Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
by J. K. Rowling; illus. by Mary Grandpré
Orphaned Harry Potter has been living a dog’s life with his horrible relatives. He sleeps in the broom cupboard under the stairs and is treated as a slave by his aunt and uncle. On his eleventh birthday, mysterious missives begin arriving for him, culminating eventually in the arrival of a giant named Hagrid, who has come to escort him to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry learns that his parents died saving him from an evil sorcerer and that he himself is destined to be a wizard of great power. Harry’s astonished introduction to the life of wizardry starts with his purchase, under Hagrid’s guidance, of all the tools of an aspiring sorcerer: wand, robes, cauldron, broomstick, owl. Hogwarts is the typical British public school, with much emphasis placed on games and the honor of the Houses. Harry’s house is Gryffindor, the time-honored rival of Slytherin: he becomes a star at Quidditch, an extremely complicated game played with four different balls while the whole team swoops about on broomsticks. He studies Herbology, the History of Magic, Charms, Potions, the Dark Arts, and other arcane subjects, all the while getting closer to his destiny and the secret of the sorcerer’s stone. He makes friends (and enemies), goes through dangerous and exciting adventures, and justifies the hopeful predictions about him. The light-hearted caper travels through the territory owned by the late Roald Dahl, especially in the treatment of the bad guys — they are uniformly as unshadedly awful as possible — but the tone is a great deal more affectionate. A charming and readable romp with a most sympathetic hero and filled with delightful magic details. ANN A. FLOWERS
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
by J. K. Rowling; illus. by Mary Grandpré
In this sequel to the phenomenally popular Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry returns to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for his second year after a miserable summer with his Muggle (nonmagical) relatives. Once again, Harry’s school experiences are colored by encounters with genial ghosts and antagonistic teachers, by the rivalry between good-guy Gryffindor House and slimy Slytherin House, and by an ominous mystery to be solved involving Harry’s archenemy, the dark sorcerer Lord Voldemort. Once again, the attraction of Rowling’s traditional British school story is magnified tenfold by the fantasy elements superimposed upon it. The atmosphere Rowling creates is unique; the story whizzes along; Harry is an unassuming and completely sympathetic hero. But, truth to tell, you may feel as if you’ve read it all before. Rowling clearly hit on a winning formula with the first Harry Potter book; the second book — though still great fun — feels a tad, well, formulaic. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
by J. K. Rowling; illus. by Mary Grandpré
All current reviews of Harry Potter books should probably be addressed to some future audience for whom Harry is book rather than phenomenon; at the moment, reviews seem superfluous. For the record, then, O future reader, this latest installment in Harry’s saga is quite a good book. The basics remain the same: it’s another year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (where there’s perforce a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher); it’s still Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Gryffindor House, and the headmaster versus Professor Snape, Draco Malfoy and his Slytherin goons, Lord Voldemort, and various other forces of darkness. But all the elements that make the formula work are heightened here. The characters are particularly interesting, especially the aforementioned new teacher, Professor Lupin, a man with a howling secret; Sirius Black, a feared, possibly mad, escaped prisoner who is believed to have betrayed Harry’s parents and is now said to be after Harry; and Harry himself, who in facing the reality of his parents’ violent deaths becomes a stronger person — and a more complex hero. The Quidditch action is the best yet; the Hogwarts classes (Care of Magical Creatures, Divination, and Potions) are inventive and entertaining; and Rowling pulls off a nifty bit of time manipulation in the book’s exciting climax. There’s hope, too, for a lessening in the power Harry’s Muggle relatives seem to have over him — and so a probability that we won’t have to endure quite so much of these tiresomely one-dimensional characters in the future. Speaking of which . . . have a hot butterbeer, future reader, and enjoy. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
by J. K. Rowling; illus. by Mary Grandpré
The fourth book in the Harry Potter phenomenon, at 734 pages, is what you call a wallow — one that some will find wide-ranging, compellingly written, and absorbing; others, long, rambling, and tortuously fraught with adverbs (“‘What sort of objects are Portkeys?’ said Harry curiously”). Year Four at Hogwarts finds Harry enjoined as the surprising fourth contestant in the Triwizard Tournament — “a friendly competition between the three largest European schools of wizardry” — during which he bests a dragon, rescues Ron from merpeople, and finds his way through a maze that, unbeknownst to Dumbledore and the powers of good, leads to the dark wizard Voldemort and to the death of one of the other contestants. Before and in between the book’s major action (the tournament is not announced until page 186, and Harry’s involvement not until page 271), Rowling explores her major theme of good vs. evil and her minor themes of the value of loyalty and moral courage and the evils of yellow journalism, oppression, and bigotry. We find out, for instance, that Hagrid is not just oversized but part-giant, which is considered a shameful heritage; we see Hermione being taunted as a “mudblood” for her mixed Muggle-wizard parentage. Rowling’s emphasis here is much less on school life (not a single inter-house Quidditch match!) and much more on the wider wizard world and, simultaneously, on