Goblet 1: Heaven is a Weasleys chapter that never ends

Forgive my post-Azkaban absence. I’m very busy and important, by which I actually mean that I’m lazy. But I have finished the fourth Harry Potter installment, Goblet of Fire, and will be catching up in a few posts over the next couple days, so I can start Order of the Phoenix.

Azkaban had done a vastly superior job over the first two books of developing its central conflict earlier, with ominous moments that set the tone and gave the book a real energy. Goblet wisely continues that with the opening chapter, “The Riddle House.” To call it the best opener of the series would be an understatement. It’s creepy, almost scary, yet muted in a way that keeps some mystery and suspense. We don’t find out what Voldemort looks like, just that it’s horrible. We don’t know what he has planned, but we know he already seems closer to being back to power than he has all series. It made me excited right off the bat.

From there, we go back to Harry living at the Dursleys, because Rowling hates me. But it doesn’t last long at all, because j/k, J.K. kinda likes me. Just like I was told in the comments in an earlier post, the Dursleys’ role has been thankfully reduced. They barely have a chance to be ridiculously awful before Harry is out the door (or fireplace, rather).

And then, all heaven breaks loose, because it’s time for over a hundred pages of Weasleys, y’all.

If Rowling ever writes an eighth book for this series, I think it should be called Harry Potter and the Weasleys’ Dinner Party and it should be 700 pages of everyone chilling at the Burrow. Yeah, I remember the house being destroyed near the end of the movie series, but they can rebuild. I’d be down for at least 30 pages of Molly Weasley interviewing magical contractors.

We get the entire Weasley gang together for the first time in the books. Particularly interesting to me was Bill, the eldest child turned hippie curse breaker in Egypt. I definitely hope to see more of him in future books. We also see that Percy has somehow gotten even douchier since graduating Hogwarts and getting a Ministry job. Respect, Percy. That’ll teach everyone who predicted your douche levels would peak in school.

The gang all heads to the Quidditch World Cup. Quidditch was always a fun idea — creating an entire sport for the magical community, rather than just using soccer or something the readers already knew. But it went to another level for me in the Hogwarts Quidditch final in Azkaban, by far Rowlings’ most exciting depiction of her sport creation up to that point. The World Cup final was cut from the same cloth, and it was an achievement to make it just as exciting despite none of the characters we previously knew being involved.

It seems worth noting that over the course of this book, starting early on, Rowling begins to patch up many unanswered questions to make her world more realistic.We’re finally told that there are magical schools all around the world — obviously a major plot point for this book, but a needed explanation anyway. We see that people can apparently pop in for talks via the ol’ head-in-the-fire method (the original FaceTime); since we already knew that wizards don’t have phones, we kinda needed something like that to show they haven’t been completely lapped by Muggles in terms of ability to communicate instantly across distances. We find out later that Muggle technology doesn’t work at Hogwarts, another detail that closes potential holes. There are more details I would still like, and maybe I’ll do a post on them some other time, but these were very positive steps.

The only mild annoyance for me was that Harry knew nothing about the Dark Mark before it was conjured at the World Cup. I complained in Chamber about Harry going through his entire first year without ever learning that Mudblood is the worst slur in the magical community, but this was actually worse. He’s been a wizard-in-training for a full three years by the World Cup, yet he has learned so little about the evil wizard who has tried to kill him at least three times that he’s never heard of the Mark, which is a pretty big deal to everyone else? I mean, Harry would have to be willfully ignorant, and while he’s never been the bookworm Hermione is, I don’t think Rowling intends him to seem like someone who buries his head in the sand — and if he’s still learned so little about Voldemort and his followers by now, that’s exactly what he is. At some point, don’t you say, “Hey, that guy murdered my parents and keeps trying to murder me; maybe I should read up on him”? Rowling’s mistake often seems to be thinking that because nearly the entire series comes from Harry’s POV, he should learn things for the first time at the same time as the reader. But that’s really not necessary; the reader can recognize that we’re only seeing episodes within everyday lives, and the characters may be aware of things before they’re revealed to the reader.

