It’s not impossible to be seduced by artwork. This was my experience with A Hero at the End of the World by Erin Claiborne. The cover appealed to me immensely, as did the small little illustrations throughout. Unfortunately, these remain the only lasting good thing I received from the novel. Was it bad? Not really. There was a lot I would’ve liked done differently.
The idea is good. Ewan Mao is the chosen one in a contemporary magical London, except that when the time came to defeat the great evil as prophesied, his best friend did it instead. Years down the line he’s a barista and half forgotten, until a charming yet plainly evil customer promises a way to bring him back into the spotlight.
The world is based heavily on Harry Potter, so much so the primary four characters are easy stand-ins for the Harry Potter cast- Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Draco. While the idea is clearly to toy with the conventions of such an iconic novel, the result is that it often feels like fanfiction.
The resemblance to fanfiction is not a fluke, either- this novel is the first print by Big Bang Press, a company whose aim is publishing popular fanfiction authors. This is an idea I support, but I feel it does backfire with Hero: too many aspects of the book resemble fanfiction. Rather than pushing something that shows fanfic authors are completely viable creators of original content, Hero has a hero who went to a magical school destined to defeat an evil wizard. His best friend is a lighthearted poor kid who later falls in love with a bookworm. A rich, slightly stupid boy from a wealthy family shows up (and in Harry Potter, is shipped with the hero- in this, they end up together).
There are plenty of differences between the world of Harry Potter and Hero, but for some this will be difficult to get over. Many of the original ideas were interesting, and I often wished there had been more time devoted to world building. The integration of modern society and magic is played with to delightful results. I wish the author had taken her original ideas and worked the plot into something unique: even ‘best friend defeats hero’s chosen foe’ is a plot line that could have been done in many different ways rather than play off Harry Potter.
I have a dire love for creative urban fantasies, especially those set in the modern age- everything Hero offers! But by also squeezing in very explicit tie to another, more famous, and better work, Hero harms itself. Taken apart, both ideas- urban fantasy world-building, a fractured prophecy- are great, together they are a Harry Potter AU.
I have a major issue with character, plot, etc- but the writing, notably, is quite nice. It doesn’t slag, is understandable, with fits of small prose.
Pacing at first it moves at a tolerable speed, but then momentum slows to a near stop about halfway through and doesn’t resume until the climax. If you want to have a good time reading this, you’ll probably need to really like the characters. The problem is that the book seems to treat characterization like the readers already know who these people are, and thus wastes little time with introductions. Much of the reunion between the two friends- the central emotional conflict- is unappealing because there’s been little effort in assuring the reader cares in the first place.
For example, we start out a while after things happen. I forget everyone’s names, so I’ll use their Harry Potter stand ins- Harry and Ron are ex-bffs, as mentioned, and have a whole relationship we vaguely know about. Ron has been working with Hermione for some time at his job. Both are established relationships, and treated like there was a book before this which introduced them to us. I feel there is too much reliance on their counterparts being familiar than introducing the actual characters and their relationships.
So Harry and Draco- they meet in the book, which would be the ideal place to flaunt those slow-burn fanfiction muscles- except, no, even their relationship, given all the room to establish itself before our eyes, is flat. There’s no tension or proper connection between them.
There is also an effort made to be witty, but oddly- this is an odd note for me to make, but I made it several times- most of the jokes are hurt by going on too long, or the punchline being hammered in twice.
The climax is… different. The character aspect of it, the assured ‘we know it’s going to happen anyways’ reunion of MC and best friend, is pretty okay. From a story point of view however, it’s a bit of a mess, introducing a Very New element to the world/plot, which is quite fun, but just too sudden for the last quarter.
It may be up to the reader whether the fanfic elements push them over the edge, but this book- which is mostly about a boy in a cult* in London and his estranged best friend- has nothing of the homeliness of Harry Potter. It merely has the characters from it. And a lot of good art.
James, a reviewer on Goodreads, left a review that trumps my own. He said it best: “It’s not that it’s the worst book I’ve ever read, far from it; it’s just that it has not one thing which stands out as interesting to me. When it’s not failing, it’s being aggressively mediocre. And it’s a real shame.”
*Cults are a special interest of mine, and this cult, just a note, is a disappointment. A throwaway cult. Not well developed 0/10 cult points.