Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Obligatory Harry Potter review (no spoilers)

I had ordered 2 Harry Potter books from Amazon for my two kids, to avoid their fighting over it. And, sure enough, the books arrived on Shabbos, right on time.

But I didn't figure on being on a business trip this week. So I had to buy a third Half-Blood Prince at the airport just to make sure that I would get to read it this week.

The book breaks the successful but tired formula of the other books, where Harry and his pals try to interpret events based on incomplete information and therefore get themselves in trouble, with the final hundred pages dedicated to explaining how all the pieces fit together. In fact, this book contains surprisingly little action until the last few chapters; most of it fills in the backstory of Voldemort.

It is also interesting to see how Harry is far more confident then he was in Book 5, and has less self-pity. He speaks to adults in positions of power as equals, and in the case of the new Minister of Magic, he is dismissive.

Much of the book concerns the romantic entanglements of the main characters, and the maturity that Harry shows in dealing with the adult world is understandably missing in his interactions with girls. There are amusing riffs on how public displays of affection can alienate bystanders, as well as the games people play to make the objects of their affections jealous.

A couple of ethical issues were dealt with very well, if only in passing. One of the troubling things about Book 5 was the seeming loss of Harry's free will; the Prophecy seemed to foretell his future and place him in a position of having no choice but to go towards his pre-ordained destiny. Dumbledore neatly shows Harry that this is not true.

Another lesson from Dumbledore that I found interesting was his insistence on being polite even to those who clearly do not deserve such consideration. Manners are not optional.

As the next-to-last book in the series, it has to set up the final volume, leaving us feeling that it ends in the middle of the story. This can't be avoided, just as the death of a major character couldn't be avoided, to bring the series to its final battle in Book 7.

Altogether, it is a satisfying read and aimed at an older audience than the earlier books. The book also managed to shake up our comfortable ideas of how each installment would be - it is not altogether clear that the majority of Book 7 will even take place at Hogwart's. The fact that we can still be surprised after we know the series so well is a testament to Rowling's skill.