But that’s a relatively minor complaint in a long stretch of opening goodness. It was a bold move to wait until Page 171 for the characters to be at Hogwarts, but it was a move that paid off handsomely to me. The book opens with plenty of humor and fun as we orient ourselves with extended interactions between the characters we’ve come to love. There’s still plenty of excitement with the Quidditch match and the disturbances at the World Cup, and early senses of foreboding evil with the Voldemort opener and the Dark Mark. And, there’s a lot of the Weasleys. I suppose we had to leave the Burrow and get to Hogwarts and the Goblet and the central conflict of the book eventually, but I would have been just as happy to stay there and get a play-by-play of the three-on-three Quidditch match Harry has with the Weasley boys. Alas. Until Harry Potter and the Weasleys’ Dinner Party

Azkaban 3: Underwater

When I was starting Prisoner of Azkaban, a friend told me that his experience reading the last several chapters of the book was like being underwater. At the time he said that, he was too drunk and I too sober for him to effectively communicate or me to really understand what he meant by that. But after finishing the third Harry Potter book, I think I get it now.

We left off with the Quidditch final, an exhilarating high point for the fun side of the novel. From there, things take a wonderfully dark turn. A pet gets beheaded by a corrupt system. A giant wild dog breaks Ron’s leg and drags him into a secret passage beneath a killer tree. Harry come face to face with his parents’ betrayer. Decades-old grudges play out among professors, spies, and convicts.

Even if you didn’t know the big reveals before they occurred, you could have guessed Sirius’ innocence by the way Lupin pled for just the chance to explain; yet even though you could guess at an impending revelation of innocence, the tension remained, shifting to whether it would ever come to light, given Harry’s, then Snape’s, reluctance to listen. It was the highest drama we’ve seen yet in the series, with revelations and twists flying at a pulse-pounding pace.

It was remarkable how quickly Harry went from hating Sirius with every fiber of his being, even wanting to murder him, to finding his greatest bliss at the mere thought of living with Sirius. And it was remarkable how believable that quick transition felt. When I read the confrontation between Sirius and Peter — the sheer outrage Sirius felt at the idea he’d have served Voldemort, his anger and deep pain at what was done to James and Lily, and his utter devotion to protecting Harry — I fell for Sirius myself, in just a matter of pages. He’s still half-mad but all awesome. I said in my first Azkaban post that the way Harry left the Dursleys early in the book should have been the way he left them forever; it was hard to feel any differently after coming to love Sirius as a character. Having said that, I don’t want to judge too quickly about what should have happened; I haven’t read the remaining books yet, and I can’t say from just the movies that it won’t be a more interesting literary route to have Harry tragically separated from his still-fugitive godfather. But even if Rowling’s route does end up being for the best, I do wish, at the very least, that there were an alternate reality where we could have seen Sirius cleared and Harry go live with him. Or even Harry secretly live with Sirius while he remains a fugitive. I just think that deeper exploration of that budding relationship would have been fascinating to see.

Instead, things fall apart, the way things tend to do. Werewolves and dementors interrupt the chance at a happy ending in a series of intensely exciting scenes. In the end, we settle for the happy-enough ending, even if not the one I, or Harry, really wanted. In between, time travel happens. I could say five words about that, or 500. Perhaps I’ll do another post someday about time travel paradoxes and to what extent they work as a plot device. For now, I’ll try to stay on a smaller word count and just say that I’m still torn and not entirely sure that adding the time travel element was the right way to go, but it at least kinda worked, and maybe even worked a lot. I don’t know.

But in any event, when I finished the book, I suddenly understood my drunk friend. Those final 100 or so pages were so intense, so brimming with emotional tension and action-packed drama that when I finally put it down, I realized I’d barely been breathing for the past couple hours. I’d been drowning in the excitement and disappointment, the breakthroughs and the letdowns, the roller coaster of wonder and drama, underwater in the world of Harry Potter.

