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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-01-27 14:03
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling

Whew! After two months and 4,100 pages, I have finished Litchick's Epic Harry Potter Group Read! It was fun, but I confess to suffering from HP fatigue by the end. -Or maybe it only felt that way because Deathly Hallows drags so much in the middle, what with the hundreds of pages of wandering and camping. 


Deathly Hallows is a hard book to rate and review. Like many war stories, the losses come so fast and furious it's hard to tally the casualties until it's all over. (For example, I never noticed before in my grief over

the sudden loss of Hedwig

(spoiler show)

that Harry loses his Firebolt at the same time. Yes, it's "just a broomstick," not a living thing, but it was a gift from Sirius and definitely had sentimental value, and yet Harry never has a chance to mourn its loss.) The death toll is staggering, and the reader (and Harry et al) have time to process only some of the casualties

(Hedwig, Mad-Eye, Dobby)

(spoiler show)

, while others are cruelly, suddenly consumed by the carnage of the final battle

(Fred, Lupin and Tonks, Colin Creevey)

(spoiler show)



The overarching message of Deathly Hallows (and, indeed, the whole series) seems to be that no one is wholly good or wholly bad, and that there is always the possibility of redemption. Just as it is possible, up until the last moment, for Voldemort to repent his evil deeds and repair his broken soul, the Deathly Hallows is full of examples of "bad" characters being (at least partially) redeemed. The most obvious of these is Professor Snape's story (I won't spoil the details for newbies, but I will say that in my opinion his redemption doesn't make up for all of the child-hating malice that came before), but there are countless smaller, more subtle moments, too: Dudley Dursley, worrying over Harry's safety when he learns Harry won't be joining the family in hiding; Draco Malfoy, feigning an inability to recognize Harry when the Snatchers brought him to Malfoy Manor; Peter Pettigrew's predicted (but sadly self-defeating) impulse toward mercy; Narcissa Malfoy's terrified, self-serving, but brave lie to Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest; Kreature leading the House-Elf charge in the Battle of Hogwarts. Conversely, there are also "good" people who do terrible things under pressure: Lupin, terrified of the pressures of fatherhood, tempted to abandon his wife and child; Xeno Lovegood, betraying Harry out of fear for his daughter; Dumbledore, whose youthful hunger for notoriety contributed to his sister's death, and whose epic lie of omission (discovered only postumously) casts a pall over his entire mentorship of Harry. Even Harry, who is so good, so forgiving, learns that he has evil within, and he must sacrifice to purge it (and the scene where he walks into the Forest to do it never ceases to slay me, and I believe it may be the most emotionally-wrenching scene I've ever read in any book, ever.) 


Parts of Deathly Hallows annoy me. I keep harping on the interminably boring camping section, and while I understand the narrative purpose of that section -- it's allegorical, like Jesus wandering the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by the devil, the slow progress of the quest to gather and destroy horcruxes is part of the test of the three friends' characters, especially Ron's -- it still bogs down the story. I also remember how disgusted some Harry Potter fans were at the epilogue when Deathly Hallows first came out, and I agree: the epilogue is frustrating, even trite, in its perky brevity. On the other hand, I also firmly believe that there was no way to end this series without disappointing fans: the very fact that Harry Potter's quest ended at all was always going to be a crushing letdown to a generation of readers who grew up with their imaginations immersed in the Potterverse. I hate the epilogue, but I was going to hate the end of this series no matter how J.K. Rowling did it, simply because it had to end.


Even with these complaints, I admire Deathly Hallows for bringing an intensely complicated, layered plot to a satisfying emotional conclusion. The loose ends of the quest to defeat Voldemort and the threads of the many, many subplots were all woven together in an impressively detailed tapestry of story that remains as engrossing years later, after several re-reads, as it was in 1998 when I first picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. 

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review 2014-01-11 02:05
The Calm Before the Storm
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling,Mary GrandPré

Unlike earlier books in the series, which I've re-read many times (I used to re-read them while waiting for the later books to come out), this was the first time I'd revisited Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince since I finished the series. It's a very different experience, reading this book now that I know how the whole epic conflict with Voldemort works out, than my relatively-unspoiled first reading. (At the time, there were rumors that a major character died; I had my theories but scrupulously avoided any media where spoilers might lurk, and I read the whole book in two days on the day of release, so I got to enjoy, er, experience the surprise.)


This second time through, knowing what's coming, it strikes me that Book Six is actually very bittersweet. Half-Blood Prince isn't as dark and brooding as the preceding book, Order of the Phoenix. Now that Dolores Umbridge is gone, Hogwarts is a bright, happy place again. Now that the O.W.Ls (standardized testing for wizard students) are behind them, Harry and his friends seem to enjoy their classes more; they are less pressured, more leisurely. They find time for romance, for quidditch, for weekends in Hogsmeade, for learning how to apparate. Harry, who was furious at being ignored by Dumbledore in Order of the Phoenix, is back on good terms with the headmaster again: he's even singled out for special one-on-one lessons aimed to help him defeat Voldemort when the time comes. 


