J.K. Rowling Can Say What She Wants

indexBy now, many readers and book bloggers are likely aware of a controversial statement that was made recently by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, in an interview with a British entertainment magazine, Wonderland.  In the interview (conducted, amusingly enough, by Emma Watson, the young and talented actress who plays Hermione in the film adaptations of Harry Potter) , Rowling allegedly indicates that two of the main characters, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, probably should not have ended up together after all, even though theirs was the primary romance in the series.

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” says Rowling. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

I have been asked numerous times over the last few days for my reaction.  The difficulty, for me, is in deciding which “cap” to put on in my response.  Are you asking me as a fan of the series?  Or are you interested in my interpretation of this as a scholar of literary theory?  Are you curious about how I think about this as a critic and a reader?  Or are you wondering about how I react to this as a writer who considers Rowling a master craftsperson?  There are so many ways to respond to this particular type of revelation, and while these categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I can certainly find possible “pros” and “cons” from each perspective.  I will do my best, though, to shape one coherent general response.

index2This statement has unleashed reactions similar to those which arose after Rowling indicated that another of her major characters, the Hogwarts Headmaster and Wizard-extraordinaire, Albus Dumbledore was gay.  Fans then, and now, split along lines of outrage at Rowling apparently “changing” the stories, on the one hand, and excitement over the  added depth (or possible reaffirmation of some fans’ original interpretations or desires about the characters), on the other hand. These kinds of reactions have much more to do with reader-response than with the quality or integrity of the text itself.  Reader-response theory tells us that each reader is going to react uniquely to a book (and to each reading of that book) based on the personal experiences, opinions, background, etc. that she brings to the text at the time of reading.  So, does this mean that people who (re)read the books after learning about Dumbledore or about Rowling’s shaping of Ron & Hermione’s relationship might read the books in a new way?  Possibly.  Do these things harm the text, or change it?  Not in the slightest – they just complicate the reading (for some).

In that first revelation, Rowling was accused by many of being a “coward” for not introducing Dumbledore’s homosexuality into the stories themselves, instead choosing to “drop it” on us in an interview after the fact.  My reaction was quite different; in fact, I had already read Dumbledore as a gay man, especially in the penultimate and final books (The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows) where we learn much more about Dumbledore’s past.  But even excluding the clues which Rowling clearly dropped in the novels (and yes, they are clearly there, but it is not surprising or “wrong” if some readers overlooked these) there are two other problems I have with this negative reaction:

First, why does a character’s explicit heterosexuality or homosexuality need to be spelled out at all?  Most readers do not expect all elements of a plot or of a story’s characters, to be explicitly given to us – part of the fun in reading is in discovering these things.  Perhaps Rowling anticipated that more of her audience would have picked up on the nuances than actually did or perhaps she was asked a simple question (“did Dumbledore ever fall in love?”) and she gave a simple answer (“Yes, with a man named Grindelwald”).

Second, fans of the fantasy genre, in particular, should be accustomed to the fact that fantasy writers, particular those of complex, intricate, time-spanning series’ such as this one, often know much, much more about their characters and stories than they are ever able to incorporate into the series themselves; sometimes the additional information comes out in addenda – reissued editions, companion pieces, etc. Just look at all of the supplementary Tolkien works that take place in the lands of Middle Earth which have been released post-publication of the Lord of the Rings series!

Ultimately, I think it is Rowling’s right and privilege, as the author, both to reveal as much or as little as she wants about her characters and also to change her mind as she sees fit.  She is not changing the story, after all, just our understanding of how she came to imagine it and to craft it.  To add insult to injury, for some, is the fact that Emma Watson, our Hermione-incarnate, seems to agree with Rowling:

“I think there are fans out there who know that too and who wonder whether Ron would have really been able to make her happy,” says Watson.

Emma_Watson_as_Hermione_Granger_(GoF-promo-05)So, the story writer and the woman who played the character for ten years and who knows her (Hermione) with an intimacy second only to Rowling herself, both agree that the relationship at the heart of the series might not be such a fairy tale.  And?  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once killed-off his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, only to later change his mind about that.  Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein when she was very young, later looked back on the book with embarrassment and a completely different political perspective.  Writers have regrets, they rethink things, and they talk about it.  So what?  The outrage and hubbub are, in my opinion, just a tad overblown and largely unnecessary.  Sure, the series is the most popular of its kind in perhaps ever, so of course anything slightly controversial regarding it will become a topic of intense, heated, and sometimes hilarious social debate.  But, hey, at least Rowling didn’t follow her first instinct, which was to kill Ron.  Authorial intent is interesting in so far as it generates discussion and gets readers asking new questions, but, ironically, the reality is in the fiction – that world has already been created for us and must be taken as presented.

