I read these books last month, but wanted to save them to celebrate my Cannonball. When I was a teenager, I thought I read a lot. But I don’t think I ever read 40 books in a year before. Last year, reading mostly historical biographies, I only made it to 29 (my goal was 12, though). So I didn’t expect to really be able to make it this year. So I’m pleasantly surprised that I was able to make it in approximately six months. So, yay me!
Our reading lives, I think, are marked by transcendental works that tower over everything that precedes them, and cast monumental shadows across all that follow. My first experience with this was Crime and Punishment. It taught me to feel. The Lord of the Rings taught me to dream. A Game of Thrones taught me to take nothing for granted. Moby Dick taught me to glory in the beauty of the written word.
Harry Potter came along at an important transitional period of my life. I had just graduated high school and was entering college. We had a late-run dollar theatre in my town and, on a lark, decided to give the first Harry Potter a shot. Expecting little, what I found was a rich and engaging world paired with an emotional depth seldom encountered by 18 year old kids often burdened by apathy and ennui. The next day, I bought all the books in the series, and devoured them over a weekend. I would go on to spend the next three summers or so eagerly waiting for the next book to be published, only to devour them just as greedily as I had their predecessors.
I’ve re-read the series multiple times since then, and I’m transported back to that period in my life every time. I think these books do, for me, what they do for most people: they serve as a reminder of what it means to grow up, to discover the turmoil and majesty of life, and to treasure not only those we bring along with us, but those we leave behind. I don’t know what it’s like to read Harry Potter for the first time as an adult, but to read it while you’re still going through what the characters are freezes that period of your life; to return to these books later is to visit your older self and see how far you’ve come. So there’s always a bittersweet joy in these pages. Behind this cover, I’m always 18, and a little piece of the wonder I found here is always waiting for me.
52. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997) 5 stars
Reviewed twice (3.5 average)
The thing that always amazes me about these books is how much they develop over the course of the series. I don’t know how much of this is a natural byproduct of Rowling’s maturation as a writer, and how much is design to progress the characters at a realistic rate, but I’m always tickled by it. This book is fairly immature – highly enjoyable, but neither emotionally nor thematically complex. We are introduced to all the characters that will play a significant role in the series, and in re-reads everything seems true and fully realized. Rowling wasn’t making this up as she went along. She knew this world, and these characters, and at least had a general idea what she wanted to do with them. The characters as they exist in this first book are the same as they exist at the end, minus the emotional growth that naturally develops throughout the series.
The book itself is fairly tight, without a lot of the world building that comes later. We follow Harry and his friends through their first year at Hogwarts, but there aren’t as many diversions as there later will be. Which makes this book a faster read, but when you love this world as much as I do, it’s a little disappointing to not have more of it to get lost in.
My only qualm with this book, really, is that the climax is a little too neat. Harry learns how to play Wizards chess early in the book, and that comes in handy at the end, as do devil’s snare and Harry’s Quidditch skills. It’s all just a little too convenient, and I think this is Rowling’s inexperience showing. In later books, the resolutions are a bit more natural feeling.
53. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) 4.5 stars
Not previously reviewed for CBR.
Every time I read Chamber of Secrets, I find that I enjoy it at least as much as Sorcerer’s Stone, but when I’m not reading it, I always think it’s my least favorite of the books. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Perhaps it’s residual boredom from the movies. I’m one of those people who almost always prefer the book to the movies, and that is even more true of Harry Potter. Too much was excised from the books (no S.P.E.W., for instance), and though the cast certainly looked the part (mostly) the acting left a lot to be desired among the children. While the first two movies did a wonderful job capturing the look of the books, and following the details, I never quite enjoy them. That’s even more true of Chamber of Secrets, so maybe that feeling carries over into the books.
Whatever the case, this book always feels darker, more dreary than the others (even more so than Order of the Phoenix or Deathly Hallows). Harry is disliked and mistrusted by his classmates for most of the series, and there’s a constant, looming threat that the school is going to be closed. Following the joy and wonder in Sorcerer’s Stone, the contrast between the first two books is stark.
54. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) 5 stars
Not previously reviewed for CBR.
