After months of hype and anticipation, J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults has appeared, swept into the arms of hopeful booksellers and an army of grown-up Harry Potter fans eager to find out what his creator has done next.
A gritty and darkly humorous tale of ugly realities in a pretty English village, "The Casual Vacancy" seems a long way from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and reviewers gave it a mixed reception. But Rowling said Thursday she wasn't worried about the response.
"I've had my books burnt," said the author, whose magical stories were condemned as Satanist by some Christian groups. "I've got quite a way to go to upset people that much with 'A Casual Vacancy.'"
A story of ambition, envy and rivalry, the novel recounts the civic warfare sparked in the fictional Pagford when the unexpected death of a town official leaves a vacancy on the governing body. Characters set on a collision course range from the affluent lawyer Miles Mollison to the Weedons, a ramshackle clan living in The Fields, the run-down housing project on the edge of town.
Rowling told a 1,000-strong audience at London's Southbank Centre that the idea for the book — "Local election sabotaged by teenagers, basically" — came to her on a plane several years ago.
Writing for a more adult readership, she said, had been "freeing" — though "in other senses it's a challenging book," told from multiple viewpoints.
Rowling said the book's focus on teenagers, the heart of Pagford and of the novel, was not a million miles from her previous work — although these troubled and profane youngsters are "not Harry, Ron and Hermione."
"They are very different teenagers," Rowling said. "They are contemporary teenagers."
The book's sex and swearing have drawn the most comment so far — some audience members were startled to hear the F-word pass Rowling's lips during Thursday's reading. But the presence of death is perhaps the book's most adult element, and one that loomed over Harry Potter's world, too.
"Death obsesses me," Rowling said. "I can't understand why it doesn't obsess everyone. Think it does. I'm just a little more 'out.'"
Five years after the last Potter book appeared, Rowling remains the world's most successful living writer. The lines were shorter and the wizard costumes missing, but "The Casual Vacancy" appeared to some of the same fanfare that greeted each Potter tome, with stores wheeling out crates of the books precisely at 8 a.m. as part of a finely honed marketing strategy.
And Rowling retains the intense loyalty of Potter fans. In contrast to the tight security that preceded the book's release, the atmosphere at Thursday' reading was warm; it felt like a reunion. Several audience members asked Potter-related questions, which Rowling answered at length. One young man, wearing a "Rowling is our Queen" T-shirt, asked if her could give her a present. Rowling accepted it graciously.
Many in the crowd were young adults who had grown up on Harry Potter and we keen to follow her wherever she wanted to go.
"She's been such an inspiration to everyone," said 18-year-old university student Milly Anderson. "She's not just influenced people's childhoods — she's molded them."
Anderson said she was loving "The Casual Vacancy" — once she'd got over the change from stories of the boy wizard and his Hogwarts chums.
"There's swearing and sex," she said. "It's a bit of a shock."
"The Casual Vacancy" is already at No. 1 on Amazon's U.S. chart, and bookmaker William Hill put 2-1 odds on it outselling "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," which shifted 2.6 million copies in Britain on its first day.
Reviews have been mixed. The Associated Press judged it a challenging but rewarding read full of emotion and heart.
However, The New York Times' influential critic, Michiko Kakutani, was damning.
"The real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly cliched that 'The Casual Vacancy' is not only disappointing — it's dull," she said.
The Guardian newspaper's reviewer, Theo Tait, said it was "no masterpiece, but it's not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny."
The Independent's Boyd Tonkin found the sometimes "long-winded and laborious" writing soared when Rowling focused on her teenage characters.
Others, though, felt the lack of likable characters might alienate readers and Daily Mail reviewer Jan Moir slammed Rowling's stark focus on Pagford's haves and have-nots as the work of a "left-leaning demagogue" painting "a bleak and rather one-sided vision of life in modern England."
Technical problems also arose Thursday. Kindle readers and other e-book users in the U.S. complained that the font was so small they could hardly read it. The American publisher, Little, Brown and Company, issued a statement late Thursday afternoon acknowledging "there were issues with that file, including the adjustability of font color and size and adjustability of margins." The publisher said the problem had been fixed and that those with a flawed text should ask retailers to send a new one. Some readers also were unhappy with the e-book's list price, $17.99, although that didn't keep the digital version from topping the Kindle charts.
It's likely nothing Rowling publishes will ever match the success of the Potter books, which have sold more than 450 million copies around the world.
But booksellers are confident "The Casual Vacancy" will be one of the year's best-sellers, whatever reviewers say.
"A lot of children have grown up with Harry Potter. They're now adults who love books," Susan Sinclair, divisional manager for the Foyles bookstore chain, said.
"I think it's going to be a really big seller at Christmas. It'll be an easy gift — but also a good one."