Book Chatter: The Secret of Platform 13


As with any popular book or series, quite a bit of the conversation about the Harry Potter series centers on whether J.K. Rowling “stole” from other people’s work.

As an amateur writer, I find this a somewhat troubling topic. It seems to me that there are only so many types of plots and characters and resolutions out there — Christopher Booker wrote an entire book on what he identified as the seven plots that humanity has recycled since year 1. If you enjoy a story, you’ll focus on the reasons why it’s different from its thematic relatives: “Yeah, it’s a quest story with two intrepid red-headed protagonists as well, but this antagonist is motivated by nostalgia, not greed.” If you dislike a story, you’ll focus on the ways it’s identical to other stories you’ve read: “Sure, it’s not set in zombified nineteenth-century France, but it’s still the same old story of girl-meets-boy.”

Or girl-meets-bench. We're openminded here.

Or girl-meets-bench. We’re openminded here.

So if there’s nothing new under the literary sun, why do writers bother anymore? Hasn’t everything important already been written?

I don’t think so. The magic of a story is how the writer chooses to combine and highlight already-familiar ingredients. Every writer has a unique voice, and even very similar elements can take on a whole new sheen under the care of a different writer. An extreme example would be the story of Cinderella, told in Europe first by Perrault, then embellished by countless authors, including Donna Jo Napoli’s haunting adaptation of the Chinese version, Bound; Gail Carson Levine’s beloved flight of whimsy, Ella Enchanted; and Margaret Peterson Haddix’s topsy-turvy version, Just Ella. They all have the same combination of elements, but each writer has taken that set story and turned it into something beautiful and new.

Yes, even more beautiful than this guy. It's hard to believe, I know.

Yes, even more beautiful than this guy. It’s hard to believe, I know.

So when people say that J.K. Rowling borrowed this plot development from over here and that character flaw from over there, my somewhat callous reaction is “Well … of course.” Several millennia into our history, we’ve hashed out a good collection of literary elements. There’s no shame in using and reusing them as the story demands. I’m not talking about plagiarism, lifting plots and passages from other works. I’m talking about the rawer elements, the clockwork that makes a story tick.

Many people have identified a lot of Harry Potter–type elements in today’s Book Chatter selection, Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13, which was published a few years before the first Harry Potter book. There’s a magical doorway at King’s Cross, and a skinny, nice boy who’s been pressed into service as a servant, and a fat, spoiled, thoroughly unlikable boy who usurps his place at every turn. The literary resemblance to the Harry Potter books is close enough that a reporter once asked Ibbotson what she thought about it. Ibbotson replied that she’d like to “shake [Rowling] by the hand. I think we all borrow from each other as writers.”

Sometimes more literally than other times.

Sometimes literally.

So while The Secret of Platform 13 is a great read for those looking for something like Harry Potter,  it’s also an excellent story in and of itself.  It’s the story of a delightful island, handily called the Island, that’s connected to modern-day London by a portal called the Gump. The Gump opens only every nine years for nine days at a time, so when the three nurses of the beloved baby prince decide to take him through for a quick visit, it’s a national tragedy when the baby is stolen by a woman desperate for a child of her own.

Nine years later, the king and queen select a committee to go through the Gump and rescue the young prince. There’s Hans, a one-eyed giant inclined to wear lederhosen; Gurkie, a fey with a penchant for large and striking hats; Cor, a very old wizard; and Odge, an eight-year-old hag who would dearly love to be able to strike people bald. It’s a largely ceremonial team, selected for what is supposed to be a very easy mission … but when they show up in London and discover that the prince is now a spoiled brat and heavily guarded to boot, they begin to realize that nine days might not be quite long enough for the task at hand.

Beautiful crafted, witty, and light, The Secret of Platform 13 will delight readers young and old alike. And if you enjoy Ibbotson’s style, consider some of her other works, like A Company of Swans.


What’s your favourite fantasy book or series?


