A funny thing about fantasy: it is often derided as kids’ stuff, yet it is so often the work of old people. Tolkien was in his 60s when The Lord of the Rings was first published, C.S. Lewis in his 50s by the time he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and George R. R. Martin nearly half a century when A Game of Thrones was first unleashed onto the world. Hell, J.K. Rowling seems positively newborn for publishing the first Harry Potter novel at 32. But Christopher Paolini takes the cake: his novel Eragon, a 500+-page epic about dragons and knights and swords and prophecies and all that fantasy shit, became a smash hit when he was 19, securing Paolini a Guinness World Record for being the youngest author of bestselling books. And the plucky, precocious Paolini complete three sequels in what became the Inheritance Cycle, all of which sold extremely well, and Eragon was turned into a Hollywood film—now that’s some real fantasy shit.
Nearly every season, the literary world is introduced to some wunderkind writer who, at some stupidly young age like 21 or 22, has crafted a debut novel (usually) that is wise way beyond its fresh-faced author’s years. The attention placed on their books has as much to do with the novelty of precocity as it does with the merit of the work, if only because most of us, having lived through our early 20s without producing a masterpiece, know how difficult such a feat is to accomplish. Moreover, many readers enter into the highly extolled books of the preternaturally gifted with dubiousness, almost a suspicion of such quickly realized talent, so that upon publication the impassioned responses are drastically polarized between those much impressed by the early effort and those for whom it is nothing more than crass publicity on the part of the publisher and less the insights of some twenty-something genius.
Both sides of the literary dichotomy here point to the same thing: that a book written by a very young author is noteworthy, no matter whether the notes that emerge commend it as a rare event or condemn it as a fraud. We are always, no matter how reticent we remain of them, on the lookout for prodigies and virtuosos. Some of us had, at one time in our lives, imagined that we might someday be touted by the establishment as a brilliant yet unbelievably young star, and have watched with varying degrees of resentment and jealousy those who are ballyhooed in our stead. Still others, mindful of history, dream of one day discovering their generation’s Shakespeare, an undeniable and nearly universally acclaimed artist on whom all subsequent creative efforts are compared. We all have our reasons.
But somewhere in between those opposing poles—of unwieldy praise and of uncompromising doubt—is something else often true: that many writers presented as wunderkinds do not maintain a long career or whatever potential was observed in that first book somehow dissipates with time, their continued production lacking some essence, some elusive light they were once (once) able to bottle. So I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some books written by incredibly young writers—teenagers, in fact—but also ones whose potential wasn’t tenuous, or an ephemeral stroke of luck, but a sign of the virtuosity to come.
Feature image: Death to Stock