Azkaban 2: Boggarts and Broomsticks

I’m now over 300 pages into Prisoner of Azkaban and have too many thoughts. So here we are some main points from this installment:

The boggarts are interesting but arguably problematic creatures. When Lupin first introduces them, we’re told they take the form of whatever the person they’re facing fears most. So at first glance, they’re mere shape-shifters. But when Lupin uses a boggart to teach Harry to face the dementors, it takes on the dementor’s powers, too. That’s a much bigger deal, and it bothered me that Rowling didn’t deal with the ramifications of that concept. Are there limits to the powers the boggart can assume? If not, then Lupin was grossly negligent in allowing any students to face the creature without knowing for certain what their fears would transform it into. For instance, he stopped Harry from facing it initially because he thought Harry’s fear would transform it into Lord Voldemort. But what if another student had had that as his or her main fear? Would the boggart have gained Voldemort’s power? Logic would suggest surely not, but I don’t know how to reconcile that conclusion with the boggart gaining a dementor’s power. I felt like Rowling conceived of them as just shape-shifters, but threw in the power assumption for a more convenient plot development (how to get Harry practice on a dementor) without really dealing with the possibility that such power could make the boggart one of the most powerful creatures in existence. It would be an easy fix, but as is, she hasn’t fleshed that out into a fully realized idea. Or am I missing something?

I find the strained relationships between Harry/Ron and Hermione, particularly between Ron and Hermione, to be interesting yet difficult. It’s a believable twist, particularly at that age, to see their bonds of friendship loosen and reforge over various spats. And if you squint, you can see the faint beginnings of Ron and Hermione’s future relationship. But it’s also sad, after quickly becoming so accustomed to them as a trio, to see them briefly split up and see Hagrid informing the boys of Hermione crying over it. I was relieved when the news of Buckbeak’s sentence finally brought them back together. Speaking of Hermione, the reveal behind how she’s taking so many classes has definitely dragged on way too long. Harry and Ron are shown wondering about it, but something always comes up to delay the explanation. As individual instances, those delays are believable. But those are also just a handful of interactions that we’re seeing; these people are seeing each other every day. Yet we’re most of the way through the school year without reaching a point where Harry and Ron just demand an explanation for how she’s appearing in three places at once? That’s just too unrealistic.

I’ve always heard much about how incredibly detailed Rowling’s writing is. I assume that comes later; the first description of Hogwarts in Sorcerer’s Stone was just “a vast castle with many turrets and towers,” and we still haven’t gotten much more since. Again, that’s fine, as she’s steadily evolving the stories from a children’s series to something more mature. But even in the absensce of too much detail, there are a good deal of colorful stories added throughout that add spice and depth to her world, and it’s fun that you often can’t tell which of them will become significant. For instance, Neville losing his list of passwords was easily written off as just another example of poor Neville’s ineptitude. But instead, it becomes a major plot point, leading to a Sirius sighting. (I do feel constantly bad for Neville; the guy hardly ever catches a break so far.)

Lupin is awesome. I loved his save of Harry in Snape’s office. Lupin’s combination of kindness and competence makes him arguably unlike any other teacher we’ve seen so far, yet the mystery around him could still make readers uneasy (plus the fact that his name itself is a rather obvious clue about his other side). It’s fascinating, knowing the basic ending from the movie, to see how the various clues about Sirius, Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew are sprinkled throughout the book. I feel confident I would have figured out the Quirrell/Snape reveal in Book 1. I think I would have figured out in Book 2 that Tom Riddle opened the Chamber of Secrets, but probably not that he was Voldemort or that he’d been acting through Ginny. But the twists in this book? I don’t know. I think I would have guessed most of Lupin’s reveal, and probably known something more was up with Sirius when he didn’t attack the boys in their bedroom, but I can’t see myself piecing it all together if I didn’t previously know.

The most recent chapter I’ve completed was the Quidditch final. I’ve said a few times how my favorite parts of the books thus far have often been the less exciting character moments. But the Quidditch final was all action and as good as anything yet in this book, perhaps Rowling’s best action of the series thus far. You’re pretty sure you know what the outcome has to be, but it’s pulse-pounding and extremely exciting anyway. Rowling helped herself in that regard by finally having Harry lose his first match earlier in the book, which was a nice touch and created at least a little uncertainty. The action gets an extra edge, and a humorous side, with the commentary from Lee Jordan (that hero), who’s obligatorily introduced again as “the Weasley twins’ friend Lee Jordan.” The Firebolt has also been developed well throughout the book. I like how brooms in the wizard world seem to mirror our own technology trends. Harry starts out the series being given the best broom ever, but by Book 2, it’s outdated and Draco’s is better. In Azkaban, that too is outdated, and Harry again has the best broom ever. It’s an amusing, believable take on the way the latest fads immediately become yesterday’s news. I’ve wanted so badly to see Draco punished for his lies about Buckbeak, and even his impersonation of a dementor to throw Harry (he is punished for the latter, but it’s not the same as Harry being threatened with expulsion for every malfeasance). But he still gets his comeuppance in other ways, like being decked by Hermione (awesome) and losing to Harry when it mattered most.

