I've been reading N.D. Wilson's writing, ever since he first started getting it published. I read his early short stories and poems in Credenda Agenda. I've also recommended his work before but having just finished the concluding volume of his 100 Cupboards trilogy (100 Cupboards, Dandelion Fire, The Chestnut King), I have much more to say.
Genius is rare. We all know that. Acheiving popularity as a writer is pretty rare too. Very rarely do the two coincide, and it is almost unheard of for genius and popularity to come together in the author's own lifetime. I sincerely hope it happens for N.D. Wilson though. He's got five kids to feed.
There is quite a lot going on in this trilogy and I really don't have the time or the space to analyze everything. I do want to make a couple of comparisons though. I'm not a fan of Rowling, or her hero: Harry Potter. I don't hate the kid, but I find his story dull and uninteresting. I don't find the world Rowling created very magical, mysterious, or enchanting. I wouldn't really want to visit there. The school politics and bereaucracy are alive and well in that world and their mind-numbing qualities are quite available outside the pages of a book. The idea that she is writing about wizardry is severely misguided. What she calls wizardry and magic, is really just scientific knowledge and method. The classes at Hogwarts are just science and history classes. The wizard world is only a more technologically advanced version of Great Britain.
All of that to say, Wilson's fantasy world is as homegrown American as Rowling's is British, but it is truly fantastical. There exists within it references to things like mayors and bereaucracies, but the vision of it is transformative and deeply magical. Wilson's hero-child, Henry, isn't a wizard (though wizards do exist and are wizardish), he is a green-man. This distinction is important imaginatively and it deeply shapes the narrative. Harry Potter is basically a bright-boy with a high IQ. This means his spells work particularly well. He still has to memorize them though. He has to have technical knowledge to be a wizard. Wilson's wizards have mysterious knowledge but they operate in a Merlinic fashion: they produce their effects by being themselves rather than by manipulating charms. Henry is a seventh son of a seventh son, branded by the fire of the dandelion. Further, Henry's powers and knowledge as a green-man are acheived as wisdom is, by distilled experience and personal virtue. Birth and naming are more important than access to textbooks or library research (sorry Hermione). This means that the pull, the attraction, of Wilson's world is that of the mythic, the poetic, the otherworldly. Rowling's world is attractive as all success, fame, and ambition stories are; they stimulate the desires of pride and lust for power.
Another interesting aspect of the 100 Cupboards series is the orphan-status of the hero: Henry. Many (most?) children's books feature an orphan for the hero. I have a very smart colleague at Boise State who is studying this phenomena in mythology and literature. Sometimes the child is an outright orphan, as is Harry Potter, and sometimes it is a child with orphan-status: some kind of parents exist but he is effectively abandoned and alone. Wilson takes this typical situation and uses it in some unique ways. I've never seen the joy and the primacy of a family so beautifully affirmed in a book. It is a wonderful to read. Wilson is Gene Wolfe for kids.
Finally, one character when faced with death, comments that he ought to have eaten more of his wife's pies. And that is just good philosophy.