This has always been the turning point in the series, for me. What was a highly engaging world about children that ended up being far more entertaining than it perhaps had any right to be, with Prisoner of Azkaban become a more nuanced and layered depiction of growing up. This isn’t just about a boy finding out he’s a wizard, this is about learning to become an adult, and dealing with all the responsibilities and heartaches that come with that. Harry’s trials become more than just a series of puzzles he has to solve, or heroic acts he has to do. He is forced to confront his worst memories, and fight against his own fears and limitations.
But Rowling hasn’t yet perfected her craft. Hermione is almost insufferable in this book. She and Ron constantly bicker amongst each other over her new cat, Crookshanks, who continually tries to kill Ron’s pet rat, Scabbers. What kind of intrigues me, though, is that what appears to be some preternatural ability in the feline is never really referenced again in the series. I kept expecting some explanation for how the cat knows the secret of Scabbers, and how this ability could manifest itself again – but nope. Crookshanks is just a cat, apparently.
Another thing about about this book that seems to be a transition between the youthful awkwardness of the first two books and the maturation of Rowling’s writing is the final confrontation with Sirius Black. There’s a long, multi-page discussion that basically has Sirius explaining himself to Harry instead of acting. It’s just one long, interminable monologue that over explains the situation. I think Rowling, were she to re-write the book, would almost have to rework this scene. I think she couldn’t trimmed a lot of it, and worked some of the information into the book at an earlier point.
But that’s a small complaint. Books this good almost necessitate minor criticism.
55. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) 5 stars
Not previously reviewed for CBR.
This is the most perfect book in the series, for me. Her writing is polished, the characters are fully fleshed out, the story hadn’t yet gone down the darkness that would weigh down parts of the later books, and (though tipping the scales at 700+ pages) it feels pretty taught and fast-paced.
Ron and Hermione come into their own in this book. Ron exists less as a comic foil, and begins to assert an aspirational trajectory only hinted at previously. Cracks even develop in his friendship with Harry over the latter’s being thrust even further into the spotlight. Hermione, meanwhile, blossoms for the first time into a girl to be sought after. To this point, she had always been the bossy know-it-all who’s the most talent and knowledgeable member of the group. Here, Viktor Krum is attracted to her, and she allows Madame Pomfrey to fix her over-large front teeth. These aren’t drastic changes for the characters, but they begin to move past the comparatively thin characterizations that had existed previously. For perhaps the first time, these books aren’t strictly a tale of good vs. evil. This book is about growing about. About being a teenager. Every time I read the series, I most look forward to this book.
Hermione’s disgust at the treatment of magical creatures (specifically, house elves) manifests itself in the formation of S.P.E.W. I’ve always been a bit perplexed at what Rowling was going for with this development. Clearly, it’s an indictment of bigotry and slavery, but the general antipathy for her politics by the rest of the characters is what confuses me. Not only do her efforts not gain much traction, but the story line is essentially abandoned in the last two books. Maybe there’s nothing here, but it almost seems like she planned on doing something with this, and then just gave up towards the end. It’s also a little weird that the real Britain was on the leading edge of abolition, but her wizarding Britain would maintain the practice of slavery a full two centuries after the Muggle counterparts gave it up? They never heard of William Wilberforce?
This is the one unresolved story line that doesn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the series, in my opinion.
56. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003) 5 stars
Reviewed, not given a star rating.
No character in the history of literature is more detestable and contemptible than Dolores Umbridge.
I know. There are worse people in fiction. But Umbridge is so…..believable. She’s the kind of mean we’ve all encountered in life. She’s your boss that forces you to work overtime for no reason. She’s the aunt who makes passive-aggressive comments just to make you feel bad about yourself. She’s the friend who slowly undermines your relationships and convinces you to do things that only end up hurting you. She’s the straight A student who is universally loved by adults, but also bullies classmates when the teacher isn’t looking. Fighting against Dolores Umbridge is fruitless, because she’s the kind of evil that is valuable to people more powerful than you, and it probably isn’t recognized by anyone who can do something about it.
