Word Play: Calling all dark lords, wizards and orphans

Special to the Los Angeles Times

British children’s fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones died last month while I was busy reading “The Emerald Atlas” for review, so it was inevitable that her spirit should haunt my reading. Jones is often cited as the forerunner of J.K. Rowling as the queen of contemporary fantasy for children, and “The Emerald Atlas” fits snugly in this category. Many think Jones a superior writer to Rowling, though she never enjoyed Rowling’s popularity, nor gave the ecstatic experience of a vast community of like-minded readers that the Harry Potter books produced.

Jones’ wonderful books, many about young witches and wizards learning to control their magical talents, contain myriad elements which her passionate supporters point to as obvious models for the Harry Potter books. If you don’t have a rooting interest in the competition, it’s pure fun to note similarities, such as castles with more than a passing resemblance to Hogwarts, a Dumbledore-like wizard intent on keeping magic’s power on the side of good, even a character referred to obliquely as You Know Who—the power of names being a standard feature of magic.

The use of magic in children’s fiction has plenty of history, and besides practicing the art of fantasy, Jones literally wrote the book on it: She published a hilarious handbook sending up the clichés of the genre, titled “The Tough Guide to Fantasyland” (Firebird: 256 pp., $9.99 paper ages 9 and up). The guide was first published in 1996, so, since the first Harry Potter book came out in 1997, Jones cannot be accused of snarkiness in regard to Rowling’s massive popularity (though plenty of her fans can be). The book is clearly an affectionate look at the conventions that govern fantasy novels, which might be defined as fiction that leans on folk and fairy tales but is the work of a single writer’s imagination.

Conceived as a travel guide, “The Tough Guide” refers to writers of fantasy as “the management” of tours of fantasyland, as in the entry for “Magic”: “Luckily, the Management seldom or never changes the Rules in mid-tour, but it has been known to reserve one or two extra Secrets for a nasty surprise later on.” Jones addresses the reader as the “fantasy tourist,” a tongue-in-cheek designation that acknowledges the reader’s identification with characters, so that under the heading “Jugglers” we read: “In rare cases, the Tourist will need to hide in a troupe of jugglers and even learn juggling skills. You can tell when you are going to have to do this because the Jugglers will have names.”


In “The Emerald Atlas: Book One — The Books of Beginning” (Alfred A. Knopf for Young Readers: 417 pp., $17.99 ages 9-12), John Stephens has built a world that performs the first literary task of the fantasy genre beautifully: It accounts persuasively for the existence of magic in a universe we recognize. The first volume of a projected trilogy, “The Emerald Atlas” introduces the story of a lost race of wizards who, suspecting in ancient times that their power was coming to an end, dangerously committed their magical knowledge to print in three books. The atlas of this book’s title gives the holder a key to travel in time, and it is being sought by a shadowy dark wizard operating through the intermediary of a creepy Countess. (From Jones’ entry on Dark Lord: “There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world. He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour. Generally he will attack you through Minions…" Exactly.)

The novel ensconces a trio of parentless children (see a grumpy footnote, at the bottom of this column, on Orphans) in an adventure in which they encounter dwarves, and discover it’s up to them to save their parents. In doing so, they begin to discover their magical talents — well, the eldest, Kate, does in this book, and we assume that Michael and Emma will in the sequels — and they also discover that they are destined to Save the World. There is a glancing reference to their being the “chosen ones” (sound familiar?). As Jones writes in “The Tough Guide”: “Saving the World is something many Tours require you to do. You have to defeat the Dark Lord or Wizards who are trying to enslave everyone.… Sometimes large parts of the world you are saving go up in smoke.” “The Emerald Atlas” also contains a castle, a cataclysm, a large man (delightfully Hagrid-like), secret passages, an old ruined city and a prophecy, all of which are entries in Jones’ guidebook and are used to engrossing effect.

The comparison to Harry Potter will, for some, be underlined because the splendidly versatile Jim Dale, who voiced Rowling’s characters, reads “The Emerald Atlas” in an audio version (Listening Library: 10 CDs, 111/2 hours, $35). And anyone who remembers how cleverly Rowling thought out Hermione’s adventures in time travel in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” will admire Stephens’ intricate handling of the time-travel-altered histories that are at the heart of this book.

The trouble with comparing any fantasy novel to Harry Potter is that one is inevitably comparing a first acquaintance with a new book to the affection one has developed for Harry, Ron and Hermione having spent upward of 4,000 pages with them. Remember that the true power of the Harry Potter series did not become clear until several books in — the exact spot is a matter of spirited debate among passionate readers. It took several volumes for Rowling to hit her stride. (The desultory plotting of “The Chamber of Secrets” made that book the bane of my existence on my son’s third and fourth times wanting the series read aloud.)


So when you think that the first volume of “The Emerald Atlas” is no Harry Potter, just remember that “The Sorcerer’s Stone” was no Harry Potter, either. “The Emerald Atlas” is a promising start, though. And John Stephens worked on such teen television shows as “The Gilmore Girls” (a cause for rejoicing) “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl” (less so), there’s even hope that just as Harry, Ron and Hermione started as kids and became complicated, interesting teenagers as the series went along, maybe Stephens will develop Kate, Michael and Emma in ways we can’t yet imagine.

Diana Wynne Jones died March 26. Her new book, “The Earwig and the Witch” (she had a minor obsession with earwigs), is due to be published in England this summer and in the U.S. by HarperCollins in January.

[A grumpy word on Convention #1 of all children’s literature: The Orphan. While Kate, Michael and Emma of “The Emerald Atlas” are not technically orphaned — their parents have mysteriously disappeared but left the children with the belief that they will return — the siblings are, as is so common in children’s books, being raised as orphans. I’m beginning to believe this is less for the psychological reason so often cited — that children’s literature is helping children to think independently about the world — but for the convenience of writers: Freeing the kids from parental interference frees the writer from the necessity of having his heroes consult with grown-ups. I often find myself asking, especially as a parent: Why doesn’t anyone keep better track of these kids? And wouldn’t these kids ever think to ask anyone for help? The plots of so many novels would fall apart if kids would just say something — if Harry had ever gone to Dumbledore, or if Kate would say: “Gosh, I had the strangest experience when I touched that book. What do you suppose that means?” ]

Bolle writes Word Play, which appears monthly at