I have recently discovered that the reviews that I write about the Harry Potter books are seen as negative and I guess that’s a fair judgement to make. There are a lot of things to be negative about. One of my favorite things about reading anything is thinking critically about the messages and portrayals that are present. One of the unfortunate problems with that is that having discussion about those things usually doesn’t work. Either people are not interested or they haven’t read the book.
With Harry Potter I find that people are almost alway interested and if they haven’t read the book by this point… well, I think the statute of limitations has passed.
What this means is that I can discuss all my feelings about these books without prejudice (as far as that is possible) without spoiling anything for anybody.
That said, if I don’t like a book I don’t read the sequels. If a book is bad enough I won’t finish it — though I can count the times that has happened on one hand, I’m pretty tenacious.
I like the Harry Potter books, so far. Rowling has a voice that is witty and sarcastic while also being succinct and interesting. The books feel like they should be read aloud, the narrator is so present that she frequently seems to be physical.
It is impossible to pin down what has made these books (or any books) so successful. I suspect that any attempt to ascribe one aspect of the writing to their popularity would be false. It is many things in congress that make the whole. The voice is definitely one of those things. As well are the memorable characters who are almost universally interesting even in their cliches, if only for their names.
The plot and setting and especially the character names in these books are decidedly Dickensian which lends a great deal to the feel of the books. The man who turns into a dog is named Sirius, the woman who becomes an insect is named Skeeter, etc., the largest proponents of evil are named Malfoy, the list of symbolic and literal names is almost endless. The setting is an English boarding school which was almost defined as a literary backdrop by Dickens and the continual mistreatment and vindication by differing parties of Harry Potter resonates very well with Dickens model of Victorian literature.
Rowling also captures the angst, distress and confusion of being fourteen spectacularly.
Harry, in this fourth volume, has become a likable character, showing some restraint and genuine empathy for others rather than the arrogant self-centeredness of the early novels. He still maintains an ugly penchant to judge others on first impressions and an inability to stop snooping around in things that are really beyond his demesne — which is why there is a story — a book about Neville wouldn’t be nearly so interesting.
Ron, on the other hand has become much less likable, coming off as selfish and uncaring most of the time and downright rude on occasion. He is also completely unable (along with everybody else) to see the slavery of house elves as a bad thing.
Hermione struggles to start a movement to free the house elves, one which every other person is completely ambivalent about, including Harry Potter (who should be sensitive to such things having been enslaved in all but name his entire childhood). At first I was hoping that this was an introduction by Rowling of some darker elements into the story, a bit of morality to ask some questions and give the reader something to think about. The problem is that there is nothing to think about. Perhaps this is because I have lived in a world where slavery is not just wrong but one of the darkest kinds of evils but I find I am wholly in agreement with Hermione on this subject. Slavery is wrong. There is no gray area here. It doesn’t matter if house elves like being slaves. Rowling didn’t introduce a morally gray discussion point, she made all of her wizards — good and bad alike — into slavers.
Hermione, in fact, seems to have become not only the voice of exposition but the voice of reason in the triptych that makes up the main cast. She is constantly pointing out to Harry and Ron why Snape could not have been the bad guy, yet again. (After three plus years of blaming everything on him and being wrong every year you’d think they would get over it.) She is also the one who eliminates the easy explanations for mysteries. She is always spouting out plot convenient excuses why electronics won’t work at Hogwarts or why that spell can’t be done in this case.
Despite Hermione’s best efforts (can you tell that she is the one that I identify with the most) Snape and Malfoy are still regarded with suspicion with the added red herring of one of Snape’s old Deatheater buddies. All in an attempt to turn the reader away from the obvious mastermind behind everything.
Rowling is fascinatingly fluid in her prose style and powerfully communicates a variety of emotions and grand schemes. The depth of the plots seem to be lacking, however.
I’ve had problems with the plots of each of the books. The most egregious being the Prisoner of Azkaban which had a world-breaking introduction of consequentless time travel. This book follows that tradition by having Voldemort implement a plan to waylay Harry Potter that is so needlessly convoluted that it borders on mustache-twirling villainy (I know he’s supposed to be a villain, but he’s the dark lord not Boris and Natasha — the kidnapping scheme that he perpetrates with the help of Crouch Jr. disguised as Moody feels like it belongs in an episode of Rocky and Bulwinkle). The plan only worked out of sheer chance, and because Dumbledore is the idiot who happens to be the best player on Voldemort’s team. If Crouch Jr. could make a port key out of an object why didn’t he just use one of Harry’s items, like the Marauder’s Map, for instance? The book and showdown could have ended in the first month of classes without any of the key Deatheaters experiencing any more danger than they did already.
