I finally started the new Harry Potter book last weekend. Being out of the country for the actual release, you may be forgiven for thinking that I missed all the hype, but I was still keeping track of how well it was doing and how people had queued at all hours to buy it and how the eager had finished it by daylight on the day of release, blog after blog online tracked their progress and spouted their opinions. I also had to try and avoid any serious plot spoilers too. As an aside, I’d like to add that this is the first time I’ve read a Harry Potter novel in public, as I was travelling back to Holland, and I did feel a little weird imagining what people thought of a fully-grown man readingHarry Potter (with the kid’s cover no less). The only comment I got was from a stewardess and she seemed more interested in how I was finding the book rather than pointing out I was twice the age of its intended audience.
There seems to have been a fair bit of criticism fired at the book thus far, but I’m a little over a third in and enjoying it. I have to say that Order of the Phoenix went off the boil for me. Harry was being kept in the dark, which meant we, the readers, were kept in the dark, and I hate that. Add to this that Harry spent most of the book whining and moaning, flying off the handle, shouting and generally getting on my wick and it didn’t make an enjoyable reading experience, for me at least. I don’t know about anyone else, but I also didn’t feel any compassion for Sirius so I wasn’t bothered when it died (and it wasn’t like it was a nice dramatic death either, he disappears behind a curtain never to be seen again, where’s the heart-wrenching, stomach churning, tear inducing aspect to that?), I liked the character, but he was always distant and I didn’t have any empathy with him.
Anyway, Half-Blood Prince, aside from having a wonderful title, is working out quite well (I’m a little over a third through at this point). Harry is being given much more responsibility, which has made him grow up, as has the increasing seriousness of the world around him. Attacks are happening regularly and no one seems capable of stopping them, which is why everyone is looking to Harry and he’s starting to feel that weight of responsibility, starting to take it on and try and live up to it. We’ve all become surrogate friends or parents who have watched this boy grow up and now he’s beginning to show glimpses of the potential we have long known he had, it makes us proud. The only thing I might say is that the sudden upsurge of sexual interest between the characters could have been more subtly dealt with. I’m half expecting the girls to be swooning at a mere glance from Harry soon and while Rowling has pegged the boy’s obliviousness well, she has neglected the fact that, at 16, they would very certainly be paying a lot more attention to the girls. I haven’t been as bothered about the ‘slow start’ that many reviewers have mentioned, let’s not forget that this is a novel and you have the time to explore these sorts of things. Okay, yes, if I’m being critical, we didn’t really need to know about Fleur and Bill (how much older is Bill by the way?), nor did we really need to hear all about Fred and George or, really, about Voldemort’s parents (unless these things prove useful later), but I enjoyed reading them nonetheless, and it helped to lighten the tone. Order of the Phoenix was a very dark, very unsettling and pretty miserable narrative, not much light or joy there, but with Half-Blood Prince, Rowling has lightened it by letting us see that the world isn’t simply gripped in terror, everyone waiting for the next death, worried it might be them, it could have been overwhelmingly dark and dank. She’s on an upwards climb to the finish now (not that there won’t be drops into darkness), we have been through the lowest point, the point where everything looked doomed, now hope has been restored and the joy of the mundane gives us some time and breathing space before the inevitably turbulent times ahead.
At least, that’s the impression so far, I’ve still got a fair way to go though and I’ve just stumbled onto another major plot point in a review (about Harry’s girlfriend, I already knew about who dies), but most of the fun is in how it’s handled as far as I’m concerned.
Continued the following day:
Anyway, I’ve been flying through (once I got so far I was hooked, I actually had to talk myself into putting it down to go to bed Monday night) and have finished the book. Needless to say I enjoyed it.
As I said before, reading Order of the Phoenix (from what I can remember) was like driving up a mountain road on a stormy night: dark, winding, difficult, take a wrong turn and you’d be over the edge and falling into the black abyss. It wasn’t much fun. I haven’t re-read the book, and maybe it’s better when you’re not charging through it. Half-Blood Prince was much lighter from the start, and is until the end, which made it more enjoyable to read, for me at least.
I’ve read a fair number of the reviews written about the book and, while I disagree with most of the negative ones, I do agree with some of their points. The books could have coped with being edited a little more, there’s a lot of flab that could have been lost without any ill effects and the various relationships and love stories could have been pushed to the background where they belonged. I also thought the kids weren’t quite mature enough, or at least, they weren’t depicted as such. Sixteen-year-olds tend to be well on their way to adulthood and act that way, the girls especially. The never-ending obsession that Harry has for both Snape and Malfoy bothered me too, just how many times can he point his finger and go off on one with poor evidence? Although it looks like he had a point at the end (I’m not so sure), it got a little tiresome (maybe that was the point). The book was also slightly reminiscent, with too many old characters popping up for little or no reason, often doing unnecessary things, it felt like cameos by old favourites in a TV series. I’d also agree that the book seems unbalanced. We spend all the time building and building and, as I have said of a few books lately, the climax seems to come and go too fast. Even the aftermath is quick and clean, but perhaps that was the intention, to leave the uncertainty before the next book.
Having said that, I did like the ‘memory trips’ to introduce Voldemort’s history and to flesh him out as Harry’s nemesis, long and drawn out they may be, but he is the reason for the series (no Voldemort and Harry is just a regular wizard). They let us see his cruel nature and persistent planning, building him as a formidable opponent, as well as giving us a few ideas as to how Harry can defeat him in the final confrontation. Hagrid takes a backseat, which is no bad thing (I like Hagrid, but he’s best in small doses), Slughorn is an interesting new character and Fred and George, when they appear, provide welcome light-hearted relief with their usual hilarious dialogue (two of my favourite characters and criminally lacking in the films).
Now, I’d heard too much before I finished the book and I knew who died and who killed them before I got there. It didn’t take away the impact though, I was stunned and shaken. I have a pretty good imagination, I tend to get headlong into a story, and maybe that worked against me, but as I finished the book I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that it was only a story and that it’ll all turn out right by the end of book 7. I suppose the nagging point is, will it? Rowling has shown that she’s happy to wipe out a supremely important character, a character who, we are told, is the only person stopping Voldemort from taking over, and while I don’t doubt Harry will triumph in the final book, the question is, at what cost? Is Rowling capable of wiping out Harry too? I’m still a little shocked by the ending of Half-Blood Prince (which is, incidentally, another wonderful play on words, stick a comma in there and it’s a literal description: the half-blood, Prince).
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Harry Potter series
Reviewed: 26th July 2005