Book Six is the calm before the storm.


Outside of Hogwarts, terrible things are happening  now that Voldemort is back -- the Daily Prophet is always full of stories of kidnappings, murders, and other tragedies that show the Dark Lord is gaining ground -- and Harry and the others are aware of these miseries but insulated from them. In these dark times more than every before, Hogwarts is a haven, a refuge, a bubble. Dumbledore is the only wizard Voldemort fears, and so Dumbledore's school is the safest place to be.  

Knowing now that this is Harry's last year at Hogwarts (rather than the anticipated 7th year), I think it's kind of lovely that it was generally such a nice one: that he got to be the Quidditch team captain, that he finally had a potions teacher he could stand, that Gryffindor won the Quidditch cup, and Harry and Ginny got to enjoy a few weeks of happiness.

(spoiler show)


Of course that idyllic calm can't last, and the conclusion is meant to set up the final book, Deathly Hallows. While it's not a cliffhanger in the traditional sense, the end of Half-Blood Prince leaves a lot more open questions than the relatively self-contained plots of the other books in the series. Again, knowing what is coming changed my perspective on the ending. The first time I read it, I was stunned and horrified,

not only by Dumbledore's death but also by Snape's apparent betrayal,

(spoiler show)

but this time, I approached the final chapters with a strong sense of inevitability. 


Random Spoilery Thought:

As I've been making my way through Litchick's Epic Harry Potter Group Read (which has now been going on since before Thanksgiving), I've been thinking all along that Snape is so horrible, more horrible than I remembered, so horrible that the big reveal at the end of Deathly Hallows falls flat because it isn't enough to redeem such a nasty character. I still kind of feel that way, but in retrospect I think the part of Half-Blood Prince where Snape gives Harry Saturday detentions after Harry and Malfoy duel is a bit of a give-away. Detention is a really lenient punishment for almost murdering someone, and I should have been much more suspicious of that at the time. 

(spoiler show)


 P.S. I'm going to use this for Sock Poppet's A to Z 2014 Reading Challenge to cover T is for Time (the book travels through time, moves through time quickly, or flashes back). I don't generally like Time Travel books and I might have time collecting this letter otherwise, but I think the memories that Harry and Dumbledore revisit in the Pensieve count. 

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review 2013-12-30 15:18
Gut-Churningly Hard to Read
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - J.K. Rowling,Mary GrandPré

Of all the Harry Potter books, I think Order of the Phoenix is the most difficult to read. -Not because it's bad (as if), or because it is dark (it is, but there is plenty of mirth interspersed with the darkness), but because Harry is subjected to unrelenting injustice on all fronts. Harry is no stranger to injustice, of course: he grew up being mistreated by his Muggle guardians, the Dursleys. He's always been treated unfairly by Potions Master Severus Snape. At various points in his Hogwarts career, he's also had to suffer widespead ridicule and shunning by his schoolmates (most notably in Chamber of Secrets, when many thought he was the Heir of Slytherin, and again in Goblet of Fire, when his selection as the fourth Triwizard champion inspired the resentment and jealousy of many, including his best friend). In Order of the Phoenix, however, Harry is more persecuted and ostracized than ever. For reasons he can't understand, his mentor, Albus Dumbledore, won't speak to or even look at him. Also, in a bid to discredit his claim that the evil Lord Voldemort has returned to full power, the Ministry of Magic and the main wizarding news source, The Daily Prophet, are spreading the word that Harry is crazy, unbalanced, and possibly dangerous -- and some of his schoolmates are only too willing to believe the propaganda. 


Worse yet, not only has the Ministry turned on Harry, it has infiltrated his home base, Hogwarts. When Dumbledore can't find anyone to take on the jinxed Defense Against Dark Arts teaching position, the Ministry installs the cloyingly sweet and noxiously poisonous Delores Umbridge. Umbridge is my personal favorite villian in a series with a lot of baddies: she is maddeningly, gut-churninging, teeth-grindingly NASTY. I hate her. Harry hates her. Hermione hates her, teacher's pet though Hermione usually is. Even Minerva McGonagall, who has always been crisply polite (though occasionally cutting) to even the most incompetent fools (see Gilderoy Lockhart), hates Umbridge and cannot keep a civil tongue around her. 


As the year progresses and the Ministry passes new laws to increase Umbridge's authority while undermining Dumbledore's, Umbridge strips joy from Harry's life wherever she can. She tortures him in detentions. She bans him from quidditch. She intercepts his mail and watches the fireplaces so he can't communicate with Sirius, the closest thing to family he's got. Eventually, she banishes those teachers who have always provided Harry with comfort and guidance. 


Never has Harry been so alone, and this extreme isolation comes at the worst possible time. Harry has always been able to trust his instincts in the past, but now even his thoughts are untrustworthy. Not only is he full of the usual teenage angst and anger, but Voldemort may be able to infiltrate and influence Harry's mind. The Ministry is trying to convince the world that Harry is crazy and evil, and suddenly, deep down inside, Harry can't be certain that he isn't.


