Originally published 21st June 2003
REVIEW PART 1 6:30pm Sydney (Halfway through the book): Life is looking even bleaker for young Harry Potter. The malevolence he has battled all his life seems slimier and more powerful than ever. When he defends himself and his vile cousin Dudley against magical attack in Privet Drive he is threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts and is put on trial by the Ministry of Magic.
Older wizards and witches reform the Order of the Phoenix to combat Voldemort, but although they are sympathetic, aren’t telling Harry what he needs to know about You-Know-Who.The wizard newspaper The Daily Prophet has painted him as mad or an aggrandising liar for his claims that Cedric Diggory was murdered by Voldemort, slurs which find a ready ear among wizards who fear the return of He-Who-They-Must-Not-Name so much they’d rather pretend it wasn’t happening.
When Harry is acquitted and returns to Hogwarts he finds half the students think that he’s a liar and that Dumbledore’s a fool, and the Ministry has appointed a Hogwarts High Inquisitor who seems avid for every opportunity to punish Harry for talking of Voldemort’s return. Dumbledore is distant, Harry’s godfather Sirius is laying low in London, and where on earth is Hagrid?
Amongst these high dramas petty goads like missing out on prefect, romantic misunderstandings and the inevitable bullying by Draco Malfoy seem like the merest pinpricks, yet Harry’s reactions to these mundane events are some of the more moving passages in the book. Perhaps because we see glimpses of the ordinary adolescent under the skin of the reluctant hero, and we know him. Of course we want Harry to win the big battles, but it is the small battles of respect and recognition that touch us most, because we’ve all fought them.
Rowling indulges herself with some slyness regarding the gullibility of conspiracy theorists through the new character of Luna while showing Harry living a conspiracy theory for real: people really are out to get him but the rest of society thinks he’s making it up. But why is the Minister of Magic so unreasonable? What’s Hagrid up to out in the Forbidden Forest? Will we finally learn which side Snape is really on? How many new decrees can the High Inquisitor pin up in a day? How long will it take Hermione to discover who’s taking the hats she knits for the Gryffindor house elfs (after all her homework is done, of course)? Which House will win the Quidditch Cup? And which friend of Harry’s will die, as has been rumoured for months?
Although this is an enormous book, the narrative is a real page-turner. It was with great difficulty that I put it down to write this review nine hours after getting the book, and I want to get back to finish it quickly. There is no gratuitous padding, the prose is clear. The menace is dark and all-pervasive: younger children probably will not like this book (even the Quidditch is depressing, and the Weasleys are having family problems!). But after all, Rowling has always said that she aims each book at readers the same age as Harry in that book, so moody adolescents should love it.
The usual criticism that the villains are one-dimensional can be leveled, but the Harry-Ron-Hermione triad gains in depth yet again. So far, definitely worth the read. I will update this page with Review Part 2 later tonight or early tomorrow Sydney time. I will also post photos of the Gleewarts Express Book Launch at Sydney’s Central Station, attended by nearly 1000 people.
REVIEW PART 2 Midnight Sydney (Book Finished): Well, I wasn’t expecting that. I totally failed to predict who was going to end up dead. Rowling toyed with me throughout the final quarter of the book as Harry’s allies fell like flies: who was just unconscious and about to come to, step in and save the day? who was actually dead and gone forever? Any of Harry’s young friends or esteemed mentors would have been a tragic loss, but the death of this one dear person is utterly devastating for Harry. Even though this death finally means that Harry learns the full truth about his perverse bond with Voldemort.
As for the one-dimensional villains: I don’t think that really matters. If you grant her the premise that incontrovertible evil exists in the world, Rowling appears concerned with exploring different characters’ reactions to discovering the reality of evil rather than exploring in depth the seduction into evil deeds. And the different reactions to the return of Voldemort are finely drawn and credible in their variety. The depth of the flaws in wizard society is becoming more and more evident to our young heroes, and promises much development of this theme in future books. Wizardly flaws are also food for thought regarding our own society.
The more cheering side of the book: what I really enjoyed was that Harry’s friends GROW so much in this book. The friendships, sibling bonds and shift to full-fledged magical warriors really drive the plot, so much so that the final confrontation with Voldemort seems almost tacked on (although I like the symbology of the fountain). The movie of this book will be a buddy flick.
In the end, (without giving away essentials) the Quidditch improves, Harry discovers more of his destiny, and the Durstleys get a nasty surprise. And there’s lots left for Harry and friends to explore in the next two years at Hogwarts before they take their final exams.
Vagrant thoughts after sleep: Most euphonic character name – Nymphadora Tonks. Best punning name – Professor Umbridge. Most surprising sibling – Percy Weasley.