Let’s just enjoy the brilliance of the stories and the world that J.K. Rowling created.  We can and will react to the books in our own way, so why not let people – yes, even the author- say what they feel needs to be said about them.  In the end, all that matters is the experience you have with the books.  There is no right or wrong about that.

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Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 48


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

The seventh and final installment of the Harry Potter series is a whirlwind of great turmoil and great joy. There has been criticism in terms of how many fatalities Rowling employs, without much time for reflection or mourning. My retort would be that, this is war – plain and simple. In this last book, one really feels that each day could be the last, and there just is not much time for some of the things we (and the characters) would normally take for granted. Even a wedding is disrupted by the events happening in the world, which infiltrate this most intimate of ceremonies. One of the greatest achievements for this installment of the series is that much of the action takes place outside of Hogwarts School, the setting for the vast majority of all the action in the first six books. This is important because it allows the readers to identify with the world-at-large, to see how all the spreading evil and danger is impacting society as a whole, and not just the students and teachers of one small school. It is also beneficial as it allows the readers to further grow and develop with the three main characters: Ron, Hermione, and Harry. They strike out on their own, for this one, and must rely on themselves and each other, without assistance from parents, guardians, teachers, or their beloved gamekeeper, Hagrid and, most importantly, no Dumbledore to protect them. When their final task returns them to Hogwarts, where the last great battle develops, the atmosphere is incredible – the pace is brilliant and, upon reflection, one realizes why the upcoming movies are due to be released in two parts, as the first 400-500 pages of the book seem to follow one theme and pace, whereas the latter part of the novel moves much more quickly, has much more action as opposed to back-story and investigation (think an on the road detective story). The strength of self, the bonds of friendship and family, and the importance of education coupled with instinct – these themes are all further developed from the first six books and, here, accumulate masterfully towards a final purpose, which Harry must realize in the final moments.


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

The three main characters, Harry, Ron, and Hermione all get an extraordinary amount of development and attention in this novel. Watching Harry and Hermione interact as a twosome (whereas normally the group is always together in three) is fantastic, as it allows the reader to see a different side of both characters; we also learn much more about some of the minor characters, including Luna, Neville, Mrs. Weasley, and Snape – all of whom have outstanding growth and resolutions, worthy of the time Rowling has put into developing them throughout the previous books. We meet new characters, such as Mr. Lovegood and Gellert Grindlewald, who, though present for the first time and relatively minor in comparison, get the perfect amount of attention – enough to explain why they are important and to help advance the plot, without feeling like time was ever wasted on characters who would not matter much otherwise. The D.A. (Dumbledore’s Army) makes a return, as does The Order of the Phoenix – the interaction between the two groups, and all of their members, is exhilarating and powerful. Also, Harry and Ginny’s relationship continues to grow and develop, getting more intense as the book progresses, though they spend most of the year apart. Even some of the antagonists, like Draco Malfoy and his mother, Narcissa, are further examined and explained, so that we begin to understand them and appreciate them more than might have been possible in earlier books in the series. Voldemort, of course, gets more examination. His past – as well as Snape’s and Dumbledore’s – is further disclosed, including his flaws and failures. For those who care, Rita Skeeter and Dolores Umbridge both return full-force as well, in all their wickedness.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Rowling has stepped up her prose once again in this final installment; she increases the vocabulary level of the work overall and she does a masterful job of weaving in and out of flashbacks. She also manages to incorporate many different settings, without bringing stress to the overall structure of the novel. As with previous installments of the series, Rowling breaks from the monotony of regular prose by including things like letters and newspaper articles; also, in this book, she includes excerpts from “biographical” books relating to characters in the novel. She manages to distinguish between characters by emphasizing dialect, slang, and inflection – so, for instance, when Mundungus Fletcher speaks, we know it is not Lucius Malfoy; when Hermione speaks, we know it is not Luna or Ron. In a novel with so many characters, interacting on so many levels, this is not an easy feat – but Rowling does it quite well (though she does start to overuse the word “Alas” when the adults are speaking – one minor obnoxious failing, barely worth mentioning, but I have to be fair). Overall, the style is well suited to this brand of fiction, the prose is whimsical yet serious enough to be realistic, and the language/dialogue is clearly and consciously distinguished.


Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

“I’m going to keep going until I succeed – or die. Don’t think I don’t know how this might end. I’ve known it for years.” Thus, we come to the first and the final theme of the Harry Potter series – sacrificing oneself for the well-being of others. Complete, unerring, selflessness for the triumph of good. This is what Rowling has been getting at for seven books – what Harry’s mother died for; what Dumbledore died for; what Snape died for. It is, as the song goes, “all for love.” What I cannot help but smile at, sardonically, is the fact that all of the extremists out there, who refuse to read or to allow their children to read this series because it includes witchcraft and witchcraft is “of the devil” – what they are missing out on is perhaps the greatest modern literary example of the idea that love and generosity are the world’s greatest strengths. This is a text which examines the bonds of family and friendship, and what it really means to serve “the greater good” – nobly and honestly. We see characters stumble and struggle; we watch as the greatest role models of the series painfully evaluate themselves and turn from the temptations of power and immortality and riches, instead to humbly serve those around them – to help others grow, achieve personal greatness and awareness, and defeat the evils of the world. What you get at the end of the series is the feeling that evil comes in many forms – fantastic or not – and that only through strength of character and bonds of common decency and humanity can it be overcome. As the world stood up and said “enough” to the Nazi oppression of Jews and other minorities, so too did Harry and his friends stand up and say “enough” to the persecution of the “dirty” or “half” blood, as well as the “lesser” magical creatures of the world. This relationship became clearest in Deathly Hallows, but though the prominent example might be Nazi oppression, Rowling makes it quite clear that what she hopes for is the awakening of responsibility in all people, at all times, to the benefit of serving others before serving one’s self; of protecting the helpless; of lifting and caring for the meek and the unable. And, though after my first reading of this novel I was a bit disappointed in the “Epilogue,” I now realize and appreciate its purpose as a type of proof that change is possible, and not just in the short-term. One small choice, one single voice can echo around the world and through the ages. Job well done, Ms. Rowling.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Teen
Interest: Education, Friendship, Magical Realism, Coming-of-Age, Family, Love, Fantasy, Good/Evil


Notable Quotes:

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

“I’m going to keep going until I succeed – or die. Don’t think I don’t know how this might end. I’ve known it for years.”

“We’re all human, aren’t we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.”

“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.”

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 46


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

In Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, Rowling once again weaves multiple plot lines together to progress her larger story. Harry discovers a potions textbook which has been marked up by its previous owner, in ways that improve each potion, making Harry suddenly a stellar student in one of his least favorite subjects (much to Hermione’s chagrin). While at first charming, the book soon leads Harry and his friend to a dark place, after Harry makes use of several of the “darker” spells which have been written in the book. It becomes clear that, whoever the previous owner may have been, he (or she) was probably not a very nice person. The back-story behind the textbook and its owner comes to light late in the novel, with an alarming and plot-changing impact sure to stun and horrify anyone who has been reading the series in sequence. Also, throughout this book, Harry is traveling with Dumbledore through memories of Tom Riddle (Lord Voldemort) in hopes of discovering more about him, and any possible weaknesses. Dumbledore finally confides in Harry that, yes, it is very likely that, in the end, only Harry or Voldemort, but not both, will survive. The memories lead Harry and Dumbledore on a dangerous journey and, when they return to Hogwarts, it is to find the school in grave peril. Many beloved characters –and minor characters- are lost forever. The true terror and danger comes front and center, as the battle is brought out of the newspapers and into Hogwarts’ very grounds. Students are attacked, Professors are at war, and Ministry officials seem unable to contain the fear any longer. This is a chilling but beautifully rendered piece of the magical seven-year story – and, as we see in the end – it is the true “coming-of-age” point for Harry, Hermione, and Ron, all of whom must make the most difficult choice of their lives. Though dark and, at times, painful, the book also shows great positivity in terms of friendship and familial bonds, budding love, and loyalty.


