Wow, lofty goal, that – tackling the entire Harry Potter series – and while I don’t expect this review to compete with others, I’m still a little nervous. I’ve never read an entire review of the infamous book series about a boy wizard, but I’d have to live in a cave to not hear things. And I’m going to start off by making a bold statement: everything I heard was wrong. The Harry Potter books are not books of the occult, nor are they an attempt to convert to Christianity. They’re not children’s books, nor are they adult books just because of their theme. They’re not for nerds and they’re not for the masses. They’re both in and outside most of these things (the exceptions being the first paired statements). Publishers and readers recognize J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece for what it is, that something called timeless classic. That’s why the author was offered an unheard of amount for her first big hit, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as it is known in the U.S.). That’s why it has millions upon millions of readers. It is not some well-designed conspiracy.
That said, it is true that the central theme of the series is death. And it’s also true it’s about conquering death through sacrificial love. It’s true that the series starts with an 11-year-old protagonist, but as he grows, so does the writing style, the depth of the mystery and the number of subplots and themes. This is actually a brilliant understanding of point of view. It’s true that geeks can latch onto a whole word of people, places, objects, subjects and spells. But Rowling’s knowledge of the world she has created – full of both old legend and fresh imagination – is one of the ways she creates a subversive fantasy adventure.
Another way in which Rowling grabs our attention is by grabbing our hearts with her characters. Sure, Severus Snape, one of the antagonists (or protagonists?) is right; Harry is indeed a snide, sneaky, sub-par student. But he’s confident enough to stand up to evil and humble enough to embrace remorse for his wrongdoings. And his average talents are what makes his victories so worth watching. He can’t defeat the Dark Lord alone; he needs his friends, who make up for his weaknesses.
Hermoine Granger, Harry’s female friend, makes up for most of his weaknesses. She’s clever, talented, sympathetic and scrupulous. It is she who prevents capture by quick-thinking and keeps Harry to his goal by her unabashed nagging.
Ron Weasley is the less gifted, principled, intelligent – well, everything – of the bunch, except that he’s the most humble and proves that fame (for Harry is already famous in the wizarding world when he enters it at age eleven) and success (Hermoine is the top student in their class) aren’t everything and friendship and love is both the reason and the means of fighting evil.
Among this trio of youngsters is a whole supporting cast of stern yet motherly figures, boyish yet sober father figures and more loyal friends. And all must stand up against the powerful and prideful Dark Lord, his faithful followers and the cowardly who seek protection in his shadow. Even these characters are portrayed so as to empathize with a tiny portion of their mistakes or plights.
It’s not just because of our love of her characters that Rowling is able to maintain the suspense throughout the series. Harry’s job is to survive, again and again, from the Dark Lord’s attempts to murder him. At the end of each of his school years, when Harry is traveling home for the summer, readers feel the tension that is the calm before the storm and the suspense mounts with each year. (Each book follows a year of Harry’s life.) We know that eventually, when Harry is of age, he will have his final battle with Lord Voldemort. It’s the suspense, wound with the desire to solve mysteries in the plot, that keep us turning pages as fast as we can while still absorbing enough information to understand the action.
The mystery element of the series is perhaps my favorite. I know she’s been compared to C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien but I’m not sure whether Rowling has gotten due credit for this other talent. One of the issues I have with most mystery writers is that they withhold information until the mystery is solved. Rowling never does this. All the clues are present before the explanation of how the puzzle was solved. The reader has to be observant to catch the clue but never has to pull at straws and it is so sublimely satisfying to reach a correct conclusion “on one’s own,” it’s like a drug. (Ya know, like chocolate, which by the way is mentioned in the Harry Potter books as a magical cure for sadness. I knew it!)
Basically my only complaint with the series is the resolution. A lot is resolved in the midst of action and when the action ends, there’s kind of a feeling of being dumped. Rowling does add an epilogue but only explains what happens to a choice few characters, most of whom are new (and we don’t really care about those, do we? No, we care about the ones with which we faced death – or, er, felt like it.) It’s just heart-wrenching, having those characters we cared about leave us without a proper goodbye. Or was that just me?