Kelly.

Long’s blend of mythology and realism is stylistically similar to Neil Gaiman‘s, but Long’s prose is leaner and meaner with more of a noir feel, for example:

The tiny .22-caliber bullet was ricocheting inside her skull like a pinball, lighting up old memories of love and cruelty as it whipped the spidery gray filaments of her brain into a six-egg omelet.

Sometimes the action slips into comic book-like mayhem.

The Striker punched him in the throat. “Aaack!” Paul gacked, hitting the floor with a thunderous boom!

The Book of Paul is fun, fun, fun, and Paul is one of the most delightfully wicked villains in modern memory. Evil, funny, and weirdly human (particularly strange for an immortal) Paul delivers some of the novel’s best lines and most powerful insights, like:

Sometimes I think evil is just loneliness with nowhere else to go.

Lonely or not, Paul is a man/demi-god who keeps his eye on the prize, in this case, the fulfillment of a centuries old prophecy.

Characters are the backbone of any good story, and Long has created an unforgettable cast in The Book of Paul. Brainwashed muscleman Martin, Goth princess Rose, in-and-out of the narrative narrator William, confused accomplice Michael Bean and a gaggle of tattooed, body-modified counter-culture superfreaks.

Paul’s backstory and the history of his clan is complex, but Long keeps it interesting with meaty philosophical asides:

“It’s no mystery why we hide from death. We hide because we fear it. The greatest mystery of life is death. What force engineered this necessity? What is this thing we call ‘food’? We eat life, William. We eat life! And we eat it every single day!”

The Book of Paul is a winning genre mashup. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino directed Highlander and you’ll have an idea of what Long has created. As much as I dislike serial novels, I’m looking  forward to the continuing adventures of Clan Kelly. As The Man himself notes:

“Stories never end,” Paul grunted, “at least not the ones I tell.” 

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The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin Cronin
The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve is a well-written action thriller, a good, solid novel. But it doesn’t hold a candle to The Passage, the first book in author Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic vampire series.

The Twelve suffers from the same “middle child syndrome” that plagues so may “Book 2s” in a trilogy series. It’s neither a beginning, nor an end. The Twelve also has to follow in The Passage’s deep literary footprints, which is no small task.

There are (too) many of books about zombies/vampires overrunning the planet. But The Passage turned the genre around by introducing a wholly original solution to the age-old “zombie apocalypse” problem. Amy, the young hero of The Passage, gives all the mindless monsters their memories and identities back before dispatching their souls to the afterlife. It’s a beautiful and compassionate moment at the climax of The Passage.

There are no such beautiful moments in The Twelve. There are a lot of terrorist acts by rebel insurgents. There is frequent refugee relocation. Lots of stuff blows up. The “good guys” gather in one part of the country while the “bad guys” gather in another—one of many nods to/rip-offs of Stephen King’s The Stand you’ll encounter in The Twelve.

The Twelve is to The Passage as Alien is to Aliens. Alien is the story of a monster stalking humanity. Aliens is about paramilitary planning and war. The Twelve is more of a military action tale than a supernatural thriller.

Cronin is great storyteller, and his lyrical prose paints vivid pictures. I hope he recaptures The Passage‘s literary magic in the last novel in this trilogy—The City of Mirrors—due next year.

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The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Passage by Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin’s The Passage is an impressive work. The first book in a planned trilogy, The Passage reads like a series of short novels and novellas stitched together, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

There are shades of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises here. The Passage is a long, sprawling, character-driven novel. It’s got werewolf-like vampires in it (enjoy, Twihards!), and there’s a magical child at the heart of the story (Potter Fans rejoice!). There are also parallels to Max Brooks’ World War Z — portions of The Passage detail a military response to an exponentially expanding army of the undead.

The Passage takes us through the before, during, and after of a vampire apocalypse. The book begins with a Men In Blackstyle government agency gathering subjects for mysterious medical experiments. All of the subjects are death row inmates, except for a little girl named Amy. The test subjects are turned into something no longer human, and the long teeth and thirst for blood suggests there’s a vampire in the woodpile.

Cronin’s vampires — nicknamed virals, jumpers, and smokes — have more in common with killer bees and werewolves, than Count Dracula. The virals are feral killing machines, but they retain a remnant of their humanity. These monsters long to remember who they once were.

My favorite passage in The Passage is Cronin’s detached depiction of the fall of the United States. Amy spends the Fall of the Western World in a remote Oregon cabin with a protector / disciple / father figure named Wolgast. America crumbles out of frame, in the background, with Cronin dropping hints that fall as softly as the Oregon snow. (A three-month-old newspaper headline, “Chicago Falls!” … the flashbang and fallout of nuclear warheads exploding in the distance.)

Three hundred pages in, we meet the novel’s primary characters — a band of survivors embarking on an epic quest to return Amy to the Colorado lab that spawned her. Along the way there are many Mad Max-style battles with both human and virals. Life beyond Thunderdome isn’t easy, even though Amy is a pretty powerful good luck charm.

I won’t spoil the ending of The Passage. But I’ll say that Cronin comes up with one of the most creative and compassionate solutions to the zombie apocalypse ever imagined.

Cronin’s compelling characters tell a unique story. The Passage is a page-turner, and Cronin a masterful storyteller.

As much as I dislike series/trilogies (What ever happened to stand alone books? The Great American Novel isn’t part of a series, damnit!) The Passage has me hooked. I’m all in for its sequel, The Twelve. The end of the world was just the beginning!

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