Harry’s more narrow, personal world, as he has his first fight with Ron and asks a girl to his first dance. But on the whole the emotional impact is disappointingly slight. The death of the Hogwarts student causes nary a lift of the reader’s eyebrow; the complicated explanation for Voldemort’s infiltration of Hogwarts is fairly preposterous and impossible to work out from the clues given. The characterization, as well, seems to be getting thinner, with Dumbledore in particular reduced to a caricature of geniality. As a transitional book, however, Goblet of Fire does its job — thoroughly if facilely — and raises some tantalizing questions: Will Snape really turn out to be one of the good guys? What’s the connection between Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands, between Harry and Voldemort himself? When Harry tells his tale of Voldemort’s return, what does the fleeting gleam of triumph in Dumbledore’s eyes signify? Stay tuned, Pottermaniacs, for Year Five. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by J. K. Rowling; illus. by Mary GrandPré
This review is much like the proverbial tree falling in an uninhabited forest: unlikely to make a sound. But for the record, HP5 is the best in the series since Azkaban, and far superior to the turgid HP4. With Rowling once again following the formula of giving Harry’s day-to-day troubles and preoccupations the same weight as the larger battle of good vs. evil, Harry, now a sullen fifteen, finds himself in the role of outsider. The adult wizards in the Order of the Phoenix prepare for the return of Voldemort without him; at Hogwarts, he is ignored by Dumbledore, banned from Quidditch, and — thanks to slanted press coverage — generally regarded as a liar and a “weirdo.” A new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, backed by a Ministry of Magic in Voldemort-denial, begins taking over Hogwarts one repressive educational decree at a time, providing Rowling with the opportunity for some sharp-edged satire. This is one of the funniest of the books, with comic set pieces starring Uncle Vernon and Hagrid, and with Fred and George Weasley outdoing themselves in wickedly funny asides. But it is also one of the most unpleasantly aggressive: adults snarl at one another; Slytherins and Gryffindors seem perpetually to be insulting each other, and even come to blows. The plot doesn’t bear close scrutiny, and the climactic confrontation between “Dumbledore’s Army” (a group of Hogwarts students led by Harry) and a horde of Death Eaters is a banal shoot-’em-up scene with a little magic thrown in. The concluding wrap-up, though, in which Dumbledore explains it all to Harry (and to us), contains a revelation regarding Neville Longbottom that should keep fans fizzing with wild surmise until the next installment. HP5 remains a highly passive reading experience, with all the work done by the author and none required of the reader (viz. those omnipresent, ambiguity-leaching adverbs: “‘I’m not staying behind!’ said Hermione furiously”). But tally the book’s strengths and weaknesses as you may, the fact remains that Rowling has once again created a fully-fledged world, and for the experience of being there with Harry, HP5 can’t be beat. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J. K. Rowling ; illus. by Mary GrandPré
This sixth Harry Potter will wow the series’ many fans — Rowling delivers the likable characters and thrilling situations that have made the series so popular, handily weaving in plots begun in earlier books and returning to comic staples of wizard school life while providing fresh novelties. Connoisseurs will note that Rowling’s real attention is focused on setting up Harry’s final showdown with Lord Voldemort: Dumbledore’s private Pensieve tutorials with Harry, in which the two sift through various characters’ memories about the Dark Lord’s history, searching for the means to defeat him, are the main thrust of the book but will pay off fully only in the last volume. Even so, there’s plenty of engaging mystery and suspense here: the title character, the Half-Blood Prince, occluded for most of the book as merely the author of some helpful notes in Harry’s potions text, bursts into startling prominence by the end. Harry himself, grown more independent, decisive, and “fanciable,” comes of age, committing himself by his own choice to defeating Voldemort and accepting that former protectors like his parents and Dumbledore (and even the Dursleys) no longer stand between him and danger. Old animosities against Snape, now the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (whose twisted loyalties become even more opaque), and Draco Malfoy, the newest Death Eater recruit, continue unabated and crescendo into an epochal betrayal at the close, brilliantly conjured by Rowling. In the war against Voldemort, Snape may prove to be the linchpin just as much as Harry, but to find out for sure, readers will have to wait for the ultimate Harry, book seven. ANITA L. BURKAM
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
by J. K. Rowling ; illus. by Mary GrandPré
The wildly popular series ends with a bang as Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, abandons the familiar haven of Hogwarts to defeat Lord Voldemort once and for all — or so he hopes. From a hair-raising escape at book’s beginning to the monumental battle at its end that pits the Death Eaters against the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore’s Army, and numerous magical creatures (including an unlikely contingent of house elves), Deathly Hallows breaks formula, eschewing the schoolboy setup of the past for a straight-up quest adventure devoid of Quidditch, detentions, and exams. On the run, now-seventeen-year-old Harry, Ron, and Hermione search out the Horcruxes, introduced in Book Six as the key to Voldemort’s destruction. Meanwhile, Harry, distraught over his mentor Dumbledore’s death, puzzles through the former Hogwarts headmaster’s shady past and discovers a new means of defeating Voldemort: the Deathly Hallows, three legendary objects that together give their possessor power over death.
