Harry Potter book series

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

It's hard to write a book about witches and wizards without it being boring at times. Author J. K. Rowling does something amazing with her Harry Potter series: writing a fantasy novel that reads like a gripping suspense-filled mystery.

There are some distinctive elements to the writing, but the general framework is formulaic in nature. The defining aspect of Rowling's work has to do with the creation of an extremely interesting and surreal fantasy world to place her characters in, based on witchcraft and magic. This world consists of a school where some fascinating subjects related to magic are taught with course books like A Beginners' Guide to Transfiguration and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Quidditch, a basketball/soccer hybrid game played on flying broomsticks, messenger owls, and an entire bureaucracy for magical people (which determines who gets to perform magic and who doesn't and a prison with guards that feed on human misery). While we're interested in what happens to Harry, the place he inhabits is just as exciting, if not more so.

But such a world alone would not be adequate to keep the reader's attention. Rowling's beautiful and imaginative descriptions of the events that occur in it transports the reader to the magical realm. For example, the description of the initial behaviour of the wizards and witches when Voldemort is found to have been defeated by Harry Potter is amusing and innovative (contrast this to the boring section in Stephen King's The Regulators where a great fantasy is also created but the descriptions are too dispassionate).

The basic outline of the plot for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which serves as an introduction for sequels to come, is fairly straight-forward. Harry Potter is an orphan who has been in the care of his abusive uncle and aunt after his parents were killed by Voldemort, a dark wizard. Voldemort also tried to kill Harry, but his spell back fired and the dark lord barely escaped with his life. Harry's guardians are non-magical people, referred to as "Muggles", and they do their best to hide his abilities. But at the age of Eleven, he is accepted into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and begins his first year there. Already famous for having thwarted Voldemort, Harry enjoys a different lifestyle until a weakened, but still dangerous, Voldemort returns to acquire the Sorcerer's Stone that would allow him to rise to power again.

Having read the sequels (up to year three) before writing this review, I must also mention that Rowling's works are formulaic: The plot usually begins with Harry spending his time with his Muggle aunt and uncle, where he is made miserable. This is followed by some minor adventure getting to the school, and there usually is some threat of some kind that makes Harry act in a way other students wouldn't. Throughout, Harry seems always in the danger of being expelled, but it turns out he's always excused. There's always a tense Quidditch (this is the game that's played on broomsticks) game. It is not entirely clear who the villain is at any given moment until the very end. There are many other common elements to the writing but they're all compelling and this creates a sense of familiarity while still providing thrills (a must, for a good author to last).

It is very clear from the outset what the ending in this book will be, but some aspects, like when the Gryffindor house wins the house championship, are too fabricated. It would've been better if they'd stayed last but the people in the house understood Harry's reasons for doing what he did that caused the house to lose points. (The notion of houses, a British tradition (I was placed in the Loyola house, after St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits---you can imagine how this agreed with an atheist like me), is an inane one. As an academic, it's like pitting departments against one another.)

In sum, the Harry Potter books are mesmerising page turners. I highly recommend it for any age group.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

One of the things about the Harry Potter books is that it reminds me a great deal of the Star Wars mythos. There's a clearly delineated good and bad side, a period when the dark side was in power, and a boy with the promise of becoming someone great (with some doubt cast to which side he will choose). The writing and the plot devices also remind me of Enid Blyton, whose books I started reading when I was five (she created the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, among others). Both Blyton and Rawling use the device of children hiding something from the adults and not only avoiding being discovered but also solving whatever problem they're tackling, to create suspense.

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry must again face an incarnation of Voldemort. In some ways, this is a highly imaginative plot and the devices used are very clever, but yet it's not on par with the other two books. Perhaps it is because Harry is never really threatened throughout.

Another good thing about Harry Potter is that it portrays children as better than adults, which they are.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry again leaves his uncle and aunt in less-than-ideal circumstances, and is stalked by the scepter of death. He and everyone else at Hogwarts believes that Sirius Black, an aide to Voldemort and convicted of killing thirteen people with a single curse, is after him. However, appearances can be deceiving.

The Prisoner is one of the more interesting Harry Potter books. This features a complex plot involving time travel (and the paradoxes that come with it) and ambiguity about good and evil.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I read the first three Harry Potter books in one weekend, and the timing (two weeks before the fourth one in the series was released) was just right. Like a lot of people across the world, I waited in anticipation for the latest tome (and that it is, at 734 pages) by author J. K. Rowling.