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

All of the character and relationship development that J.K. Rowling has been molding throughout the first five books in the series has led to this moment in the story’s timeline. There are fewer new characters in this book than any of the five previous, which leaves ample time for focusing on what is happening with those we do know. For instance, romantic relationships begin to bud and, without spoiling anything for those who have not gotten this far in the series, there are some that are expected and hoped for, and some that were quite a surprise for me but, done well, still rather delightful. They also added another layer to the story – so that friendship and family ties were not the only bonds but, now a strong romantic-emotional attachment to one another also become impetus for fighting and persevering. There is one notable new character, Professor Horace Slughorn, who is well-developed and introduced in a rather fun and interesting way. He comes to Hogwarts to teach an open position which readers of the series may be surprised to learn is not predictable. Severus Snape, a regular of the previous books is also a prominent character here, who grows by leaps and bounds and not necessarily in a way readers might expect (or maybe they would). The relationship between Harry and Dumbledore, too, finally reaches that point where they have become almost peers; though Dumbledore is much older and more experienced than Harry, he begins to treat Harry as an equal, as one to be confided in, trusted, and partnered with. This is truly touching, especially as the story takes a turn in the end which results in the need for Harry to demonstrate true responsibility and take hold of his burgeoning manhood.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Once again, Rowling’s talent for language and the written word astounds me. Though I have praised Rowling for her extraordinary prose throughout the series, I honestly must say that this is the first time where I truly felt enveloped by the story taking place, as if I was planted in a bubble in the middle of this exceptional world, and allowed to watch and hear what was happening all around me. I would sit down for what felt like a few moments, only to look down at the page number and realize I had just gulped down more than one hundred pages, without realizing it. This makes it sound as if the difficulty level is low but, actually, the plot is complicated, the vocabulary has expanded, and the chapters have lengthened; yet, despite all of these advances (or perhaps because of them) the story seems to move forward more fluidly, to read as if this were a spoken history – a play or an old drama (like Homer), meant to be experienced aurally and not just visually. It certainly plays out that way. There were, again, breaks in the prose, where other written items take the place of narration (like Hagrid’s tear-stained letter to the Gryffindor trio, explaining how a dear friend has passed away). While there were fewer than in previous novels (and I happen to be a sucker for these types of insertions), I did not really feel the loss until afterward, when reflecting on the prose and style. This is because the narration is done so masterfully, the dialogue so believably, that there is little to fault.


Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

While the primary setting for the novel is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as it is in the previous portions of this series, there are other familiar locations (the Burrow, Hogsmeade) which add interest and personality to the story. Also, the inclusion of memories to the plot allows for additions in setting, as well – such as Tom Riddle’s orphanage, the Gaunt family home, and an earlier Hogwarts. These inclusions enrich the story immensely, by allowing Harry (and the reader) a deeper understanding of this world and its characters. Another addition, haunting and masterfully created, is the cave which Tom Riddle visited as a boy, and which he turns into a darkly enchanted hideaway that Dumbledore and Harry must visit and escape from.

The most notable theme for me is this idea of growth into adulthood. There is a moment, after Dumbledore re-explains the prophecy of the Harry-Voldemort connection, in which Harry decides decisively that he will face death standing up. He notes to himself (brilliant internal monologue, by the way), that there is a difference between those gladiators who, walking into the arena to face certain death, do so of their own accord, head held high, versus those who are dragged into the amphitheater in chains and forced to fight. Harry understands that the fight, and death too, will likely happen either way, but it is the way in which one faces this moment that makes all the difference in the world. And, as Dumbledore points out, after all Harry has been through, the fact that he can face this moment, that he can still care enough about people and himself to put himself in front of Voldemort, before the world, says a great deal about Harry’s extraordinary capacity to love, and of the often misunderstood and underestimated power of love over hate.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Teen
Interest: Education, Friendship, Magical Realism, Coming-of-Age, Family, Love, Fantasy, Good/Evil


Notable Quote:
“People find it easier to forgive others for being wrong than for being right.”

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 43


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

The fifth book in the Harry Potter series, The Order of the Phoenix, is the true beginning of what J.K. Rowling had been preparing Harry and his readers for since The Sorcerer’s Stone. The evil of all evils, the antagonist to end all antagonists, The Dark Lord Voldemort, has returned to power. The main story in book number five is Voldemort’s rise, as well as the regrouping of the old “good guys” from the previous terror, the so-called Order of the Phoenix. There are several sub-plots as well, however, which weave in-and-out of the main plot and help to advance the story. Harry’s first romantic relationship, for instance, and the creation of “Dumbledore’s Army,” a defensive group which Harry, Hermione, and Ron establish to help prepare interested students to fight the Dark Lord. This group is a focal point in the novel, and is the result of the appointment of the newest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, who becomes a second major antagonist (even nastier, believe it or not, than the two regularly minor “bad guys” Snape and Draco Malfoy). We learn more about Harry’s relationship with the Dursleys, and why it is so important for Harry to go home each year, and we also get some background into the elder characters – James Potter, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Severus Snape. The teacher/student dynamic – both in terms of opposition and alliance, is incredibly well-wrought, as it is the sub-plot with Harry and Dumbledore, and the entire “dream” line, which leads to the battle in the ending pages. Though 800+ pages long, The Order of the Phoenix is fast-paced, interesting, suspenseful and engaging. Again, we are left feeling as though we are a part of this world, and all the lessons Harry and his friends learn along the way, about strengthening bonds, relying on one another, and overcoming obstacles, these lessons seem meant for us, too.