I remember the main criticism of this book when it came out seemed to be Harry’s moping through the book and YELLING AT EVERYONE IN ALL CAPS. While that is annoying, I’ve always respected the decision (except for the CAPS. Seriously. Not cool). Let’s be honest: no one likes teenagers. They’ve got the bodies of adults, the minds of children, and the inability to know the difference. Harry kind of embodies that, here. He’s so put-upon in this book. Everyone is out to get him, and he’s poorly understood, and life is just so unfair (stomps foot).
I mean, much of that is true. Harry is put-upon, here, he does suffer, and his life really is unfair. He’s living with the guilt of witnessing the murder of a classmate, is the victim of ceaseless mockery and the mischaracterization by the wizard governing body, is actively pursued by a kangaroo court, and suffers near-daily humiliation and torture at the hands of a Ministry official, all while being essentially abandoned by the adults he most looks up to. So while he’s always been able to hand turmoil with surprising equanimity, things go from bad to worse in this book. That he looses it occasionally is honest and realistic….but can be a bit of a chore sometimes. Kind of like dealing with an actual teenager.
In some respects, this is the book that takes this series out of juvenile fiction. Not only are the characters maturing, but the world is becoming less one of wonder and amazement, and more one of complicated motivations and a diversity of thought not previously seen. The good guys are less wholly good, and the bad guys increasingly don’t have a monopoly on what is bad. The DA is betrayed by Cho’s friend, and Harry faces doubt and criticism from allies. Everything is becoming more developed and rounded, and the characters are having to deal with very real consequences for their actions.
Also, fuck Dolores Umbridge.
57. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) 5 stars
Reviewed twice before, avg rating of 5.
Since my first read-through of the series about a decade ago, I’ve always thought of this book as the best in the series. It follows the same format as all the previous books, but everything has been turned up to 11. Following the events of The Order of the Phoenix, everyone knows about Voldemort and the wizarding world is on the brink of open warfare.
My only qualm, really, is the doubt surrounding Harry’s suspicion that Draco Malfoy is up to no good. It makes Hermione and Ron somewhat infuriating, here. After all they had been through, it’s implausible that they would find it so hard to believe Harry. Yet time and again, they treat Harry like he’s delusional. I didn’t buy it the first time I read the book, and I don’t buy it now.
Apart from that, I’m running out of things to say about the books. They’re great. If you haven’t read them, rectify that immediately.
58. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) 4.5 stars
Reviewed once, 3 star rating.
There are many things to love, and many things that are frustrating in this book. First….holy hell are there some gut punches in this book. Characters die. There are real consequences in this book. Most importantly, this book is permanently associated with sadness, and not even because of the deaths. I’m always sad that the series is over. So I don’t know that I can objectively critique the book. I never want to read this book, because then it’s over, and while I always enjoy the book, sadness permeates every page.
Overall, I think the book works. Rowling ties together most of the threads that grew throughout the series, and the finale is always vague enough for me when I sit down to re-read the series that it seems almost new. I remember the end, of course, but the final reasons for why things play out the way they do are always a little hazy.
A large portion of this book is devoted to Dumbledore’s backstory: his relationship with his family, the dark wizard Grindelwald, and the parts of his life that Harry was generally unaware of. I’ve always been bothered by Rowling’s decision to ex post facto Dumbledore gay for the simple reason that there is ample room to include this in book 7. And why exclude it? Is that detail less relevant than any of the other minor details of his life? Does it give less characterization than her pointing out that Dumbledore and Harry were both from Godric’s Hollow? We know what his favorite candies are, but we don’t know that he loved men? If it doesn’t matter that Dumbledore is gay (I think it matters only as much as it helps define who he is; which is to say, not a whole lot), then why talk about it at all?
I don’t. As I’ve already said, I’ve kind of said everything about these books that I want to. This is a very minor point that really doesn’t impact how I see Rowling, these books, or the characters. But it’s always just kind of annoyed me that she didn’t put it in the book.
Or maybe I’m just annoyed that she’s writing for Pottermore instead of writing another book set in this world. I can’t return to my youth. I can’t go back and experience these books for the first time, but I can dream of a day that she returns to this universe and gives us more books to read (no, the up-coming movies aren’t enough).