J.K. Rowling – The Harry Potter novels

The past 2 weeks I have been re-immersing myself into the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling, spending most of my free time reading them again without much of a break. Now I have been thinking if I should review each novel separately or write a grand review of all the novels together. The reason for this is that the Harry Potter novels have been immensely popular worldwide. Some consider it a modern classic. There is thus no real need to promote them or convince someone to try them if they have been in doubt. Among my own family and friends I know no-one who didn’t like them, not counting those who are really not interested in fantasy or reading. Even people who usually don’t read or avoid fantasy have read them. Another reason to review them together is that it requires some effort to write distinguishable reviews where I don’t repeat myself as there are many elements in the books which remain consistent throughout the series. And besides that it is nice to give some comparison between the books. So this is a grand review of 7 books, where I give my thoughts on the series.

Where to start? The series is a Young Adult fantasy series in which each subsequent novel grows in complexity and approach to fit the age of the developing reader. The first books are written on a lower level, and most of all, faster paced and much shorter in length, while the later novels are heavy tomes that take more time to tell the story. The series is also very accessible to adult readers who find much to enjoy and can recognize many elements from their own youth while the prose is nowhere too light and simplistic. The series consists of seven novels: The Philosopher’s Stone (1997), The Chamber Of Secrets (1998), The Prisoner Of Azkaban (1999), The Goblet Of Fire (2000), The Order Of The Phoenix (2003), The Half-Blood Prince (2005) and The Deathly Hallows (2007). Originally I started with the novels after The Goblet Of Fire, as the first novels were more or less depicted as children’s novels, while the next two were seen as more enjoyable for adult readers. Praises by friends made me change my mind. Enough to say that once I started I was immediately hooked.

From that angle I can state that I greatly enjoy the whole series. There is very little to criticize and even these are just minor things. So what is so good about them? Personally I think it is most of all the great plotting. Each novels tells its own story with a clear beginning and ending while there is also a greater story told that connects all of them. Each plot is wonderfully crafted with great complexity and many layers that has an Agatha Christie quality to them with the main difference that this is no who-dunnit but a real story with strong characters, fun ideas and depth. Having reread all the novels after each other I was able to recognize minor comments in the early novels that in the later books played a larger role. It is a joy to notice them.

After the plotting the characterization is also one of the strong points. The books contain many characters and Rowling manages to give each of them a voice although there many side-characters don’t get much attention. They are all recognizable but nowhere cliché. Many stand out with their unique habits and characteristics and they are always fun to encounter again. It is almost a shame Rowling keeps her focus on the three main characters of the books, although this is required to keep the books and stories manageable.

What struck me quite much during the reread were the many strong scenes in the novels. There is very little redundant text during most scenes. Rowling uses all the words she needs to create the right effect and doesn’t use too much. Each scene carried its own emotion, be it anguish, fear, happiness, anger or calm. Everything is painted vividly to the eye of the reader’s imagination while Rowling avoids describing too many details. Only those that give the setting the right feeling. The reader will fill in the details himself.

What the novels have in common is a consistent style in the use of prose. Rowling introduces many new words that are frequently used in the universe of Harry Potter. A whole new vocabulary is used. Without making it look silly or forced she avoids the use of swear words or curses and creates children friendly alternatives that feel right and funny. It is full with catchy phrases and expressions which quickly become familiar and characteristic of the world of Harry Potter.

Criticism of the novels usually entails Rowling’s use of familiar components that have been used for ages. The orphan, the coming-of-age story, the dark lord, the school setting and this in combination of the most common depiction of witchcraft and wizardry. Personally I believe there is nothing wrong about this. True originality becomes harder and harder as more stories are created in which almost any variation becomes covered. The only way to distinguish oneself is by creating a mix of common components that together form something greater. After all they are only used as a framework, a setting for the story. All the plots in the novels themselves are in my opinion unique in their setup and complexity and how the different storylines are woven together. Taken outside of the context of the novels, the plots of books 1, 2, 4 and 5 are familiar. Rowling however makes something new and original of them by adding a lot of different elements that have not been used for them before. And in my opinion this is always the toughest thing in writing: to write something that works. It’s similar to cooking: you can throw a lot of ingredients together, but the ingredients require the right amount, the right order and the right time to create something that tastes well and in this regard Rowling has done a perfect job.

Looking back at the seven books I can divide them into pairs. As the number is uneven one isn’t paired. This is book 5, The Order Of The Phoenix. All the other have things in common with each other.

The first two books, The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber Of Secrets, belong to the shortests novels. They both have a fast pace and the emotional impact is low (compared to the other novels). The events are not as personal as later in the series. There is still some distance between the characters and what is happening. Both stories are directly related to the great evil adversary of the series, although he comes in an incomplete disguise. Both books are on a low entry level, more children’s book (as mentioned before), as the main weak points in the novels are found in the weakness (or nastiness) of the hurdles that need to be overcome in comparison to the abilities of the characters. Both novels are quick reads. Due to the short length the pace is relatively high. The characters don’t really have much time to be explored.

In the next two books, The Prisoner Of Azkaban and The Goblet Of Fire, Rowling expands the depth and background of the story considerably. Both focus on events related to the greater story and explore events that happened in the past. The great evil adversary is almost absent in both and in both novels the main characters are finally getting prepared for the battles to come, something which was lacking before. Both novels carry much more emotion. Harry Potter is threatened directly and he learns that much is not what it seems in a web of betrayal, lies and manipulation.

In my opinion, especially after my reread, the fifth book, The Order Of The Phoenix, is the pinnacle of the series. Harry Potter goes through the greatest ordeals and shows great emotional and character development. He uses what he has learned before and prepares for what is to come in the final two books. It is no wonder this is the largest of the seven books, because it contains so much.

The final pair, The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows, is all about disclosure. We finally get to the truth of the greater plot which is now taking over. School events in The Half-Blood Prince take a lot less prominence. The pace is lower and there is no direct threat for the first time since The Philosopher’s Stone. The plots is much simpler. Rowling needs to resolve matters. One could say it’s the silence before the storm. The shocking finale provides the setup for the last novel which starts with a bang, then slogs down and then steadily gains speed heading for a strong and lengthy finale. In the matter of events and action both novels are weaker than the other novels. One could also see it as a change towards maturity. The main characters have experienced a lot, they have learned and don’t rush at things anymore. One can see these as weaknesses, but the novels develop as much as the characters do. None is the same and they reflect the state of the main characters. As said, I see the last two books as a pair. The Half-Blood Prince is the preparation for The Deathly Hallows. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made to give the reader the chance to get a good picture of the greater whole after rushing everything for five books and provide a satisfactory conclusion.

I already mentioned a few minor weak points to the novels. A weak point in general concerns the whole concept of the magic school. For me it is unclear how much the characters actually learn. The complexity of spells seems rather random, especially compared to when they are taught. Overall the usage of spells seems rather limited as the characters use the same spells most of the time. The only times they seemed to learn more was when they took matters into their own hands. Sometimes spells only need to be heard once to copy them while others take huge effort. Of course it is too much effort for an author to have everything required ready, but some organization seems to be lacking. It is only a minor annoyance and I’m only noticing it now that I’ve read the novels shortly after each other.

With this I think I have said plenty about the Harry Potter novels. I’ve read the series now three times and the third time I’ve enjoyed it even more than before, which says much about it already. It is a modern classic which I do expect will survive the times and will give many generations much reading pleasure.

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