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

I sometimes feel as if I am beating a dead horse when it comes to this character and J.K. Rowling’s talent. I sometimes hope to be surprised by one of the future installments of the series, in that maybe, just maybe, Rowling will slip up and do something disastrous or just downright boring with her characters. Alas, I am disappointed; she is a characterization genius! As I mention above, there are old characters and new in Book Five of the series and, again, Rowling spends ample time developing our familiar characters, giving the readers a better understanding of their personalities and backgrounds (such as the history of Neville’s parents, and a clear picture of his formidable grandmother) as well as introducing us to new characters, like the beastly Dolores Umbridge. I cannot, anywhere in my memory, recall hating a character as much as I hate Dolores Umbridge. I quite literally want to claw my way into the novel so I can wring her fat, toady little neck. That a writer can make me feel this much venomous dislike for one of her characters is a mark of true mastery of the craft and, incidentally, Rowling is equally good at presenting some truly loveable characters (Luna Lovegood, for instance, and Arthur Weasley – they are just people I want to know!). What Rowling does particularly well in this installment, though, is the back-history. We learn so much about each of the characters, whether it be via a trip through Professor Snape’s memory, or by hearing Sirius and Remus Lupin reminisce about their days at Hogwarts and of being in the original Order of the Phoenix. These histories truly enrich the story and allow us, as the readers, to connect even further and more deeply with these characters. We could easily champion them “in the now” but, after being treated to a more thorough example of their characters and motivations, we become willing to fight and die for these people, to stand side-by-side with them in their quest to defeat evil at all costs.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Rowling again demonstrates a complete mastery of her prose and style in The Order of the Phoenix. Something of significance, though, is the marked difference in vocabulary and structure between this book and any of its predecessors (though, again, each book seems to take steps forward in this regard, as in the depth of the stories themselves). For the first time, in my opinion, the Harry Potter series makes a leap away from young adult fiction and into the genre of literary fiction. The language and difficulty level are intensified, the multi-layered plots and interweaving dynamics (character and plot) continue to grow, and the chapters and paragraphs lengthen. Also, Rowling continues to use many different style elements in her prose to engage the readers: newspaper articles, written letters and, now, “educational decrees.” Breaking up the general prose with these different types of style elements does wonders for the overall book – allowing the reader, again, to feel as if he or she is there, reading these items alongside the characters, reacting with them and then, gracefully, sinking back into the story.


Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The majority of this fifth installment is again set at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. There are many other smaller points of reference, though, including: The Dursleys home and the surrounding city of Little Whinging; the mountainous area of southern France; the wizarding town of Hogsmeade; the city of London and, in particular, the residence of the Black Family; and The Ministry of Magic itself. Having the majority of the novel take place in one area, with short journeys to other places does two things: 1st – it allows the reader a firm platform to center one’s self. Hogwarts School is the “home base” or “safe zone” which, though not always a pleasant place to be, is always familiar and recognizable. 2nd – it begins to develop the story into something more world-wide; as the evils and dangers grow, so do their reach. Suddenly, non-wizarding neighborhoods are at risk. The Ministry of Magic is not just a referenced place but, now, it is an actual, physical structure which we can envision. Combining the familiar with the new takes the storyline to an entirely new level. In addition to the enhanced setting in book five is a new and important theme: politics. In books one through four, there have been many recurring themes, such as education, friendship, family, love, good/evil, etc. With book five, though, comes an increased critique of the nature of power and politics on morality and decency (decision-making). We (Americans) are largely aware of this term “the politics of fear,” and J.K. Rowling holds nothing back in warning her readers about making decisions based from a place of fear or out of a defense of power and stature. Dumbledore and Harry Potter, though decent and honest to a fault, are attacked by the Ministry of Magic out of fear. The political powers, in hopes of securing their own strength and popularity in the public eye, make perpetual attempts at discrediting and even embarrassing the two “heroes” of the novel, simply because they dare to speak the truth – a truth which no one is ready to hear. This new theme leads up to an unresolved-resolution in which a showdown at the Ministry between Harry and Dumbledore (and Dumbledore’s Army) clash with Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and the Ministry, at last, is forced to bear witness and choose a side.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult & Adult
Interest: Good/Evil, Friendship, Education, Fantasy


Notable Quotes:

“If she could have done one thing to make absolutely sure that every single person in this school will read your interview, it was banning it!”

