Forty-plus years ago, the church I grew up in, Zion Episcopal, in Avon, New York, held a book sale in the downstairs parish hall slash basement. Examining the wares, I came across a paperback with an intriguing black-and-white cover illustration: imagine upright crocodiles, crossed with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, lumbering toward a Medieval-ey looking bowman, a king and queen on horseback and in the background a wizard. Good enough for me. “Mom…?”
The Firland Saga, by Norman S. Power, published in 1970, reads like a cross between Lord of the Rings and King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable if written by an Anglican minister from Birmingham, which in fact it was. The story is simple but intriguing: Firland, half of a small island nation in the North Atlantic sometime in the Dark Ages, is overrun by the crocodilian Yelgs, led by the evil Queen Ivis. Before Firland’s king leads a desperate (and fatal) counterattack, he deposits hundreds of Firlandian children in neighboring Borea. The book opens a decade or so later with the children, now teenagers, oblivious to their origins thanks to their well-intentioned foster families who fear they will run off to avenge their real parents if the truth comes out.
Naturally, Richard, the heir apparent, figures it out anyway, with the help of Greylin, a “Christian” wizard who’s a kind of cousin to Merlin and an acquaintance of Gandalf. As the Yelgs threaten to invade the Borean city of Redford and assume dominance of the entire island, the children under Richard and queen-to-be Helga muster an army and defend their land. It’s a slim, entertaining tale, replete with time travel, a dragon and a cameo by Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Conservatively speaking, I’d say I’ve read it at least a dozen times, usually a chapter or two before bed, when comfort reading washes away the travails of the day.
I never thought much about the book’s history until the Internet came around and with it online book stores and then Amazon. Eventually, I discovered to my delight there was a sequel. Somewhat astonishingly, it was available for less than an arm and a leg. And so, with much anticipation awaiting it, Fear in Firland arrived recently on my doorstep. After four decades it felt momentous, the equivalent (for me, anyway) of holding in my hands a third Homeric epic or Dickens’ secretly completed copy of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I dove into it eagerly. Turning the pages, I waited for the magic of the first book to return. And, as you have probably surmised by now, I ended up a little disappointed. The lightning bottled in The Firland Saga had leaked out. All the old characters were back, along with a promising conceit: a contemporary British family (contemporary to the early 1970s, anyway) that made a brief appearance in a time-traveling segment in the first book was needed again, this time to save Firland from a new danger. A danger that, I’m sorry to say, involved what appeared to be giant ants arriving in flying saucers.
Now, this was not disappointment on the order of certain betrayals I could name, such as Jar Jar Binks or the climactic scene in the novel Hannibal, the follow-up to Silence of the Lambs. Fear In Firland just seems a little overwritten, a little talky, a little less imaginative. It also seemed familiar, but why?
Then it came to me: two of my other favorite childhood books, which also make bedtime comfort reading appearances even today, also had quirky sequels. Roald Dahl followed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which I recall as a difficult-to-grasp adventure that involved a lot of negative numbers. Dodie Smith’s sequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Starlight Barking, involved an extraterrestrial happenstance connected to the Dog Star that somehow paralyzed everyone and everything in the world until they could be rescued. I think. That’s what I recall; it’s unlikely I’d read either sequel again, just as Fear in Firland will stay on my shelves but probably collect dust.
But the same won’t be true with its predecessor or those other comfort reading companions. I have no doubt in another year or two I’ll open The Firland Saga and re-read it, enjoying its simple charms. I’ll think gratefully of that lucky find in the basement book sale all those years ago. And I’ll try to remember, in my own series writing, which involves multiple sequels year after year, to avoid flying saucers at all costs.