Friday, August 19, 2005

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Chris is too old for me to have an excuse anymore to stand in line to get the books at midnight, so we've relied on Amazon for the last two. But last year, while we were waiting for the FedEx truck to bring our book, my Dad called...
Dad: "Do you have the Harry Potter book yet?"
Me: "No, we're waiting for FedEx. We got it from Amazon so we could have it today and not stand in line at the book stores". (I'm feeling pretty slick at this point)

Dad: "Well, they've got them at Albertsons".
Me: "Albertsons! How can that be?
And so, I walk over to Albertsons, and there they were. But this leaves me with somewhat mixed feelings. One of the secret joys of being a reader (at least for me) is pretentiousness. You know that when you're reading you're doing something superior to watching reality TV or eating at Applebee's. But it's hard to maintain this pretense when you are buying your book along with a bag of giant Cheeto's.

This year, I dispensed with Amazon, and planned on Albertsons, but their delivery was late, so we had to wait to the evening. Chris raced through and finished on Monday, while I didn't get to start until Monday and so took until Tuesday, my latest finishing point for the last three books.

And so, to the review.

The broad hints about the story were true. The story does become "darker" and a significant character dies. Compared to previous books, not a lot of new ground is covered. Obviously, the story advances, but each of the previous books has expanded our knowledge of the wizarding world, and the kids have grown rapidly. This time, as happens in real life at this point of adolescence (they're sixteen turning seventeen), the kids maturation has slowed, and the plot mainly fills in the broad canvas created by the first five books.

One of the things I’ve really liked about the more recent books is the way Rowling gives complex and even contradictory motivations to her characters. In books aimed at kids (and works aimed at that level, like TV shows and most popular cinema) the characters are very flat. Rowling has trusted her readers enough to make her characters more and more rounded as the story progresses, while at the same time keeping them believable as kids. (Although I do think she stumbles a bit with the “relationship stuff”). Her portrayal of the adults is just as sharp. I really appreciated her somewhat unsympathetic portrayal of Harry's godfather Sirius Black in book V. In this book, the adults become even more complicated, and in a very satisfying way, she shows the kids moving into more of a peer relationship with their parents and teachers.

Rowling also has a keen eye for the "ways of the world". I thought her portrayal of the wizarding government's response to the return of Voldemort at the end of book IV and throughout book V was very smart. Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic and their head of government, senses deep down that he is not equipped to handle the likes of Voldemort, and so he refuses to admit that it is possible for him to have returned. While I have seen this response to trouble many times in real life and note that it is a very frequent cause of grief, we rarely see this portrayed as a motivation in film, and so I thank Rowling for it. At the beginning of this book, Voldemort goes on a rampage, leading to the sacking of Fudge and his predictable replacement by a "man of action". Rowling also gets in a few wry comments on "the war on terrah" in connection with this.

And yes, the themes of the book are "darker". Perhaps a better way to put it is that the moral boundaries of the characters become wider and blurrier. Rowling had pointed us in this direction at the end of book IV, when, upon his return, Voldemort kills one of Harry's classmates like a bug. Now, this casual disregard for life, or perhaps better, avid regard for gaining and keeping power, is full-blown. This left Chris kind of troubled.

Rowling also seems to be aware of some of her own literary patterns from the previous books. There is a hard to see but essential difference between having a style and self-plagiarism, Rowling understands this, and plays off of it brilliantly. Through most of the book, it appeared to me that Rowling had fallen into a rut with one of the subplots Harry faces, and I was thinking, “Doesn’t she realize she always has Harry focused on this?”. But as it turns out, Rowling was fully aware, and uses and breaks this pattern to great effect at the end of the book.

But I do have a few small quibbles. First, despite Rowling's frequent references to the power of love being greater than all other powers, this time she seems to suggest that Harry's fundamental motivation towards Voldemort is, and should be, revenge. She does little to reconcile the incompatibility of these two powers, and I suspect it is because she doesn't realize that they are incompatible. Second, Rowling seems to think that some people are "killers" and some are not. She does a great job of portraying how killing can rob one of his or her soul, but just the stories of Rwanda, Bosnia, and Dafur from recent years show that given the right circumstances and motivations, we can all be killers.

That aside, these books are brilliant. If you have kids, read them along with them. These stories provide you with a common set of experiences and stories which can be invaluable in talking to your kids about life. (And despite a great deal of ink and venom over the "danger" of these stories for Christian kids, fuggeddaboutit. The themes and worldview of these books fit well with Christian thinking and priorities, much more so even than, say, the Left Behind books. Trust me on this, I'm a professional). And even if you don't have kids, read these books. At best, you'll learn something about life, and at worst, we all can at least develop a set of common cultural referents beyond the Simpsons and South Park.

Other Stuff: the Internets are populated with people who are even more obsessive and with greater motivation to waste time than I. Here are two really amazing reflections by garlandgraves and Brad Plumer on the events at the end of the book where the story may be going in the next and final book. I felt a lot better after reading them.

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