So now I’m down to the last quarter or so of the book, and I’m expecting quite a ride to finish. With that in mind, I’m saving the rest for this weekend when I can read it all in one sitting.

Azkaban 1: Hagrid should be more like Snape

Time for my first post on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I’ve read about the first 100 pages of. I’ve been really looking forward to this one, as at least three people have told me it’s their favorite book of the series.

We start off with more Dursleys. I don’t want to be too repetitive about my distaste for them, and I’m learning to accept that I might have to start every book with some eye-rolling as Rowling gives us a couple chapters of the most exaggeratedly awful family ever. In the future, I might try not to comment on them at all, but for possibly my last take on the Dursleys, just let me say that the way Harry left would have been a perfect way to put that family aside for the rest of the series: he finally gets fed up with the abuse, delivers a magical comeuppance, and storms off angrily saying he’s done. I just wish that had been true, and he really was. That’s the way he should have left the Dursleys forever.

Harry’s encounter with the ominous black dog gives a nice sense of foreboding very early on, especially when reinforced in coming chapters by the book at Flourish and Botts and the first Divination class as a harbinger of death. Between the dog and the Weasley parents’ discussion of Sirius Black, this is the earliest that Rowling has substantially developed the main conflict of the book.

Speaking of the Weasleys, they’re perpetually broke, yet when they get a substantial amount of gold, they use it on a family trip to see the eldest son, who lives far away. Other than Ron’s new wand (badly needed), they spend the money on family over new possessions. Have I mentioned that I love this family?

The Dementors add to the foreboding, though I’ve never been able to get past the fact that they seem like cruel and unusual punishment for the Azkaban prisoners. Something I’ve never been clear on: is that the only Wizard prison? Are there minimum security institutions with no Dementors, or is a wizard who just stole a new broom subjected to Dementors just like murderous Death Eaters? Because they seem really awful for those with lesser offenses to have to face. You would at least think the wizarding community would have a low crime rate.

I remember really liking Professor Lupin in the films. Looking forward to more of him.

I’m curious about the Divination class, especially after Professor McGonagall’s derisive comments about Professor Trelawney. Really all I remember about that class from the film was Emma Thompson’s glasses. At a minimum, it should be good for Hermione to not be good at something. I was hoping Ron would be the naturally good one. So far, he’s only really been superior in wizard’s chess; I want him to find more niches.

Finally, there’s Hagrid. A thought occurred to me in reading Chamber of Secrets that hadn’t when watching the movies: Harry and the gang have cleared Hagrid’s name of the offense that got him kicked out of Hogwarts, so shouldn’t he be allowed to practice magic now? My wife pointed out that he still never graduated, so he would probably have to go through classes again or something. The idea of Hagrid going back to school amused me, but what Rowling actually did was better and more practical: making him a teacher. With no more mark on his record, Hagrid gets to become a teacher, and for the perfect class: Care of Magical Creatures. Good for him.

Of course, Malfoy happens, because Malfoy always happens. First he shakes Hagrid’s confidence, then he gets injured through his own fault, plays up the injury and blames Hagrid for it. What a douche. Hagrid reacts by getting drunk and sad, but I hope before the book ends, we see him come into his own as a professor. And I hope we see him unleash a little bit of his inner Snape.

I’m not entirely sure Hagrid even has any inner Snape, and therein lies some of his charm. But if he’s going to be a professor, I’d like to see him assert himself a little more and give Draco the comeuppance he badly needs. Not paying attention in class? Detention. Not following directions? 10 points from Slytherin. Not giving the magical creatures the respect they deserve? I’ll feed you to my giant spider friend. Find an authoritarian side, Hagrid, and knock that blond jerk down to size.