“Thoughts could leave deeper scarring than almost anything else.”

“Young people are so infernally convinced that they are right about everything.”

Review: Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 42


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Goblet of Fire is the fourth book in the famous Harry Potter series. This is the point, in my opinion, where Rowling clearly takes a turn from “young adult” fiction toward a more mature audience. After three books of back-story and buildup, book number four surges forward and suddenly brings the old evils, the suppressed terrors, to full light. While Harry and his friends faced many challenges and learned much about the great antagonist, Voldemort, it is in Goblet of Fire that a true sense of urgency develops; we finally get the feeling that bad things really can happen, and they can happen to good people. In this installment, an ancient wizarding world tradition called The Triwizard Tournament comes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. Two visiting schools, Durmstrang and Beauxbatons, send their headmaster and headmistress, and a group of “champions” to Hogwarts for the tournament. One champion from each school is ultimately chosen to compete, except for Hogwarts which gets two champions, due to the mysterious choosing of Harry Potter from the un-hoodwinkable Goblet of Fire. Harry is not of age to compete, but the judges determine that, since his name was expelled from the Goblet, he is committed to the tournament, based on the rules of magical contract. Throughout three tasks, Harry is constantly put to the test – as are his friendships with Ron and Hermione. Animosity continues to grow between the three and their potions master, Snape and, ultimately, we discover that a spy has come to Hogwarts to ensure that Harry is present in the right place, at the right time for Voldemort’s grand rebirth.


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Once again, I cannot commend Rowling enough for her incredible skills at characterization and character development. Our old friends – Ron, Harry, Hermione, Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall, The Weasley family and more – are recommitted and established on a deeper, more complex level. Similarly, old foes – Professor Snape, Malfoy, Voldemort and others – are further flushed out and explained, so that their true natures seem to become more present, their powers, goals, and determinations reexamined. We also meet many new characters, from various places including the Ministry of Magic, The Daily Prophet, the visiting schools, Durmstrang and Beauxbatons, and relatives, neighbors, and friends of characters we already know. These new characters, whether major or minor, are given enough page-time for the reader to become familiar with them, to feel as if they know these people – could recognize them on the street or see them in a coffee shop and not be the slightest bit surprised. Of particular note are the new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, Professor Alastor Moody, and Rita Skeeter, writer for the wizarding newspaper, The Daily Prophet.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Rowling’s prose is as magical as the world she has created. Her imaginative descriptions, the vivid imagery and the impeccable use of dialogue make each Harry Potter book in the series impossible to put down. Also extraordinary, and not typical of most fantasy writers, is the obvious growth from each prior novel to the next. It is almost as if Rowling makes a conscious effort (and maybe she does) to increase the reading level and potential for each of her books in direct correlation to the growth of the characters (each novel is a new school year for the characters so, at age eleven, the characters may be thinking and acting one way and now, by age fourteen, they have begun to grow and to be capable of more – of thinking a bit deeper and analyzing a bit more closely). As one who has read the series previously, I know that the growth continues from book to book up through the final book, and it is one of the biggest positives and likely the greatest draw for readers (as newer readers are always allowed to grow and develop with the story – to progress at a steady and comfortable pace, as if we are with Harry and the gang at school, learning alongside them). Rowling also has a sharp mind – she is clearly educated, or has become learned, in philosophy and the nature of human interaction – friendships, rivalries, parent/child, and educator/pupil dynamics. Her prowess at presenting these relationships through dialogue and inner-monologues is astounding. She drops clever quips on life throughout the pages, particularly as the characters are growing older. Finally, Rowling breaks up her prose into different pieces – interspersing, for instance, bits of newspaper articles or letters into the story to add depth and intrigue. She manages flashbacks seamlessly and builds multi-layered, interwoven plot-lines, which connects the various characters to others, and back again, with seemingly little effort but with what must have taken an extraordinary amount of planning, organization, and preparation. Outstanding execution.


Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

As I mention in the section above on prose/style, Rowling is clearly a master of many aspects of human natures and in The Goblet of Fire, her didactic purposes begin to get much more focused and prominent. Her ideas on equality, for instance, or on one’s ability to be judged on his actions rather than on his ancestry (e.g. Britain’s lingering and antiquated aristocratic system) are quite clear. Another positive aspect of this fourth installment is that there is less re-explanation of previous characters, terms, and situations (books one through three are littered with reminders to the reader about things learned or events which happened in prior novels or the story-line’s earlier history). This is refreshing, as it allows much more growth to the story, and characters and events are allowed to develop in a way previously restricted by the structure of the first three books – it also allows readers who are familiar with the early books, having read them recently or multiple times, to engage with and sink into the story, without too many breaks for redundant explanations (admittedly, something I find to be quite a nuisance in Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban). Finally, Rowling manages to advance the story through the inclusion of thoughts and ideas, terms and phrases, people and places we, as the readers, encountered in earlier books – but without reminding us of how we learned it. This seems to build a great bond of trust and respect between the author and the readers, and it allows the reader to settle into the story as something happening which is inclusive – as if we are a part, and always have been, of what is happening in this world.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult, Adult
Interest: Friendship, Fantasy, Good/Evil, Education, Family


Notable Quotes:

“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” (P. 525)

“You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!” (P. 708)

“Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.” (P. 723)

Review: Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The third novel in the infamous Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling incorporates many of the same elements and characters as books one and two but amplified. In this installment, we are introduced to a few new characters (Remus Lupin, Sirius Black) that play important roles in both the upcoming novels and in Harry Potter’s past, which leads to the development of Harry as he has little to no contact with anyone who had known or were really friends with his parents up to this point. Also, Rowling allows us glimpses at the budding natures of other characters –good and bad- who will play important roles as the Harry Potter saga unravels, including Draco Malfoy, Hagrid the Gamekeeper, Peter Pettigrew, and others. The back-history provided to the reader here is extremely important, and it gives a clearer impression of the life & times previous, during Voldemort’s height of power. That this occurs without the presence of the antagonist (for the first time) is interesting and, in a way, it allows for the mystery and terror to grow and develop for the readers. In Prisoner of Azkaban the reader also begins to see a deeper friendship develop between the three main characters, a bond which is tried and tested in interesting ways and, through it all, seems to become stronger and more powerful (an example of which is demonstrated near the end, when all three of the friends work together simultaneously to stop an antagonist from succeeding in his attempts at destroying another character. We are brought back, as readers, to the earlier novel in which the events which take place seem to play out in a way which is believable and, though certainly trying and frightening, are manageable by our three young heroes.


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

As mentioned above, there is so much growth and development for both the major and minor characters in this novel. We begin to see who will be important, and who will likely be “supporting cast.” Readers also begin to understand the personalities of these characters and why they make the choices they do. The new characters are brought in with veiled mystery that is slowly unraveled throughout the books – with bits and pieces of back story placed here and there throughout the storyline. Hints are dropped as to characters’ identities and natures with a final resolution that is, if not surprising, certainly important and bound to thrill the reader and inspire one to go out and get the next book. Perhaps some of the best development, outside the continued growth of the three main characters who, unlike in many young adult fantasy novels, do not remain static through the years, but do show marked growth and change from year-to-year and from challenge to challenge (with references to the previous books and events, etc.), is the development of a new character, Remus Lupin, and a familiar character, Severus Snape. The reader is offered a glimpse at their shared path and begins to see just how and why Snape might have grown into such a, well, jerk. Rowling does not make things black and white, however, which is one of the greatest strengths for this series and its characters. Players in this drama are not merely “good” or “bad,” but are complex and deep, with varying past histories and experiences which, we see, begin to unfold and reveal so much more about who they are and where they are coming from (and, perhaps, where they will end up?). Even Snape, who is so easy to hate, is presented with a degree of empathy so as to remind the reader that – be we muggles, wizards, or squibs – we are all human, after all.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Once again, Rowling’s prose draws the reader in. It becomes so easy sink into this extraordinary world, as if the story is wrapping itself around us and making us not merely observers, but characters in the story. We begin to feel the gamut of emotions which the main characters, particularly Harry, feel: love and hate, joy and sorrow, excitement and terror. That each character’s monologues and style of speech continues to be distinguishable from the other characters is also impressive, particularly when more and more characters that are having greater and deeper interactions with one another, are introduced and developed. I also particularly appreciated the continued development of internal dialogues and reflection, as well as the use of letter-writing as dialogue (I’m always a sucker for good epistolary moments).