My excitement level was so high that on Saturday, July 8, the day the book was to be released (the book has been kept under wraps via nondisclosure agreements), at 12am (i.e., midnight on Friday), we waited an hour to get our own copy at Kepler's in Menlo Park, CA. The waiting was a ritual of sorts: the store had people dressed in costumes and there were parents with little kids, some just as excited as the children, and some not so aware (one mother asked her son if a costumed person was Dumbledore and the kid tersely replied "dementor"). A little kid in full costume, complete with big spectacles and a lightning bolt scar was really cute.

I'm writing this on Sunday night, having just finished the book. The first two hundred or so pages were quite good. The story is formulaic as usual, but with a few subtle twists. For example, the start of the book is a classic ploy used in the horror genre: reveal something about what will happen toward the end in an enigmatic and sinister way. This usually leaves the reader wondering how the prologue connects to the rest of the events in the book (which is slowly brought to light). After that, Harry once again escapes the Dursleys, goes to Hogwarts (after a stopover at the Quidditch world cup), and is unwillingly chosen as the fourth champion in the Triwizard Tournament (which has not been held for over a century, because of the deaths that resulted from it). However, not only does Harry have to overcome the tasks set by the judges as part of the tournament, he also once again faces the threat of Voldemort, who may be at his most powerful ever.

The second part of the book is the slowest, since a lot of it is about the tournament and Harry narrowly avoiding trouble from his teachers, as is generally the case. This is the part that I feel could've been significantly edited (overall, I think the book could've been shorter by about two hundred pages).

The last two hundred pages of the book are the most exciting, and the best way to describe the outcome, without giving away any details, is that it is reminiscent in spirit to The Empire Strikes Back (at this point, I will also point out for those nay sayers of Harry Potter books that the fantasy world created here is not unlike that of the Star Wars mythos or what Lewis Carroll dreamt up). Not everything is cleanly resolved and there is definitely the promise of more interesting things to come. If waiting for the fourth book frustrated you, waiting for the fifth is definitely going to be worse. Clearly, this will involve Giants, Death Eaters, and, of course, Voldemort.

The length (which is a minor issue---even though I feel part of the reason the book wasn't edited as short as it could've been is because of Rowling's increasing popularity (this trend is also seen among many other popular authors)), does add to the suspense. It's interesting to see how the book keeps a reader's attention. The Universe that has been created in the previous books expands further, with more spells and hexes and weird characters and devices (a clock that tells where a person is, instead of the time; a basin for temporarily holding memories to be perused later; a magical eye that can see through the invisibility cloak).

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire leaves behind the simpler plots seen in the first two books in the series and follows the trend of the third one. The story is intricate and compelling, and will not disappoint.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

One could argue that in the latest Harry Potter book, The Order of the Phoenix, author Joanne Rowling has not let success get to her head and made the Harry Potter more "mainstream" in content. If anything, she has stuck to her formula and made everything more complex. For that, I think the book deserves a lot of praise, but like with the sequel to The Matrix, I felt the story could've been cut down by two thirds, especially since there's not a lot of plot development.

In this book, Harry Potter is 15, and the story reflects the teenage angst commonly observed in people of his age. His emotions are conflicted, as is his behaviour. He's good at a few things, but manages to antagonise everyone, including his friends (who themselves are not immune to teenage hormones).

After a lengthy introduction where Potter is ridiculed for believing Voldemort is back (he is regarded as a hero only in underground circles), he faces several magical and non-magical challenges, including almost being expelled for using of off-school magic, the departure of headmaster Dumbledore, the arrival of a meaner headmistress, as well as his wizarding exams.

In some ways, this book ends up being like the series 24, where Jack Bauer has the worst luck imaginable. Likewise, for a while it seems nothing can go right for Harry. This makes for a decent, albeit long, setup, since Voldemort and Harry's brains are connected to each other in some unknown manner, but which the former uses to reveal the location of a prophesy that tells of the connection between the two (as well as the outcome). The Order of the Phoenix refers to those on the good side entrusted to protect the prophesy. The final confrontation between Harry and his nemesis results in the death of someone close.

There's a lot in the book that's related to current happenings in human society, though it is couched in a fantasy world. This includes the behaviour of the centaurs, the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Magic, the giant brought back by Hagrid, and finally the behaviour of his father and godfather when they were at Hogwarts (I for one am not satisfied dismissing their behaviour as typical teenage growth, though I suppose most people go through it).

Some loose threads tied up include revealing why Harry has to spend every summer at the Dursleys (though somewhat contrived), the reason for the enmity between Snape and Potter, and also the connection between Snape and Dursley. It is in this book that we start to get to see the antihero Snape is going to become (who in my mind is the best character in the entire series).

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is not a book that anyone who likes Harry Potter should miss, but it's not the best in the series either (my vote for that is still the third or the fourth books). Let's hope for more terse writing the next time around.

Pseudointellectual ramblings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org