Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

The trouble with comparisons

No, really, it's just like it.

No, really, it’s just like it.

There’s something that keeps cropping up in commentary about my books, specifically the first one, Songs of the Earth, which frustrates me no end, because I just don’t get it. At all. And that’s the recurring comparisons to Harry Potter*.

The latest of these occurred over at Fantasy Faction, which is an awesome site and the team that run it are long-term friends and supporters of my work. They just published their list of Top Anticipated Fantasy Novels of 2014, and were kind enough to include my forthcoming book The Dragon House at No. 20:

 

Why we are excited: Elspeth Cooper has some of the best prose we’ve ever come across. We were a little unsure about Gair and this series at first, but Elspeth has really taken this series from something a little too Harry Potter-esque to a series that walks its own path and that is increasingly epic and high-stake for its characters.

 

This is lovely stuff to hear, of course, and I’m deeply flattered to be included on a list with the likes of Daniel Abraham and Jim Butcher, Carol Berg and Elizabeth Bear. But there’s that reference to Harry Potter again. I’ve also had reviews that mention it. One reviewer on Amazon even went so far as to accuse me of totally ripping off Rowling’s books.

To which I have to say: Wuh?

Songs of the Earth is a coming-of-age story, like Harry Potter. This is hardly unique in the fantasy canon. Bildungsroman is one of the key themes of genre storytelling: finding out who you are, where you stand, and what you will not stand for. Songs also takes place in part in a school for magic, like Harry Potter. It’s far from alone in that too**.

But apart from that, there’s very little similarity between the two books. They’re set in different milieus (a magical-realism version of our world vs a secondary universe), aimed at a different audience, and feature very different protagonists (adult bastard nobody-special vs Chosen One boy wizard***).

Bloomsbury cover of Harry Potter & the Philosopher's Stone

A bit too Songs-of-the-Earth-esque?

Even the magic itself is not the same (elemental forces vs cod-Latin spells learned by rote). Maybe you could argue that there’s a minor thematic similarity between the renegade Guardian Savin and He Who Shall Not Be Named, in the sense that they’re both powerful mages gone rogue, but is that really enough to call a book “Harry Potter-esque”?

As for the ‘school for magic’, the two are similar only in concept. Hogwarts is recognisably an English boarding-school environment with Houses and common rooms and intramural sporting challenges. It is Tom Brown’s Schooldays with wands and brooms.

In Songs, I tried to play down the actual learning part because it’d been done before, not least by Rowling, so not one of Gair’s lectures or practical lessons is described on the page in real time. Book magic or learning by rote do not feature. This was because the studying bit was less important to me than exploring Gair’s relationships with others, be they friend, lover or mentor.

Yet the comparisons persist, and I just don’t understand why. My theory is that Harry Potter has had such an enormous impact on popular culture that it’s simply the first thing anyone thinks of at the merest hint of a school for magic – even though that element is probably the least significant part of my book.

Or maybe it’s the imagery of the Masters defending Chapterhouse at the end of Songs that makes them think of Professor McGonagall and Co defending Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I can’t help that: I wrote that scene before the first Harry Potter was even published (Honest. The oldest version of the manuscript I have accessible on this PC is datestamped 6 October 1996. Don’t make me dig out the original files on floppy disk).

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. There are far worse books than Harry Potter to be compared to, after all, but at the same time I worry that these comparisons send the wrong message to potential readers (or worse yet, the parents of potential readers). That if you enjoyed Harry Potter, this book Songs of the Earth is quite like it, when it’s not. Not even a little bit.

So why do people who’ve read it, keep maintaining that it is?

***

* Disclaimer: I haven’t read the HP books, but I have seen the films. Any errors or omissions I make should be considered in this context.

** Just off the top of my head there’s Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy, in which Sonea learns to harness her abilities and rise through the ranks at the Magician’s Guild, and Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind in which the University is basically a school for magic on steroids.

*** Seriously. He’s got a distinguishing mark, his parents were killed in mysterious circumstances, and he was raised in obscurity to keep him safe. If he’d grown up on a farm he’d be Belgarion from the David Eddings books – or Luke Skywalker, the most massive example of the farm-boy-comes-of-age-and-saves-the-world trope in the history of ever.