This is probably the darkest book in the series. It's early days in the war against Voldemort and the Death Eaters, and there are greater losses yet to come, but this is the book where Harry's faith in himself is at its nadir. Until he overcomes this crisis of confidence and learns to master his own mind, he cannot begin to fight the battles that will come. 

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review 2013-12-19 18:00
Why Couldn't Cedric Diggory Have Been a Girl (and Other Musings On The Goblet of Fire)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - J.K. Rowling,Mary GrandPré

I've been doing such a good job writing actual reviews for these (I've read the whole series several times, but never wrote reviews) during Litchick's Epic Harry Potter Group Read, but this one has me stymied. I don't know where to start, but here goes...


Goblet of Fire is a pivotal installment in the Harry Potter series because it marks a major shift in tone. Prior to that moment--and it is a moment, specifically the instant Harry and Cedric grasp the Triwizard Cup and get spirited away from Hogwarts--you, the reader, float along on the relatively comfortable assumption that you're reading a lighthearted j-fic fantasy about magical kids having a magically good time, and even though there are dark elements (dementors, basilisks, etc. -- but they're just mythical creatures, right?) and people die (but only in the distant past or in dreams) and there's a bad guy (but he's critically weak and Harry has beat him before), the overall tone is pretty upbeat. 


And then you stumble into Chapter Thirty-Two of Goblet of Fire, and you finally get that this isn't the rose-colored fairytale you thought. The stakes are much, much higher. The threat is much more real. Suddenly, you are jarred out of your complacency. For this reason, Goblet of Fire is a less comfortable read than the preceding books. 


When I first read the books as they were coming out (I preordered each of the hardcovers months before their release date and cleared my calendar for the days following the arrival of the cardboard box from Amazon), this was the book where I realized most clearly that J.K. Rowling wasn't just making up the saga as she went along, that she must have had the entire seven year series plotted out in minute detail from the very beginning. Sure, there are continuity errors (for example, it doesn't make sense that there would have been a different gamekeeper in Molly Weasley's day when we learn in book two that Dumbledore allowed Hagrid to stay on as gamekeeper after his expulsion from Hogwarts fifty years ago), but only about very minor things having nothing to do with the main events of the plot and subplots. Goblet of Fire harkens back to the previous books, illuminating plot twists you thought you understood at the time in an entirely new light. 


While my overall impression of this book is and has always been positive, I've always been annoyed by the fact that there's only one female contestant in the Triwizard Tournament and she's a dizzy blonde, perpetually trailing in points, the only one not to complete the second task and the first to be eliminated from the third and final task. I get that J.K. Rowling isn't trying to write a feminist manifesto and not everything has to have a deeper meaning, but I just wish Fleur Delacour wasn't such a stereotype. Especially since there are two Hogwarts champions, wouldn't it have been so much better if the second champion had been some smart, badass chick from Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw, instead of pretty-boy Diggory? 

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review 2013-12-08 02:14
Best Book of the Series
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling

Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite Harry Potter book. It introduces the pivotal characters Lupin, Sirius, and Pettigrew, all of whom were dear friends of Harry's father. We learn what the four friends -- Lupin, Sirius, Pettigrew, and James Potter -- were like when they were Harry's age, and we get much more insight into why Professor Snape is so unpleasant. Lupin is the first competent Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Harry's class has had, and through him we finally get a sense of what that area of study is supposed to involve. 


This is also the book where Harry realizes that Dumbledore doesn't know everything and can't fix everything. At the end, after telling him what they have learned about Sirius, Dumbledore believes Harry and Hermione when no one else does, but his belief isn't enough. 


"But you believe us."

"Yes, I do," said Dumbledore quietly. "But I have no power to make other men see the truth, or to overrule the Minister of Magic...."

Harry stared up into the grave face and felt as though the ground beneath him were falling sharply away. He had grown used to the idea that Dumbledore could solve anything. He had expected Dumbledore to pull some amazing solution out of the air. But no... their last hope was gone. 


Thus begins Harry's process of realizing the limits of Dumbledore's guidance: the Headmaster is an enormously wise and powerful wizard, yes, and he is and continues to be a huge resource for Harry in his quest to defeat Voldemort -- but ultimately that quest is Harry's alone, and Dumbledore's help will only get him so far. 


Ultimately, I like this book best because it is the most tightly-plotted of the seven Harry Potter books, I think. The first three books are relatively short, and the last four are much, much longer. Some of that is because the stories get increasingly complex as Harry's quest advances, but some of it is also just ... stuff. (I suspect that, in light of J.K. Rowling's unprecedented success, editors might have given her leeway to ramble where a less experienced writer would have been advised to cut. For example: the hundreds-of-pages-long camping trip that Harry and his friends take in Deathly Hallows. *snore*) Anyway, Prisoner of Azkaban is beautifully constructed, to the point where every single thing that happens in it is somehow necessary to the plot (if not of this book, then of books to come). There is nothing extra. The story whips along, never slowing, never dragging, and it's an incredible ride. 

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