In fact, one of the most glaring problems with the plot (Voldemort’s not Rowling’s — though technically they are both Rowling’s) is that Harry is almost completely helpless by himself. I suspect this is on purpose. It is through his friends that Harry succeeds at everything he does. This is in stark contrast to Voldemort who is also helpless without his vast array of Deatheaters who miraculously survived prosecution and succeeded into places of power while awaiting his return. The clever bit of contrast here is that Harry knows and understands that and depends on his friends to be there and help him. Voldemort intimidates and frightens his friends until he grinds them into dust. However, if Harry had not had help from Cedric in the final task of the Tournament, even with Crouch Jr. keeping him from facing the worst of the maze, he would not have even made it to the port key that was set up for him. Voldemort’s plan, Crouch’s plan, only worked because Harry had tremendous friends and an ability to inspire kindness and friendship in others.
I think as a message to readers this is brilliant. You can’t do everything on your own. Even if you are amazing. The way it works in the story — is a little farfetched.
I applaud Rowling for dealing with some of the emotional trauma that comes with the experiences these children are going through. I especially like that it is Harry’s being nice to Cedric and helping him that gets Cedric killed. The followup to the climax where Harry has to deal with his grief and survivor’s guilt over Cedric’s death is succinct but poignant.
The foreshadowing and misdirection are clumsy at best, almost always flagging themselves as such with an audible dun-dun-dunnn in true 1920’s radio drama fashion. Foreshadowing is hard, though, especially if you want it done subtly (which you usually do) and few authors can pull it off convincingly without hanging a flag on it.
The story feels disjointed in places because each chapter seems to focus on individual crises, one after the other (like ‘who will I ask to the ball?’) but the themes of jealousy and revenge are well-played strongly enough and the teenage turmoil of emotion resonates strongly enough that those things are overcome. Rowling has also improved in her prose style as an author. She will probably never be considered a great wordsmith but that’s not the point of these books — most books that are crafted that carefully lack any entertainment value and exist rather as exposition piece than as storytelling. The result is that among the choppy pacing and the clumsy foreshadowing and obvious red herring the story is never dull and hums along quite nicely.
Harry has the distinction of always being in just the right place to get in on the mystery/trouble/action. It happens often enough that it begins to feel contrived. This is a problem more of the limited viewpoint than of the book itself but it is noticeable.
I would like to reiterate that I like this book. It is a grand adventure and deals with some very poignant emotions in the three main cast members as well as touching on some of the troubles and emotional scars of side characters. As a work of fiction it is an excellent example of adventure.
I have mentioned multiple times that Rowling’s wizard world seems more real than her real world. I think that is part of the appeal of the stories. Harry comes from some kind of fairy tale bad place where he is kept under the stairs, mistreated and belittled in an almost comical and slapstick kind of way that cleverly draws attention away from the darker aspects of Harry’s childhood. (In many ways this is just another aspect of the Dickensian story being told. Abusive family life of young orphans is a trope that Dickens practically created. Going to boarding school to escape is just the next step.) Rowling gives a reason why Dumbledore left him with abusive step parents — apparently Voldemort can’t get to him if he lives with family — but leaving a child unprotected in that kind of situation seems untenably careless. Dumbledore, in fact, continually spouts bits of wisdom without ever putting himself into any danger or actually doing anything useful. He has proven himself completely incompetent as an administrator or a leader. He hired Quirrel and Lockhart one after the other and his choice to bring in Moody and Lupin backfired spectacularly in both cases. Even his choice to hire Hagrid is inspired in it’s ineptitude to do anything for the education of the students. (Hagrid is a wonderful person but he is a terrible teacher, as evidenced by the quality of the class provided by his substitute when he was unwilling to teach temporarily.)
Wizards seem unable to enact basic laws of human decency, having no consequences for slander or outright falsification of facts in news reporters. Rita Skeeter slanders her way through the book until Hermione puts her in a jar — another act which should have some consequences, kidnapping, even somebody as slimy as Skeeter, is a horrible crime.
Hermione, in this book, suddenly has large front teeth and she shrinks them in an attempt to improve her looks. Upon discovering this Harry and Ron suddenly realize that she’s a girl — because they aren’t superficial at all — and ask her to the ball. I have been thinking for several weeks about how I feel about this. On the one hand it seems perfectly reasonable behavior on the parts of Hermione and the boys. Teenagers are superficial by nature. Hermione would be self-conscious of her appearance. These are all real things. I also feel disappointed that Hermione would feel that way. She should know that she can fit in regardless of the size of her teeth — and what if she would have grown into the teeth, now she will have teeth that are too small causing no end of dental problems as an adult.
Finally, Quidditch is boring to read about. Waiting for a Quidditch match to start is even more boring to read about. The first hundred pages are a drag. This realization came as a shock to me. Quidditch is one of my favorite parts of the movies. In a visual medium it is fascinating, on the page it becomes tedious and yet another sports scene.
That is why I am happy to say that after the initial hundred pages this book is entirely devoid of Quidditch.
In conclusion I thought this book was the best of the ones I have read. Each one has gotten better as the series progresses. The movies have given me the impression that this is the high point of the series but I’m looking forward to reading the rest of them.