Chamber of Secrets: final thoughts

Wrapping up my thoughts on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

I found Gilderoy Lockhart to be a humorous character, and he never quite crossed the line into being annoying to me. He gave us one of the more amusing scenes in the book, where he duels with Snape. The reader knows by then that Lockhart stands no chance, and Snape evidently knows it, too, as he gives a rare smile. Everyone knows what’s about to happen, yet it’s still satisfying when it does, and you get to see Lockhart get his ass kicked a little. My only issue with the character was: why did he continually set himself up for such public humiliation? I mean, even if he actually had been fooling everyone else, he knew he hadn’t done all the things he’d claimed, and his final reveal to Harry and Ron shows him as quite aware of how little magic he knew. So shouldn’t he have been trying to avoid using magic in front of anyone else, for fear of being exposed (like he was)? Why try to showboat if you know you have nothing worth showboating?

Lockart’s presence also allows Rowling to keep adding to Hermione’s character. Over the course of the first book, Hermione went from a brainy know-it-all with no personality, to a likable friend willing to break rules for cause. In Chamber of Secrets, she’s an even more aggressive rule-breaker — but only if it’s for something she believes in; she still shames Harry and Ron for stealing the flying car to get to Hogwarts. But around Lockhart, we see her for the first time as just a normal girl with a normal crush. Harry and Ron immediately see Lockhart for what he is, giving them the intellectual upper hand on Hermione for the first time. But Hermione defends her crush for as long as she can, creating a perfectly realistic blind spot for the series’ smartest character.

There were still minor things that bothered me in the book. Harry is blindsided by the use of the word “mudblood” as a slur for those of mixed magical heritage. So, his entire first year, it never came up that, hey, this is like the worst thing you can call someone in the magical world? Seems like someone would have told him that. Ron breaks his wand early, yet goes the entire year without getting it replaced. It makes some sense, since we’re told early that the Weasleys are perpetually strapped for money. But given how much we see his broken wand affect his ability to do anything, it seems like some solution would have been found, by sheer necessity, over the course of an entire school year. And the whole school is awfully fast to turn on people at any suggestion that a person is bad. I mean, Harry has been famous among wizarding families his entire life as a hero, he defeated an evil professor in his first year, plus the dark lord for a second time. Yet in year two, it takes so little for everyone to immediately believe he’s evil? They’re similarly quick to turn on likable Hagrid and maybe even Dumbledore when they, too, are besmirched.

By and large, though, the book was a delightful adventure. Since my memory of the film was dimmer, there were more twists that I didn’t remember until they were happening, like Hagrid’s role in opening (or not) the Chamber. The climax was well-developed, with the revelation of Tom Riddle as Voldemort really upping the ante for the villain. In the first book, Voldemort was more of a generic evil, too big to fully comprehend yet. Chamber of Secrets gives us a good chunk of his origin, far sooner than I would have expected. There’s still plenty in between that we don’t know about Voldemort, but he’s rapidly developing into a more interesting villain as we go.

I never became a huge Dobby fan, but at least I didn’t hate him in the book, like I had in the movie. His freedom was a nice way to end the conflicts in this installment, and his seemingly immense power raises more questions about just how much he can do, and why elves would ever be slaves in the first place; I could see him becoming more likable as such questions are later answered, if they are.

In all, I liked Chamber of Secrets more than Sorcerer’s Stone. It started a little more quickly, and had very few moments where any writing issues took you out of enjoying the action. You’re already familiar with the main characters and you enjoy them more, faster. The main villain has gone from just ominous to ominous and fascinating. The tone got a little darker and a little more mature. It’s a good read that more thoroughly hooks you to try the rest. And of course, it had even more of the Weasleys. They rock.

Lee Jordan, HERO

In Chapter Fourteen of Chamber of Secrets, Lee Jordan, random Gryffindor who’s always identified as “the Weasley twins’ friend Lee Jordan” (because he has no identity of his own), says maybe my favorite line thus far:

“Isn’t it obvious all this stuff’s coming from Slytherin? The Heir of Slytherin, the monster of Slytherin — why don’t they just chuck all the Slytherins out?”

In the book, Jordan’s line is greeted with smattering applause from his Gryffindor brethren, but that’s nothing compared to the OH MY GOD I KNOW RIGHT?! that I practically shouted after reading it.

Why is Slytherin still a house? It’s not just named after a wizard who didn’t want many of these students to be allowed into Hogwarts at all; it’s named after a wizard who created a monster to go KILL many of these students. What’s more, we’re told in the first book that every wizard who ever went bad came from Slytherin. Seriously?! Every single one? And they still let Slytherin exist???

