Rowling continues to get better with each book. I know this is an unpopular thing to say but I actually liked this book the best of the ones I have read so far. I’ve been told over and over that this is the worst one and I think I can see why. Rowling finally takes the series into a darker direction. Much of the safety of Hogwarts is undermined by the removal of Dumbledore and the glorification of Harry takes a back seat as he finds that he is even more dependent on his friends than usual.
These are all good things as far as I can see.
Apparently the wizarding world has no laws against blackmail, journalistic integrity, corruption, or monopolies. All the news comes from one source, all the money is kept in one bank, all the shopping is done in one alley, all the students ride one train (this makes no sense unless they only accept students from London). I understand that their community is supposed to be relatively small by comparison to the rest of the world but with this kind of infrastructure it surprises me that they have not devolved into a totalitarian regime before — Voldemort can’t be the first to try to take over and Fudge can’t be the first to institute Big Brother policies.
There are also seemingly no consequences for anything unless the plot demands it and there are no laws for anything unless the plot demands it. For example: Every book before this one Harry has performed magic outside of Hogwarts. The first year nothing was even mentioned, the second Mrs. Weasley yelled at Ron, the third year they brushed it off because Sirius had escaped from Azkaban, the fourth year — well nobody seemed to notice, but this year suddenly it’s a grand hullaballoo. When Harry blew up his Aunt out of anger and spite they just shrugged and said, let’s keep you safe from this scary man. When Harry defends himself and his cousin from a pack of approaching soul-sucking monsters he is threatened with expulsion and a life sentence.
I realize that this inconsistency is supposed to make the reader angry. It’s there on purpose in this case. Harry did the only thing he could do and he’s being punished. However the anger that it made me feel was the wrong kind, I felt angry that Rowling wasn’t being consistent with her world. But, then, there are several dangling threads of this tapestry that you don’t want to pull on too hard. If they bother you just take a few steps back until you can’t see them.
The plot is yet another of Rowling’s idiot plots in the same vein as all the others — mainly the plot happens because Dumbledore is such an idiot. I’m convinced that none of these books would have happened if Dumbledore were replaced early on by somebody who is actually competent. The first book he hides the key to Voldemort’s return behind some traps so juvenile that first-year students can defeat them handily then runs off to London to party with his friend. Each book since has hinged upon him withholding information, staying uninvolved or being coy when he should have been forthcoming. This book mixes things up a bit by having him admit that he’s been an idiot and that Harry would never have gotten into any of the scrapes he’s been in if he had just been given some information in the very beginning. Why Harry doesn’t walk away in disgust upon learning this remains to be explained.
The form of capital punishment used at Hogwarts is unnecessarily cruel and I would like to know how the parents react when they find out that detention entails carving sentences into their children’s flesh. I know I would turn into a tornado or raging fury that you don’t want to mess with if any these things were happening to my kids and I found out about it. The wizarding world just seems to take it in stride. The kids complain to each other but seem to think that school is a place where anything might happen and just take the abuse. The government is also really baffling. It appears that all the wizards and witches work for the Ministry of Magic in one position or another and the Ministry is able to issue decrees, change laws and create policies at a rate that is simply astounding for any single governing body. It’s completely unbelievable of a bureaucratic one.
Harry is banned form the Quidditch team early on. There is much rejoicing. He still talks about it a lot so it’s not a total victory. This may be my own issues with sports and the futility of most of the world’s preoccupation with what amounts to watching other people have a good time but I really dislike the Quidditch parts of these books. They are rarely interesting, usually pointless and always dull. (They present other problems as well by implying the wizarding world is much larger than is supportively possible given other monopolistic tendencies of their society…) Not to mention the fact that people play it while sitting on brooms, up in the sky with no safety harness, no net underneath, no pads even and the point of the game is to try to knock each other off their brooms while playing a kind of three-hoop basketball. The sudden rise in deaths coinciding with the advent of the game’s popularity should have ended it’s rise to national acceptance centuries before.
The brief glimpse we see of Harry’s parents shows that James Potter was a jerk, worse than Malfoy. I have no sympathy for him. I’m glad Harry didn’t grow up with that guy, he might have been a worse influence than Harry’s Uncle Vernon.
Harry starts training fellow students to fight bad guys. This is a good idea generally but seems to make little sense with what we’ve been told on every page up to this point. Hermione, who can do any spell instantly, is suddenly unable to do the defensive spells that Harry is teaching — the ones all of them supposedly learned in their first year. I understand that learning and doing are different things. Having an engineering degree is only about 15% of the preparation that you need to actually be an engineer. The rest comes as a form of on-the-job/learn-it-now training. However, these are mostly students who have been in school for five years. Does Hogwarts churn out students that are incapable of disarming an attacker — a spell they were taught in their second year? It appears so. No wonder Fudge thinks he needs to send someone to take over, the kids aren’t learning anything.
(I’m assuming that, in addition to all the magical classes they are taking, the students are also learning basic things like reading, writing, math, music, etc. though it seems like their lives would be so full they wouldn’t be able to breathe if that were the case. I have a hard time imagining that, even in the wizarding world, people don’t need to learn to read and write in order to communicate clearly.)
The villains of Harry Potter are incapable of concocting plans that do not come to fruition at the end of the school year. This should make them very predictable, yet it somehow does not.
Now the parts I did like.
Umbridge is a supremely nasty and believable administrator. She gave me real shivers every time she inserted herself into any scene (she reminded me so much of some of the management I dealt with when I worked for Wal-Mart I actually had a hard time reading some of her scenes.)
Fred and George are delightful, brilliant and I love that their arc has been developing for several books now and culminates here. This is one of the few stories in these books that actually developed over several years. (Most of the time the spells and history relevant to that year’s plot are learned that year.)
Sirius Black died. I liked this for three reasons. One, Sirius is a whiny immature authority figure for Harry who goads him into trouble and stupid decisions at almost every turn — he’s really not a good influence. Two, he’s not really a healthy one either as Harry attaches to him almost immediately. It’s important for Harry to be alone, with no parent figure in his life that he can trust, because that’s when he will be forced to rely on his strongest asset which is his friends. Three, this is Rowling finally taking things to the next level. Voldemort, up to this point has been almost-killed by a baby and showed he was back by killing a high-school kid. Mostly he’s a mustache twirling super villain who hasn’t actually been able to do any villainy yet. (He still hasn’t but at least one of his followers did.)
Rowling doesn’t shy away from dealing with the fallout of Sirius’s death. This has been impressive to me in each book. Harry deals with some pretty nasty trauma each year and then has to go back to live with his abusive Aunt and Uncle. Rowling doesn’t gloss over it. Harry is stricken into a black depression by Cedric’s death at the end of the fourth book and runs around grasping at straws after Sirius’s death in this one. He’s just lost his last connection to his parents and wants that back. The desperation is palpable. It is probably this one aspect of these books that completely sells the rest of the story to me. Rowling can get away with a lot of ridiculous in the plot, characters and world building by shoving me into Harry’s head and making me feel the utter emptiness that is a lost loved one and the desperation with which he struggles to find a way to bring Sirius back.
Rowling’s writing has improved with each novel and become more readable. I’m not sure if that is because she is becoming a better writer or because her audience is getting older. She has done a spectacular job of aging the story and writing up with each successive book so that the target audience stays the same as they get older.
In fine, I found this book to be the best of the bunch so far. It moved past the glacial opening of Goblet of Fire, it had a moderately less contrived plot than Prisoner of Azkaban or Goblet of Fire and the writing and emotional impact are top notch. I have enjoyed each successive Harry Potter book more than the last and this one is no exception. Let’s hope the ramp continues upward for the next two.