Browsing the shelves of Foyles while in London this week, I was intrigued to see a couple of books by NYT bestselling author Andrew Shaffer: Hope Never Dies and Hope Rides Again. These political thrillers feature Barak Obama and Joe Biden as action heroes. Reviewers describe them as “escapist fantasy for liberals”, and “bromantic buddy-cop noir.” Prominently displayed cover-out, in the YA SFF section of Foyles. In London. Cool. I looked for a YA MAGA hat romance for balance, but didn’t find one. Probably sold out.
Now, Foyles is a fair sized bookshop (also an awesome one), but it’s hardly the Barnes & Nobel on Union Square. Shelf space is precious. So, how did these Obama Nation nostalgia pieces end up on this side of the pond? Could it be that US election season gets enough coverage here? Questionable, considering that the UK has just crowned a new king and is on its third Prime Minister in as many months–it’s getting to be like Italy, that way–and has had its share of colorful leaders (queue Boris Johnson staggering around Downing Street in his dressing gown with a bottle of vintage red in hand).
Are Biden and Obama so popular in a country that voted twice to leave the EU and has had five Tory PMs in a row, including a self-declared Donald Trump fanboy? Well, Foyles is in London, and London isn’t the UK. Could it be that political thrillers are just the thing at the moment, so why not octogenarian politicians swinging from rope ladders? Then there’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a real life action hero president who’s in the news every day, and is popular with Brits across the political spectrum (think: TikTok Churchill with abs). He could be driving demand for anything in the niche. I didn’t interview Foyles’ management, so I don’t know. But it’s fun to speculate.
Are re-imaginings of popular leaders unusual? Hardly. The tradition goes back thousands of years. Consider the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s earliest surviving work of literature. Bards and writers have long puffed up the exploits of public figures and luminaries for profit or political favor; not surprisingly, they’ve often waited for the originals of their villains to be safely dead. In the modern West, where beheading is no longer a disincentive, defamation suits, cyberbullying, and no-platforming are.
Elizabeth Pankova takes a reasoned view down her nose at Shaffer’s work in this New America post. Guy Gavriel Kay, a beloved Canadian writer of delicious literary fantasy, laments the “trap of fictionalising real lives” in this Guardian blog post.
Me? I find the international success of Shaffer’s work encouraging. Not-yet-dead politicians make timid, distant cameos in one of two of mine. As Guy Gavriel Kay recommends, I adopt the ancient tradition of giving thinly-veiled makeovers to my archetypes of evil. But perhaps I too can dare to swing one from a rope ladder.