Here’s a tip: if you put the Sorting Hat on someone, and it says Slytherin, follow Lee Jordan’s advice and just chuck them out. Sure, you’ll have some some perfectly non-evil kids who will be hurt. But in the absence of a Wizarding Constitution that prevents such lack of due process, I say go for it. The collateral damage will be worth it to prevent all future evil wizards.

You’re ahead of your time, Weasley twins’ friend Lee Jordan. You’re a hero.

Dumbledore: Evil, or just incompetent?

As Chamber of Secrets continues, we’re introduced to Gilderoy Lockhart, celebrity wizard, author, and new professor at Hogwarts. He’s obviously self-obsessed, vain, and incredibly arrogant. Over the course of the book, we also learn that he knows nothing at all about magic; the final reveal was rather obvious: he’s been using his one legitimate magical skill, charms that erase memories, to wipe people’s minds and claim their exploits as his own.

So…why was this guy hired? Especially to teach what sure sounds like it would be maybe the most important class the school offers: Defense Against the Dark Arts?

Sure, if everything Lockhart claimed had been true, he would have been immensely qualified for the job. But it doesn’t even take one full class for him to show that he has no magical skill, and Ron immediately points out that all of Lockhart’s books may have been lies. It took a second-year student less than an hour in the guy’s class to figure it out. Why didn’t Dumbledore?

And this comes after another teacher turned out to be evil the year before, trying to resurrect Voldemort and kill Harry. So you would think Dumbledore would have his guard raised when hiring that evil professor’s replacement. Furthermore, having seen the movies, I know that teachers will play major roles as antagonists for most of the rest of the series. The third installment has a teacher who’s a good guy, but also a werewolf, so he loses control and tries to kill people. The fourth has an evil henchman of Voldemort impersonate a teacher. The fifth has an evil teacher who takes over the whole school. The sixth has a teacher who’s good, but forced to act evil, kills the headmaster, and at least seems pretty damn evil to most people at that time. So in one way or another, teachers who are evil or just dangerous are a major issue at Hogwarts. And it all happens under Dumbledore’s watch.

So it begs the question: is Dumbledore evil, or just incompetent?

We’re told repeatedly that he’s a paragon of goodness, so evil seems out of the question. But what if all that goodness was just an act? I know it won’t turn out this way, but wouldn’t it have made some sense to find out that Dumbledore was working with Voldemort all along, and allowing all these dangerous teachers was his way of trying to help eliminate Harry while maintaining plausible deniability?

The other option is that Dumbledore is grossly incompetent and needs to be fired. How about a background check before hiring someone? I remember a scene in one of the movies where Snape tells Harry about a potion that forces people to tell the truth, but that it’s regrettably forbidden to use on students. But is it forbidden on job applicants? Because just from the first two books, here are some possible questions that Dumbledore could ask would-be professors while on truth serum:

  • Are you evil, and/or do you serve Voldemort?
  • If hired, are you going to try to kill any students, including but not limited to Harry Potter?
  • Do you actually know enough magic to be able to teach students?
  • Can you perform that magic yourself?

Dumbledore makes a comment later to Harry about what a difficult position to fill the Defense Against the Dark Arts job is becoming. I liked that comment, because Dumbledore says it with a smirk, and I view that as Rowling poking fun at herself and the premise she’s creating with a revolving door of bad teachers. But while acknowledging that at least the writer knew what she doing, let’s still view Dumbledore’s hiring problem from the view within the HP world itself. We know at this point that Snape desperately wants the Dark Arts job. So why not just give it to Snape? The reader at this point might still guess that perhaps Dumbledore doesn’t trust Snape; he didn’t turn out to be evil in the first book, but he’s still a jerk and seems like he might be a little shady. But I know from watching the movies that we’ll later find out that Dumbledore trusts Snape completely, maybe as much as he trusts anyone. So why wait until late in the series to hand that crucial position over to someone so trusted?

Naturally, I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek with all of this, because I know there’s another option beyond evil or incompetent: that Dumbledore has some master plan that all these trials will help Harry grow and become the wizard he’ll need to be to one day defeat Voldemort. Or presumably something like that, whatever.

