Monday, May 25, 2009

The Harry Potter Series

Since "geek" is not a derogatory term from which I've fled in my life, I write here this day to announce my recent completion of the 7 book Harry Potter series. I took about 10 months to complete this task, and overall I enjoyed the series. I would stop short of saying they were the best books I have ever read or that I'm going to race out to movie premiers dressed as a wizard. But nonetheless, I enjoyed the series, the cast of characters, and the plot that befell the one and only Harry Potter.

The general gist of the series is that Harry Potter is an orphaned boy who through some curious magical friends discovers that as an infant survived an attack from the evil wizard Voldemort, an attack that took the lives of his parents. The framework of the series is that Potter learns more and more about his parents and the bad dude at Hogwarts, a school for wizards. The school has seven grades and the series has seven books, each book another year in the boy wizard's life. The overall series was at its best when the action took place at the school, rather than off its grounds, but the later books dictated that increasing amounts of action occur away from Hogwarts. In the end, the story comes full circle as Potter and Voldemort square off on school grounds.

1.) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The first book was Becky's least favorite, and while I disagree, I can see why she thinks so. The series is what it is because of the great character development JK Rowling employs. However, at the very start, getting to know the hoards of people is burdensome. Additionally the reader, like Harry, is learning the rules of the wizarding world (brooms flying, sporting activities, etc.) which takes time to develop. In later books, the reader knows all of this in advance and it's like riding a bike, but the first go around can be a bit much. The plot is clever with a suspenseful ending, and the book is a serviceable framework for later chapters in the saga while still completing a story.

2.) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

As I began reading the second book, I was eager to jump back into Harry's life at Hogwarts and the new friends he met at said school. But in what would prove to be a reoccurring theme throughout the series, I had to persevere through nearly 100 pages of Harry in the non-wizarding world, agonizing as I was, when he would return. I found this to be Rowling's primary weakness in writing where it appeared to she wanted to stretch out books for no real reason. Nonetheless, the action picks up quickly once back at Hogwarts where Harry and his two best pals Hermione and Ron discover secrets at the school untouched for years. When Ron's youngest sister, Ginny, falls into trouble, Harry and pals race to save the day. An entertaining second effort.

3.) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Having not been part of the Harry Potter craze from the get go, I wonder if the series took off on its spectacular popularity after book 2 as book 3 and those thereafter triple in length. While 1 and 2 might have been written in succession, book 3 elevates in complexity of story telling that required an extra skill level. The story here revolves around a mysterious new teacher, an escaped convict, and Potter's growing rivalry with the Potions Professor, Severus Snape. All three become critical characters in later installments, and for the first time, the series flashes back to establish the history (and eventual future) of these three crazy cats. Another quirky ending left me with a favorable rating with this being my second favorite book of the entire series.

4.) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

My overall favorite book would be this fourth one where Harry grows out of the child label and into the young man that the rest of the wizarding world would later rely on. It's kind of the Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader, but fighting for good for those nerds out there that are getting these sci-fi references. The neighboring wizarding schools get together for the Tri-Wizard tournament that determines the best young wizard in the world. The plot revolves around three tasks for this tournament that increase in order of difficulty and danger until for the first time in three books - an achievement in delayed gratification - Potter deals with the Voldemort character for the first time. The setting and intensity of this meeting was my favorite part of the series, and the ending an incredible leap that left me eager for the rest of the series.

5.) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Having really enjoyed book 3 and loving book 4, I can easily say that book 5 was a tremendous disappointment and my least favorite of all 7 books. This fifth installment was meant to be a call to arms in the war of good and evil. Rather than an action packed race to ready, the primary characters are confined to a single hideout, doing more hiding than anything. Chapter after chapter dealt with dark rooms, whispers, and a battle of media perception (think Spiderman - again, I am a dork and I am comfortable with this). The decrease in action from fighting overgrown snakes, body snatching bad guys, dragon slaying, and three headed dogs from books one through four are replaced by Harry trying to go on dates, which while a nice attempt into what a normal 15 year old might be doing are not Rowling's strong suit. Her strong suit are her finales, but this is her weakest one of the bunch. The good guys run around a blur of a setting that has weird surroundings for the sake of being weird and offer nothing to the overall conclusion other than to say the lack of attention to physics make the story hard to follow rather than uniquely magical. Compared to an alternate setting elsewhere in the series of a graveyard that clearly sets the tone and stakes at hand, the Ministry of Magic basement conclusion was sub-par. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was a big time thumbs down for yours truly.

