A Potter lookalike?

Is it a coincidence that this book resembles the Potter series in many ways? PREMA SRINIVASAN looks at the latest book to hit the children's market.

AFTER the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter books, it is not surprising that children's writers, to catch the attention of children and publishers would want to make use of the same ingredients as J. K. Rowlings. Recently, Artemis Fowl by Irish schoolteacher and writer Eoin Colfer has hit the headlines as publishers all over the world became interested in this book which is laced heavily with magic and witchraft. The book has been sold in 18 countries and the advances received reportedly totalled more than £ 1.5 million. The British rights to the book were purchased by Penguin/Puffin way back in mid-2000 and Talk Miramax Books got the U.S. rights and Miramax Films optioned the book for a film.

The author Colfer, suitably gratified with all the attention the book has been receiving, has confessed that he himself had never read a Harry Potter until he finished writing Artemis Fowl. Be that as it may, but the readers are going to find some startling common factors as well as differences between the two. To begin with, Artemis Fowl offers an exciting adventure in the dark world of fairies and witches. The protagonist, whose name also happens to be the title of the book, is a 12-year-old ruthless millionaire, very different from the lovable Harry Potter who is 11 when he makes his first appearance. Artemis, whose father is missing, sets out with his henchman Butler, to steal gold from the fairies who live in hiding below the earth, driven there by the humans called "the mud people". Now Potter fans will recall that Harry's parents were murdered by the wicked Voldemort, the humans are referred to as "muggies" and Harry is accompanied in his adventures by Hagrid, the schools' giant gamekeeper, as his sidekick. In his quest Artemis succeeds in obtaining the book, a compendium of fairy rules and interprets the hieroglyphics with the help of his trusted Apple Power Book. He also manages to capture a real live fairy and the conflict begins in earnest.

The success of the magic ingredient has been recognised by children's authors right from the rediscovery of the fairy tale genre in the 18th Century. Enid Blyton's Noddy books and Wishing Tree stories were popular with generations of children. When Rowlings made a decided come-back to fairy land, she touched the right chord with young readers. Publishers and would-be authors are always quick to recognise what is commercially viable and hence a little bit of magic seems to go a long way in firmly establishing newcomers in the world of children's writers. However, those concerned about the content of children's books do keep an eye open for any unconscious message that the children's writer may be conveying in the guise of a fairy tale. Does the author exalt aggression and justify it? Does the author consider display of tenderness as weakness and are the powerful fantasies rooted in sadism? A children's story may combine attractive elements of fantasy and yet propogate violence. Over and above any implicit ideology, the pleasure a child reader experiences from a text is a sure indication of the success of the author.

Despite the fact that there is some covert resemblance to the Potter formula, the book is different in many ways. Andrea Sachs, reporting for Time, comments that the writing is abysmal. "The style is cliche ridden," says the critic, quoting "no mean feat" and "hollow threat" as samples. The characters never say a piece of dialogue: they either "whine" or "quip" or "grunt" and admirable characters "smirk".

"There is also no reader involvement," says Sachs, at least not the overwhelming enthusiasm one feels for Harry Potter's misadventures. Besides all this, parents may not like the idea of a book which glorifies extortion.

Author Colfer admits with candour that if it had not been for Rowling's popularity his book would not have been quite so successful. Colfer himself has called Harry Potter books "timeless and old fashioned". May be that is why adults and children alike have been enjoying them, savouring the well written, well crafted sequels to the very first Potter book laden consistently with good humour and class.