As the book opens, Voldemort has begun to seize power in a silent coup: with discrimination codified, step by step, into law and critics swiftly “disappeared,” the resulting society is a familiar dystopic nightmare — and Hogwarts is no sanctuary. Rather, with the still-enigmatic Snape installed as headmaster and several Death Eaters added to the staff, it is a youth prison and indoctrination center. Rowling pulls few punches in depicting this bleak landscape: torture, if not graphically described, is implacably present, and the body count climbs ever higher. Readers who grew up with the series will appreciate how it has matured, but younger newcomers may be overwhelmed by a level of violence and loss that far surpasses all previous volumes.
Rowling obviously had a long eye for plotting: numerous minor personalities emerge from the woodwork to fulfill past foreshadowing, while others — Ron and Neville Longbottom, especially — finally come into their own. As for Harry, the boy hero flirts with darkness, casting Unforgivable curses with a feeling of “heady control” and ominously tempted by the promise of power that tainted Dumbledore. Ultimately, however, he is saved by his capacity for love and self-sacrifice, and it is here that Rowling’s message rings loud and clear. Harry is consistently defined by his compassion; it can even be his (temporary) downfall, as when his choice to disarm rather than kill one of the enemy identifies him amid a cadre of decoys. But compassion is the quality that allows Harry to break the cycle of hatred between Muggle and wizard, house elf and human, and even Gryffindor and Slytherin — and the ripple effects of this achievement are incalculable.
Ravenous fans and higher-than-ever stakes aside, the book has its flaws. Rowling still discounts the ability of her audience to read between the lines and leaves no subtlety to the imagination (to a righteously angry Hermione, “‘Yeah,’ said Ron sycophantically”); certain plot devices seem like hasty additions to the magical rulebook; and the scenes of conceptual exposition, particularly a plodding one that bisects Harry and Voldemort’s final showdown, are poorly integrated, rarely sustaining tension. Nevertheless, Rowling fulfills the promise of earlier volumes, tying up loose threads, deepening character complexities to match Harry’s evolving recognition of life’s shades of gray, pulling out every emotional stop, and leading her hero into adulthood while still producing the most focused plot line and layered, heart-in-throat climax of the series. (Snape plays his part, and rather than resolving his character as pure good or pure evil, Rowling allows him a full measure of both and the internal conflict to match.) After all the adrenaline, an epilogue gently releases readers, shining a brief nineteen-years-later light on the aftermath for all involved that contains small, satisfying echoes of Harry’s own first introduction to the wizarding world.
It is unsettling to reach the end of a saga that attained such heights of cultural saturation; there’s not enough action or bittersweet resolution in the world to prepare us for the finality of that last page turn, and readers will always want one more chapter, one more story, before leaving the universe of the book. Rowling gracefully acknowledges this ambivalence. The opening scenes of Deathly Hallows find Harry, for the last time inside the Dursleys’ house at number four, Privet Drive, sifting through his belongings, recalling past escapades, and wistfully bidding goodbye to those who, like his parents and godfather, were lost to him. Readers will share his feelings of nostalgia in this triumphant farewell to the boy wizard. CLAIRE E. GROSS