 

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10 Comments

  1. Julia

    Oh lordy, I have just finished the 3rd book via audio version. Not sure how I came across your books but have and loved them. Only trouble is I thought it was a trilogy, and then when half way through The Raven’s Shadow realised it was not. Oh me oh my, what am I to do. It seems I may become demented waiting on the next book, along with me waiting on Mr Patrick Rothfuss and his next instalment.

    anyway thought I would let you know, oh and the HP connection never occurred to me at all.

    Please release the book ASAP as I already feel brefet and I only ended the audio book 5 mins ago

    • Ellie

      However you found my books, I am very glad that you did!

      If it’s any consolation, The Wild Hunt was originally going to be a trilogy, until I got half-way through Trinity Rising – oops. I am currently beavering away on The Dragon House but it’s running behind schedule so watch this space for more news as to a publication date. As soon as it’s finalised, I’ll share.

      Please don’t get demented – I’ll feel awful 😉

  2. Martin

    Hello Elspeth
    I’ve read HP and seen the movies.
    I’ve read all three of your books and HP never came to mind!
    Even as an afterthought through reading your comments I still don’t see it!
    Bring on The Dragon House!

  3. Gillian Brown

    I love your last point with the comparison to Luke Skywalker and Belgarion now my mind is busily ticking off the similarities to Harry.

    You will be happy to know I have enjoyed your books on their own merits and Harry Potter did not pop into my head to be compared with until you mentioned it. You are not alone , I recently read a debate that Enders Game was just Harry Potter in space even though it pre dates H P by a lot of years.

  4. Andy

    I think comparison’s like this are just an easy go-to for publishers and reviewers alike. The logic would follow that a comparison to Harry Potter would make a reader think “well, I liked HP so I’ll try that”. In actuality, the majority of people think “well, I liked HP so why would I bother reading a HP-lite, or a cheap imitation?”. Or, if they do pick it up, they are disappointed because, shock, the books are not comparable.

    For a long, long while – and still today, though to a lesser extent – every new fantasy trilogy was compared and likened to Tolkein. Be it “a successor to Tolkein”, “the next Tolkein” (and other supports) to “not as deep as Tolkein”, “not quite Tolkein”. More recently, emerging books (especially “grimdark”) are compared to GRRM.

    Books of the same genre, and indeed of different genres, may share familiar themes or commonly-rooted settings, but that does not make them the same. They have different characters (not just different names), different motives and problems. Different issues they address and philosophies they expound.

    Now, I can see the logic in wanting to capitalise on the success of the genre’s big names. However it creates a false expectation (as I said above). The false expectation leads to disappointment. Those wanting to read another HP, another Tolkein, another GRRM, are going to be out of luck.

    Let’s be clear: there are NO other Harry Potters, no other Tolkeins, only one GRRM (apart from that creepy Halloween costume). But why would I want to read another ASOIAF? I’ve read it. I want something else. Something that stands up on its own merits.

    I don’t want new books to be compared to old books, I want new books to be reviewed for their own merits, based on their own content. That goes for reviewers and publishers alike.

  5. mpiwo

    Because HP is the only fantasy book they’ve ever read.

    • Ellie

      mpiwo:
      Because HP is the only fantasy book they’ve ever read.

      I considered this option, and it could certainly apply to the likes of Amazon Vine (I had early reviews that said “I don’t read fantasy but I got the book for free” – one went on to compare it to modern art because they couldn’t understand it) but I’ve had the same HP comparisons drawn by folk who appear to be quite widely read in genre. I’m baffled.

  6. Hi Elspeth.

    No, Harry Potter was definitely not on MY mind when I read Songs of the Earth. A firmly secondary world fantasy, even with a Magic School, is not Harry Potter in the slightest.

    Earthsea is a far more reasonable basis of comparison than Harry Potter. But even then, Ged and Gair’s arcs are very different.

  7. I have read the HP books and apart from the similarities you’ve listed, a school of magic, they’re not really alike. Perhaps they’re just using HP as a shorthand for a ‘coming of age’ story, but even then it falls apart as HP is a teenage boy, and Gair is an adult. He might have a chaste kiss with a girl, Gair does…more adult stuff with grown women. They are very chalk and cheese, since HP is set in our world in contemporary times, not even a different century and your books are not here and now with flying cars and motorbikes etc. After all that, I don’t get it either.

    • Ellie

      So it’s not just me, then. Thanks, Stephen!

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