But imagine you’re just some random Hufflepuff who isn’t the Chosen One, is only a so-so student, and doesn’t have all these grand adventures. How much dangerous stuff do you see happen at Hogwarts before you just kind of hate Dumbledore? Do you grow up wanting to work in the school’s Human Resources department, just so you can screen out some of the dangerous applicants Dumbledore might hire anyway? Or do you just decide that being a wizard isn’t worth it, and get the hell out of there?

Loving the Weasleys

Like the first Harry Potter book, the second installment got off to a slow start for me. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets had been my least favorite of the films; on the plus side, I haven’t seen it in years, remember it the least well, and thus had the greatest opportunity to be surprised by the book, since I might have forgotten more details from the film.

However, Chamber of Secrets opens with more of the Dursleys, and as I’ve already covered, I hate them. Not just hate the characters, but hate reading about them. Then Dobby came in. I know he’s beloved by many Harry Potter fans, but my most lasting memories of the film are how annoying Dobby and Moaning Myrtle were. The book version wasn’t nearly as bad; perhaps because I couldn’t hear him, it was easier to find his antics a little amusing. Still, I was relieved when Fred, George, and Ron showed up, taking Harry (and the reader) away from that house.

What followed was my favorite part of the series thus far. Because I love the Weasleys.

Seriously, the entire family is just awesome. Arthur Weasley and his fascination with Muggles. Molly Weasley and her hilarious parenting. Fred and George Wesley, the twins, who are easily the funniest characters so far. Of course Ron, with his blend of loyalty, charm, and insecurity that makes him so likable. Ginny Weasley and her shy crush. Even douchey Percy Weasley, who’s at least a good target for the twins’ jokes. That poor damn owl. That cluttered house, the Burrow, that requires magic to hold it together. The Weasleys instantly steal your heart, and feel like they didn’t even have to try to do it.

Given that a central theme of Chamber of Secrets revolves around purity of blood, it was a wise choice to give readers a slice of Weasley life early on. Because of how awful the Malfoys are, there could have been a temptation for the reader to jump to conclusions about the hubris of pure-blood magic families. But by giving us a healthy dose of the Weasleys — charming, funny, and without an ounce of hubris — Rowling makes sure that temptation never exists. We know it’s not pure-blood families who are the problem, because the best family ever is pure blood. The Malfoys just suck.

I could have spent the entire book in the Burrow and shopping with the Weasleys. As I’ve said before, moments like those, where you get to just see the characters together even with nothing too exciting happening, are what the series does best so far. By the time we get back to Hogwarts by way of flying car, I was thoroughly prepared to love the book. And I already loved the Weasleys.

Sorcerer’s Stone: final thoughts

I don’t know how detailed to be in discussing the first two books. I’m not going to shy away from spoilers in discussing any of the series, because it’s all been out for years, and most people who might actually read this already know what happened (and maybe a few who won’t care). But now that I’m done with Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, it’s harder to go back and give a blow-by-blow account of my thoughts; perhaps I’ll change that for subsequent books when I can give more of a running diary. So without being exhaustive, here are a few more impressions from reading Book 1.

I think the first book does a good job of balancing what Harry is and isn’t good at in terms of magic. We know early on that he defeated a powerful evil lord as a baby, and he’s famous for it. So the reader know there’s obviously something special about Harry, and you fully expect that he’s going to become a great wizard. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting to see him come in and immediately dominate everything at Hogwart’s. So in fact, nearly the opposite becomes true, as we instead see him struggle plenty in class. Hermione becomes a good foil for him in that respect; she’s the smartest student, and because of that, she is, in many ways, far more talented than Harry. Yet nor is Harry hapless. He’s a natural at flying, and wins his first Quidditch match, despite having only recently even heard of the sport. It’s a good balance of showing how naturally gifted Harry is, while also making him work to become truly great.

I felt like there wasn’t quite enough about how Harry felt about his parents. I know it will be revisited in future books, but still, I think there were missed opportunities. Harry does ask questions about his parents, but he doesn’t go crazy trying to find out everything he can about them, which is what I would have thought he’d do, after being told so little by his aunt and uncle. He nearly becomes obsessed with the magical mirror that allows him to see his parents for the first time, and there is an emotional connection established where the reader really feels for him as an orphan. But that connection isn’t used to its fullest. Near the end, when Hagrid gives Harry a photo book of his parents, Harry is too overcome by emotion to speak. That’s a great reaction — but that’s all we get. The remainder of what he must be feeling and experiencing is left by the wayside.