Additional Elements:
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

The setting of the novel, discussed in detail in my reviews for Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets is still incredibly beneficial to the plot. We are introduced to new places – Hogsmeade Village and The Shrieking Shack- which add further appreciation for this wizarding world and help us to continue to grow along with the characters, taking part in the new experiences they are having – whether it be discovering Honeydukes’ candy shop for the first time, and all the tasty treats it offers or visiting The Three Broomsticks pub and sipping our first Butterbeer (granted, vicariously through the characters). We also spend more time with Harry in Diagon Alley at the start of the novel, and we begin to appreciate the many different yet similar activities available to these special (and lucky!) people. Want to spend a day studying outside an ice cream shop – great! But Harry also gets the added treat of learning magical history through the many tales and stories of the wizened shop owner. The good/evil dynamic grows in a more concerted way in Prisoner of Azkaban as we begin to meet and learn about those embodiments of “the good side” and “the bad side” – we know from the start that Harry and Dumbledore appear to be our soldiers for good, and their powerful counterpart is present in Lord Voldemort, but we finally begin to see how widespread, how deep, and how dangerous the Dark Arts go. The intricate plot and its introduction of time as a theme, plus the ultimate resolution (fantastic yet believable, this time) make for a fun but matured installment, which seems to be a turning point for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, as well as a gateway to adulthood and all the struggle and responsibility that will come with it.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult +
Interest: Friendship, Family, Education

Review: Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0


Plot/Story (3 of 4):
“3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.”

In the second book of the series, Harry and his friends – Ron and Hermione- find themselves again involved in a battle with a mysterious opponent, whose identity and purpose are not revealed until near the end of the story. Lord Voldemort returns, not by physically possessing another wizard, but as an enchanted memory, weaving his evil plot through one of the Hogwarts first-year students. When Hermione and Ginny Weasley fall prey to the monster of The Chamber of Secrets, Ron and Harry determine to solve the riddle and defeat the evil, once and for all. They are helped along the way by certain unexpected friends, while other seemingly trustworthy characters reveal their truer natures.


Characterization (4 of 4):
“4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.”

Once again, Rowling demonstrates her devotion to and mastery of characterization and character development. New characters, such as Gilderoy Lockhart, Dobby the house elf, and even Professor Binns are all perfectly introduced and executed throughout the book, regardless of their major or minor status in the storyline. Additionally, characters whom we are more familiar with from book one, like Harry, Draco, Ron, Hermione and Percy Weasley continue to grow and we begin to see more of their natures – even anticipating how they may act in certain situations, or where we might see them in future books.


Prose/Style (3 of 4):
“3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.”

While The Chamber of Secrets maintains a similar reading level as its predecessor, The Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling begins to play with more advanced language and vocabulary, and even more advanced themes. The Dursleys, for instance, as well as some of the schoolchildren, become more prominently vindictive and cruel. There are coy jokes made about teenage romance, and the nature of evil and “badness” in both the expected and unexpected characters is much more realistic and intense than in the first book. As the children are getting older, they begin to understand certain personality traits and to distinguish more clearly between dichotomies of right/wrong, good/bad, selfish/selfless, etc. The pace is also great and each chapter, as in book one, works as a “scene” as in a play, where each portion builds off the next but also deals with its own moment of the story, advancing the story gradually and smoothly.


Additional Elements (3 of 4):
“3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.”

Once again the setting of the story works to its favor. The novel begins in the “muggle” world, of which we are all familiar – a single family home in the suburbs of London, recognizable in general as “living space.” Then, we proceed through Diagon Alley, the wizarding area of downtown London, as well as the subway and its magical counterpart, Platform 9 & ¾. Balancing each of the magical places with a realistic twin helps to keep the reader firmly planted on the ground while simultaneously being swept into the mystical enchanting fantasy of Hogwarts. Rowling works her own magic, here again, almost making it seem as if, in our day-to-day lives, there would be nothing extraordinary at all about bumping into a crimson-cloaked wizard (though they do try to be covert). Certain symbols and motifs from book one, like friendship and the “formed family” are carried into and further developed in Chamber of Secrets. Other elements, such as the nature of humanity (subservience and slavery, hypocrisy, cozening, etc.) are introduced. The resolution, though, seems much more far-fetched than in Sorcerer’s Stone. While this is obviously a fantasy novel, the climax is a bit far-reaching and it becomes harder to believe, in this case, that no adult wizards – teachers or otherwise, would be present during the final “showdown.” While in book one it seemed almost natural for Harry, Ron, and Hermione to be solving the problem, here it seems a bit odd and even uncomfortable. Still, new information has begun to be hinted at in regards to certain characters, like Percy Weasley and the Harry-Voldemort connection, which is interesting at the start and even more fascinating to those, like me, who are going back for a re-read and being reminded of how early in the timeline these characters and relationships began to develop.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: All Ages
Interest: Fantasy, Education, Good/Evil, Friendship