Thursday, July 26, 2007

the inevitable harry potter posts: II

Three more Harry Potter reviews. I'm in the middle of reading the last one, which is appropriately harrowing; expect a non-spoilery review here soon.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The transitional book in the series. Rowling still feels indebted to the "boy wizard-detective solves mystery" structure of the earlier three books, but she's also clearly grown more interested in character development and the long-term narrative elements of the story world. This creates an interesting tension: between the desire, on the one hand, to write another self-contained book (like the first three) and the desire, on the other, to write a book that functions as an installment in an ongoing serial. The tension isn't fruitfully resolved: this book is the slowest to get rolling (it takes nearly 200 pages just to get to Hogwarts) and Rowling's heart doesn't seem to be entirely in the mystery: it's the one of the first four which has the least satisfying Big Reveal, which requires an entire chapter's worth of flavorless talk to fully clarify.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The first book in the series where Rowling assumes that the readers have read the previous books. Freed of the necessity to ponderously re-establish the backstory-- the flaw that weighed down Goblet of Fire --Rowling is freed up to hit the ground running: the turbulence begins to hit with the first chapter. As with the earlier books in the series, the book is centered around a mystery here, although unlike the earlier books, it doesn't truly belong the the genre of The Mystery as such--there is no real way to puzzle out the solution, for instance. But the series doesn't really need to rely on mystery structure any longer anyway: by this point the long-form plot has amassed enough potential energy that it can soar simply by exploiting the conflicts already set up in its first four installments. Which isn't to say that there aren't new ones as well, notably in the form of Dolores Umbridge, whose petty abuses of power, disdain for the autonomy of young people, and Kafkaesque punishment schemes make her all-too-familiar: possibly my favorite villain in the series. Recommended.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Feels a bit like a book-length positioning of pieces for the big finale of Book Seven. Not that there's anything wrong with that: Rowling, at this point, has developed a very rich world, populated by literally dozens of characters who we care about, each with their own interesting plot arc. (This may form the basis of an entire later post.) Watching this network click forward in the standard increment (one year) is fascinating unto itself; the Voldemort backstory that forms the real backbone of this book is an added bonus.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

the inevitable harry potter posts: I

So I've been putting off reading the Harry Potter books for what feels like forever, despite the fact that this means that I'm at a real social disadvantage when hanging with my fanfic-writing pals. With the approach of the seventh final book, however, I realized that I'd have only a short amount of time to ever try to read them without knowing The Ending, so I decided to make ripping through the six existing novels my big July Reading Project.

As all of civilization knows, the final book went on sale last night at midnight, so it looks like I missed my deadline: I've finished the first four books and am about halfway through the fifth. Hopefully I'll get fully caught up before stumbling upon any spoilers, although I'm wondering if this is even possible without having to go on Full Media Blackout.

Anyway. What follows are reviews of the first three, free of all but the most mild spoilers:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
A good read. Chugs along surprisingly swiftly, drawn by the well-plotted and essentially rewarding mystery story that forms the book's core. The main characters (Harry, Hermione, Ron) are charming, albeit a bit sketchily-drawn in this early volume (and some of the bit characters, primarily the Durselys, are cast with a heavier hand than is perhaps necessary, even for childrens' literature). The book's real stroke of genius, however, is the utilization of the familiar triumphs and trials of Going To School as a way to ground us in the quirky tweeness of Rowling's universe. Perhaps a minor quibble after this praise is the matter of the prose, some of which is occasionally clunky or slack (I don't know what enchanted letters shooting out of a fireplace flue are like, but to say they "like bullets" is no help). I'd probably let this pass if I hadn't just read Phillip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, a piece of children's fantasy literature that uses prose so finely-wrought and precise that nearly anyone looks clunky and slack by comparison.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The second book in the series brings back some of the same pleasures of the first-- the likeable characters, the fast-paced narrative, the "boy detective" elements (clues, red herrings, a finely-crafted Big Reveal) --and also introduces a subtle new one, specifically, a sense of repetition and variation that emerges from Rowling's decision to plot the books around a school year. Many of the milestones from the first book (summer trouble at the Dursley's, a Diagon Alley outfitting trip, the Sorting Ceremony, the Quidditch season, Christmas break, etc) recur here, which adds to our comfort and familiarity, but changing perspective and changed circumstances keep the book from feeling repetitive. The interplay between these poles is essentially the interplay that lends pleasure to any sort of tradition, and it does similar work here, making this book a read that satisfies more deeply than the first-- even if the Dursley's still feel heavy-handed, and even if the climax still has a touch of the deus ex machina about it (tell me again why a sword comes out of the Sorting Hat?).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The best of the first three. At this point in the series, Rowling's confidence appears to surge dramatically, resulting in the book being more inventive than its predecessors, most notably through Rowling's decision to introduce creatures that are brand-new to the series universe (Dementors, boggins) instead of simply choosing to revamp of already-existing fantasy creatures (as she does with the pixies, goblins, dragons, centaurs, etc. of the earlier books). In addition, the mystery is more complex and satisfying (although the Big Reveal accordingly requires deployment of huge chunks of dialogue in the center of what's ostensibly a moment characterized by murderous desire). Finally, the book has a thrilling post-Reveal final act -- something absent from the earlier two books -- and a satisfying profusion of loose ends, which begin to give some sense to the shape of the larger seven-book arc. Recommended.

More to come in a while.