6.) Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

I know of several people that have read the series that did not care for this installment of the book, but I maintain that it was necessary to build to the finale. In this chapter of the series, Potter spends a tremendous amount of time with his mysterious mentor, Albus Dumbledore. Now Dumbledore had made it habit in the first five books of showing up at the end to explain everything. He was a mysterious character who in the end, was always at the right place at the right time. A likable chap, Dumbledore takes center stage in this installment, shedding the shadows and leading Harry along. Rowling very cleverly manages to spend a significant portion of the book in flashback mode to offer some additional build up for the inevitable extreme good (Potter) versus extreme evil (Voldermort). The book gets very intense toward the end as the necessary passing of the torch sets up the finale in the series. But it is in the frantic endings where Rowling writes best, and she does well to finish up Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

7.) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Ah, the grand finale! I have been asked by several what I thought of the last book, and I answer truthfully in that I abhorred the first half and loved the last half. In the first four hundred pages, roughly one exciting thing happens (the flight from the Dursley residence). When the earlier plots occurred at Hogwarts, Rowling was able to throw in little nuances that made the build up for conclusion fun and whimsical. Taken out of Hogwarts, Harry Potter flees bad guys in the boringest of fashions. I had faith that the book would get better, and it did, but in answering whether a book is good or not, I feel the need to resist answering with the last taste in my mouth and instead consider the whole body of work.

What I did like about the finale, I really liked. Rowling does not hesitate to kill off characters, which while sounding demonic of me, was most enjoyable. For the ultimate climax of the series has to be built up in such a way where the reader feels the seriousness of the situation, and eliminating beloved but expendable characters does just that. Those characters who survive the book have well defined roles and excellent closure. The dramatic of reveal of the dark Severus Snape is among the best writing in the whole series as the sometimes good guy sometimes bad guy shows his true colors. The final chapter of years later wraps up the entire series and gives the reader a sense of finality.


dani said...

Allow your dorky sister to explain some of the phenomenon. When JKR presented Sorcerer's Stone to book publishers, the book was rejected. It took several trips to publishers that eventually led to a few people saying "Hey, this is good!" and ended up having an auction for book rights. The phenomenon grew AFTER the books came out. I only know a handful of people who read book one when it first came out. Book three is when the series became wildly popular, and that's when movie rights started getting discussed. The movies plus the phenomenon of book three sparked the fandom. That's when websites and communities started forming.

I've always found it interesting that the Harry Potter series is so firmly protested and banned in many schools. Laura Malloy, a christian mom, believed that the books are witchcraft and pure evil. She's never actually read the books, and states that she doesn't need to in order to know they're evil. To each their own I suppose.

Edwin said...

I've only seen the movies, and maybe this is explained in the books, but I can't get past a key point from book 3:

The kids have access to a Time Machine. They use it to control their past and future selves to resolve that chapter of the series, yet never use it again. How many people have to die before they see it fit to actually use the damn thing again?

dani said...

In answer to Edwin;

Well the movies refuse to include the plot point that every "time machine" is destroyed in The Order of The Phoenix. They break in the department of mysteries and no new time-turners can be made.

Edwin said...

If it were me, I would use my time machine to go back in time to before they destroyed all the time machines. Then, go back in time and kill Voldemort's mom. (or grandma, so as not to appear to be ripping off "Terminator")

Boom. Saved you the trouble of reading 6 extra books.

Becky said...

Now I feel slightly compelled to say a little about this post because I was the primary force in getting Drew to read these stories. (He might call it nagging, but I maintain it was just a gentle suggestion).

I have to say that #1 was my least favorite. I can't say that I can put my finger on why (which is not a sign of a good editorial) but I don't think it was that I had trouble keeping the characters and world straight. Upon rereading the series, I still disliked the first one, perhaps because I didn't feel very connected to characters. I maintain that it is my least favorite book, and I remind all new readers (i.e. my dad) to the series to just power through and that it gets better.

I too did not care for #5, but upon rereading it, I liked it more. I felt the plot kept repeating itself over and over; Harry maintaining that Voldemort was back and the Ministry proclaiming that Harry was lying. Of course, this resolves in the end, but the middle kind of drags. But the second time through, it moved faster and I found more merit with it. Drew, perhaps you need to reread it (here's one of my gentle suggestions again).

So by now you've guessed that I have read the series twice. That's a lot of pages. But what a wonderful series overall. The fact that we can sit here and critique the writing, stories and the depth of character proves that it is. I consider myself a pretty devout Catholic, and can't believe that there are people out there trying to ban this series. (For one, the Vatican doesn't, so I figure I'm good to go just from that). This story is the quintessential quest between good and evil. It is no worse than Luke Skywalker using his light saber (wand) or being "Beamed Down" (disapparating). [Oh my, Drew's dorkiness really has rubbed off on me!] I would recommend the series to anyone. I enjoyed my time with Harry and his friends and am quite glad that they didn't use their time turners so that I could read all 7 books. Can't wait to get started rereading them for a third time [while remembering to just power through the first one]!