In the early 00s, as Harry Potter hit full-fledged pan-cultural myth status, journalists spoke of the series' "halo effect." Potter's success, the argument went, wasn't just good for Scholastic (which was busy tangibly personifying Potter-mania through construction of its Soho headquarters, aka "the house that Harry built"); it had got people back into reading, and, just maybe, would save the publishing industry from extinction.
It didn't turn out that way. Similar efforts that followed Potter (notably 2004's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel) didn't approach its cultural penetration, making it seem like an impossible yardstick until Twilight. The series did have a halo effect, however, among writers of young adult fantasy, who found themselves suddenly employable, and that trend continues in 2010, as the third generation of Potter fallout brings us two new YA fantasy efforts and the return of an old favorite.
Half World, by Japanese-Canadian author Hiromi Goto, delivers a welcome slew of bizarre images that argue in favor of the Potter effect—if Harry Potter had to take over the world to enable readers to discover a villain named "Mr. Glueskin," then so be it. The novel, sparsely illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, follows a teenager named Melanie Tamaki (no relation, presumably) as she journeys through the titular limbo fantasyland in search of her missing mother.
Half World is "a place of dark shadows, jumbled silhouettes of cities and jungles, forests and villages." If that's difficult to picture, it's because Goto's world has no real rules of physics: bridges made of crows appear out of nowhere as stairs go up and down at the same time. Fortunately we get the compelling Mr. Glueskin, an evil variant of Mister Fantastic who says things like "I'm not FREAKING FINISHED" and "After the ceremony, she'll be our roast suckling pig" (with reference to Melanie, who has a weight issue that goes curiously unmined over the course of the novel).
The Story of Cirrus Flux, by Matthew Skelton, sets itself more firmly on Earth, in 18th-Century London. Young Cirrus, stuck in a familiarly unaccommodating orphanage, possesses a necklace containing a substance called the "Breath of God" whose nature is never fully explained. (His father discovered it in Antarctica.) When nefarious forces come after it, he needs the help of a fellow orphan named Pandora to keep it safe.
There is potential here in the cramped Sherlock Holmes-ish setting, which should teem with historical details and memorable scamps. Unfortunately Cirrus Flux's protean narrative structure never establishes a sense of place. Alternating chapters pick up the action from Cirrus and Pandora's point of view, which is not a problem, but also switch between past and present tense, which distracts.
Meanwhile, in the doomsday alternate universe where Harry Potter was never published, Brian Jacques is still churning out Redwall books. The series about warrior mice in Mossflower Wood, which began with Redwall in 1986, has since spawned 20 novels and sold 20 million copies, although its inexplicable lack of a big-budget movie interpretation has kept it relatively unknown. The Sable Quean (no, the variant spelling is never explained) provides a welcome twist on the well-worn Redwall plot of "a group of nasty animals attack Redwall Abbey;" here, the animals first kidnap "abbeybabes" and hold them ransom before attacking the abbey.
"Abbeybabes" is one of many compound words that Jacques trots out in The Sable Quean, like "anybeast" and "tippaws," and one gets the impression that he uses these not for effect but because he really does write about this world so much that he appreciates the chance to save space. While the plot of The Sable Quean is a bit of a mess (the number of chance encounters in Mossflower Wood make it seem to be the size of a traffic island), the world of Redwall is an order of magnitude more realized than the worlds of Half World or Cirrus Flux, and, it must be pointed out, on par with the inventiveness of Potter. The shining star of the novel is Diggs (full name Subaltern Meliton Gubthorpe Digglethwaite), a warrior rabbit so affixed on food that, when he finds the Sable Quean's personal chamber, he consumes "some wine, a cooked trout, and wheat bread" and then takes a nap, commenting that his greedy fellow rodents can "blinkin' well whistle for your share."
The Sable Quean doesn't approach the heights of early classics such as Mariel of Redwall (1991), whose rat pirates were presented with the glee of an amateur video-game developer. But in a world that really will soon be post-Potter (the final movie bows 7/15/11), it's nice to see an old hand holding court in land commendably willing to support newcomers.