Photo credit: Woman on bench from cocoparisienne, Sarcorampus bird by tpsdave, and pound notes from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.


Book Chatter: A Company of Swans


Today’s installment of Book Chatter centers on A Company of Swans, by Eva Ibbotson. It’s the story of Harriet Morton, a young lady growing up in pre–World War I Cambridge under the micromanaging thumbs of her hidebound father, penny-pinching aunt, and insect-obsessed suitor. When Harriet is offered a chance to join a ballet company on a tour of South America, she leaps at the chance to leave her dreary home — even if it’s only for a few months.

Ibbotson’s narrative abilities are at their peak with A Company of Swans, so much so that she can leave a primary tension unstated, and it still serves as a major driving force through the story. That tension, to name the elephant in the room, is this: Harriet has joined the ballet company very much against her guardians’ will, so when the tour ends and the company disbands, where will she go next? Her only option, as we understand it at the beginning, is to return to Cambridge and marry Mr. Entomology 1912.

Meet the in-laws.

Meet the in-laws.

As with all stories, there are some details that may incur criticism.

  1. The father and aunt, acting as the main villains, are fairly one-dimensional. There’s very little about them that makes me conflicted about their actions. They’re just there as the forces of chaos.
  2. The roles that Amazonian natives play in the story, and the language used to describe them, are about what you would expect from a British expat in 1912.
  3. (SPOILER ALERT) In the end, that driving tension is a non-issue. Harriet doesn’t really decide her own fate. She chooses for the wrong reasons, and then her choice is snatched from her anyway, and then someone else decides for her. If I dare be this extreme, it’s a bit like Twilight: All through the story, we’re wondering, “Will she choose to become a vampire? Will she? I mean, she keeps saying she will, and all the signs point to her making that choice, but really, will she? … oh, look at that, she did.”
  4. If you buy the British edition, the blurb on the back is pretty insipid, not at all indicative of the book’s depth and lyricism. I know this isn’t the author’s fault, but still.

So with these things in mind, it would be entirely appropriate to ask me, “What do you see in this book? Why is it one of your favorites?”

First of all, the biggest reason I love this book is the gorgeous writing. Besides the precise structural chops mentioned above, Ibbotson also has the rare gift of describing details in a luminous way that will tickle your brain and make you want to be right there with the characters, even if they’re just walking through town or eating a meager breakfast. So even if the story is flawed (and really, show me a story that isn’t), at least the narrative vehicle is spot-on. Frankly, if I had to choose between good writing and a good story, I’d choose the good writing any day.

But now let’s examine those flaws. Regarding objection #1, I suppose it’s not necessary to have complex villains all the time. Sometimes, especially when reading purely for leisure, it’s nice to have an antagonist that fans are united in hating.

This is a safe place. Let it all out.

This is a safe place. Let it all out.

As for objection #2, I urge readers to remember that a work of historical fiction is striving for historical accuracy, and very often, history is not as clean and moral and forward-thinking as we like to paint it sometimes. Every era has its prejudices and quirks, ours included, and Ibbotson’s modern portrayal of Edwardian Amazonia is deliberate enough to prompt some potentially interesting discussion on why she chose to give the native people these roles in the story. There’s also a minor plot point that could spark debate over whether imperialism can ever be a good thing.

Similarly, with objection #3, one could argue that A Company of Swans isn’t really a book about a girl who finally gets the courage to make her own choices. It’s not set up to be the next feminist touchstone. It’s a book about a girl who loves to love, and who has been seeking all her life for someone to love her back. And in this, I think it’s safe to say that Harriet is indeed a strong character.

But what do you think? Does every story need to display exemplary treatment of disadvantaged groups? Is there room in today’s society for older books, like Little House on the Prairie or Gone with the Wind, showcasing attitudes that were mainstream in their time but are now quite troubling?


Photo credits: Bug from Pixabay; Umbridge meme from WeKnowMemes.