Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Book: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Lowdown: Harry's finished.
Something strange yet predictable has happened to the Harry Potter series of books as a result of the writer committing herself to a seven part series and as a result of the books’ commercial success. The first two books were nice and dandy; with the third, the weight of expectations has added more volume. By the fourth the success was more like a bonanza, and the result was a very thick book featuring a very redundantly long exposition about some quiditch tournament. Then we got to the transitional books, the ones that are there only so that the final seventh book can take place; hence the way too long, relatively badly written and often boring fifth and sixth instalments. And now it’s time for the seventh and final chapter; how does it fare?
Without giving anything of the plot away, I would say the answer is a mixed bag. The saga does conclude in a very exciting and even a very surprising way, with the last 200 pages of the book read while holding my breath. However, in order to get to those last 200 pages you have to get through 400 previous pages which are more like the previous two books, mainly transitional in purpose. Still, it was worth it, even if the book doesn’t soar to Lord of the Rings heights at its very ending and even if it does end as expected with the bad guys winning etc.
The most interesting aspect of reading through the last Harry Potter is the way absolutely everything merges together. There is not one character, there is no one place, and there is no one event that was/were mentioned in previous books which don’t end up converging to have an impact, usually quite a severe one, on the way the Harry Potter concludes his adventures. On one hand this is quite a feat of book writing: I suspect Rowling had to manage all the different threads with a very sophisticated mainframe database in order to achieve this. You read the seventh Potter, and you do realize why you had to endure its tedious instalments. Question is, is this convergence necessarily positive? Here I have to disagree with Rowling. In life, things often happen just because they happen. In life, things that transpire usually don’t have a meaning. In life, not everything ends up having critical impact on everything else.
Another good thing that is sacrificed on the altar of making all the ends meet is good story telling. There are simply too many cheap ways to further progress the plot thrown all over the place. Flashbacks or semi flashbacks (like eavesdropping on someone having a flashback) are the most obvious problem; you can understand it in a film, maybe, but in a book they’re pretty inexcusable. Yet another thing robbed by commercial success and yet another loss to the dominating yet unnecessary complexity of the plot. Then you get to these transitional scenes, where on one hand you have a major battle at hand and things are looking bad and Harry is just about to die and it’s just so close and you’re so nervous and you can’t put the book away and you’re peeing in your pants… and then Rowling tells you something along the lines of “Harry woke up to find it was all just a bad dream”. OK, she doesn’t say that, but what she does say is not far from that.
The book does manage to portray the things that go inside the head of a teenager quite well, only that what we get is a rather distilled version. I mean, you know everything that takes place in Harry’s head, and there’s never a thought about sex? Come on! Did they cut his balls off in a previous episode without me noticing?
The clean and over pure morals continue throughout the book, and on top of that we get a system of rules and regulations to do with the world of magic that seems just as artificial and just as contrived. Reading Deathly Hallows, you learn all you ever wanted to know and didn’t ask on the rules governing a soul or the rules of wand ownership; it’s as if Rowling is in a race to give us the rules so that she can demonstrate them in action later in the book. Again, the way it all works together is amazing, but does it really need to work this way? I guess all is fair in trying to get the book to end the way Rowling wanted it to end.
But as I said, I wouldn’t argue with you if you were to say that you’re willing t forget all of the book’s woes for that wonderfully thrilling ending. It really is good.
Overall: Let’s face it. It’s very hard to rate Deathly Hallows on its own, and the task gets even harder for me given the personal impact Harry Potter has had on me.
First and foremost, it was the first Harry Potter book that got me back into reading books in the first place after years of university desolation where I had no time to read. Second, Potter was there for me in critical times: while I was recovering from my laser vision correction I was reading a Harry Potter in the dark. And now it was a Harry Potter that I read immediately after the birth of my son. OK, a part of it is to do with the childish simplicity of the books, but who said that was wrong?
Back to the point. Through its first two thirds, Deathly Hallows is nothing special, a 2.5 to a 3 star effort at best. The gripping ending, however, is 4 star material and even more when you consider that this is, after all, a children’s book. How do these two estimates add up together? I’ll take the simple way and average them out:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows gets 3.5 out of 5 stars from me; at the same breath, however, I will add that the series entire is worth more than any stars I can bestow on it. Pity about them mediocre films, though…


Uri said...

Before reading #7, I went back and read the first six. It’s a good series.
I also enjoyed the fifth and sixth books much more the second time. I still like the fifth one the least, though.
In your commendable effort to be vague, you lost me a little. I couldn’t understand what you found surprising, or disappointing, or boring.
Generally I don’t care for the way some authors try to tie in everything they ever wrote. I didn’t like it when Asimov did it, and I didn’t like it when Heinlein did it. But here, it didn’t bother me as much (although I don’t quite believe Rowlings had everything mapped up in advance).

BTW, when we went to see the movie (Phoenix) we met your parents, and they told us you had already seen it.

Moshe Reuveni said...

The boring bits were mainly the walk in the woods part of the book, which was just a cheap way to advance the plot through flashbacks and such. I agree: I very much doubt Rowling has had her master plan drawn out in advance, and since episode 5 she was trying to weave all the patches together.
My mother told me of your encounter, describing Yoav as a very beautiful boy (Hamsa Hamsa).