Having seen the movies, I didn’t get to be surprised by the reveal that Quirrell, not Snape, was the first book’s villain. I think I would have seen it coming regardless, but it’s impossible to say that for sure. I was mildly confused by the details of Quirrell’s melding with Voldemort. As far as we know, Voldemort was on the back of his head for the entire book, yet we’re also told Voldemort was the one feasting on unicorn blood in the forest, when that creature was described in more inhuman terms. Regardless, the book does a good enough job of developing its villains. Neither Quirrell nor Voldemort is a fully realized villain, but Quirrell isn’t intended to be, as he’s disposable, and enough hints are given about the who/what/how of Voldemort that the reader is hooked and intrigued to see him developed more over the course of the series.

The trials to get to the Stone were creative enough, and the adventure that Harry, Ron, and Hermione go on to get there is fun. Of course, the same “feels real, but not realistic” problem is heavily implicated in those trials. Hogwarts is said to perhaps be the most secure place in the world to hide something, and powerful wizard professors have all contributed to the protections. Yet three first-year students are able to get past all those protections. Sure, Quirrell had already defeated the troll for them, but that hardly seems like it would have been insurmountable, with the gang previously defeating another troll through dumb luck. The only really good protection was Dumbledore’s, since it was unlikely anyone would go to such effort to find the Stone without wanting to use it, as he required.

The flaws in the book are mostly understandable, as the first installment was largely intended for children. Those flaws did still take me out of the moment sometimes, but by and large, Rowling manages to suck you into this world. There’s an adventurous tone with mostly likable characters and a couple dark undercurrents. When you’re done, you’re ready to see where else this world can go.

Feeling real, if not realistic

I continued on with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, finding myself increasingly liking it. And that made me happy; I didn’t want to dislike the book or the series. I majored in English and Journalism in college, and like many English majors, I went through my phase as a literary snob. But while there’s nothing wrong with discerning tastes, I don’t want to be someone who isn’t open to new things, even if they’re flawed. It’s too soon for me to judge the writing in the series as a whole, but let’s just say that first book isn’t exactly Dickens. But that’s fine. It becomes highly enjoyable regardless.

The main reason I grew to like the book was the characters. My friend Grant put it best, saying that many of his favorite parts of the series are when nothing hugely important or exciting is happening, but you just see the characters living and interacting. And I completely agree. They’re mostly flat characters so far, but they’re characters who are remarkably likable and just feel real.

Which is not to say it’s necessarily realistic. And I don’t just mean in the way that magic, as a concept, might not be realistic; I’ve read far more bizarre premises that were still more realistic, because the premise was grounded in reactions that make sense and flow with reasonable expectations. I’m not sure that’s a strength of the first Harry Potter book. Would a kid really take it that well, finding out he was a wizard? Would he have really been so clueless before Hagrid came? (Harry thinks back to a memory of running on the ground and suddenly finding himself on the school roof; he’d previously assumed a gust of wind had caught him without him noticing.) Would teachers at a school of magic really take so few precautions in protecting first-year students, many of whom only recently found out magic was even real? An unrealistic premise is fine, but then the rules of that world should play out in fairly realistic ways; the series is kind of up-and-down so far in how well it’s done that.

Yet somehow, while often being unrealistic, the world of The Sorcerer’s Stone still manages to feel real. And I think therein lies the genius of the first book, because that’s really a remarkable thing to pull off. And it’s those characters, and their relatively quiet moments, that accomplish it. They suck you in.

My favorite chapter in the book was probably the Christmas one. Ron is embarrassed by his mother’s sweaters, in the way children get embarrassed by their parents. His older brothers force him to wear it anyway, the way older kids enjoy goading their younger siblings. And Harry is delighted by all of it; the first “normal” family he meets is a magical one. You can just picture it and feel it. It’s tender and it’s funny and it feels real. Thanks to moments like that, the book picks up steam; the characters start to matter to you, and thus everything that happens to them takes on a little more importance.