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***).
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.