Over the last 12 months I read the Harry Potter series for the first time.
I know. My nerd card was in serious jeopardy.
My wife, who I will stress again is so far out of my league that it might as well be New England Patriots playing against a tank of semi-sentient amoeba, got me the entire series boxed set for Christmas 2015. She is wonderful and I do not deserve her. I completed the books sporadically over 2016 until Order of the Phoenix, at which point I read the final three back-to-back-to-back in the last month or so.
[Disclaimer: I saw all the movies before starting any of the books.]
[I know, I know. As Luther might say, “I, a poor, miserable sinner…”]
I thought it would be interesting to discuss what it’s like to read Harry Potter for the first time as a 32-year-old adult. It should go without saying, but just in case you have spent the last 23 years (!) purposely ignoring Pottermania, this post will contain spoilers.
First, the obvious: the Harry Potter books are addictive. Stephen King wrote that they are “pure story,” and I’d agree with that (at least until the latter books, which we’ll get to). Rowling deserves every dollar she made. They’re just fun.
Also, I’m pleased – and more than a little jealous – at her ability to craft really inventive adventures. It’s obvious the earlier works were written with younger children in mind. Ron’s game of wizard’s chess and Hermoine foiling Devil’s Snare in Sorcerer’s Stone seem pretty PG and lightweight compared to scenes in the latter books, like the Cruciatus Curse or Harry forcing Dumbledore to drink from Voldemort’s cup.
(If you haven’t read the books, that last part alone should intrigue you enough to get started.)
But even early on, she comes up with really creative ideas. Pound-for-pound, my favorite book in the series was probably Chamber of Secrets. (See below for the full ranking.) I love the story of a giant mythical creature roaming a secret lair. It’s also not packed with the fluff that characterize her later books. I love her idea of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Probably the single best idea she had in the series is the Horcruxes. (To me, the Deathly Hallows felt like an unnecessary distraction, like trying to go on a side quest at the exact time you don’t want to deter from the main quest.)
I was sad when Deathly Hallows ended. I haven’t felt that way about many books (or series): Atlas Shrugged, Ready Player One, and The Lord of the Rings all come to mind as having that emotional trauma of finishing. The Harry Potter series now takes its place upon that mantle of heartbreak.
My ranking of the books, with a short justification.
- Chamber of Secrets – Loved the concept of a mythical monster lurking in a secret chamber of the school. Ginny’s reveal as Slytherin’s heir is fresh and unexpected, and it’s the first time Harry gets out of his comfort zone, taking his journey to Hogwarts and the world of magic into his own hands (such as when he and Ron arrive at the school on their own).
- Deathly Hallows – Rowling knows what you want to see after seven books, and though it sometimes comes hamhanded or over-the-top in Deathly Hallows, she gives the people all the gratification they can handle.
- Order of the Phoenix – Order of the Phoenix had that feeling of the Council of Elrond, where a powerful group took up arms against a major baddie. Plus, there are few villains in all of literature that readers despise more than Dolores Umbridge.
- Goblet of Fire – This was good, but I felt it was extremely puffy. She could have made it much shorter, and I don’t think there’s a HP reader alive who would be heartbroken to see Hermoine’s S.P.E.W. disappear from the tale writ large.
- Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone for you kids across the pond) – Compared with the rest of the series, Sorcerer’s Stone is simply too much of a children’s book for me. It’s a nice introduction, and you’ll never forget the Dursley family’s attempted escape to avoid Harry’s owl letters, or the first time Harry sees Diagon Alley. But overall the conflict simply doesn’t feel as great, the rest of the series considered.
- Half-Blood Prince – Half-Blood Prince felt like a teen romance novel until the last quarter when they finally get around to hunting Horcruxes. I found it utterly ridiculous that with Voldemort back, his existence proved, and Harry gearing up for battle with him, Harry spends most of the book … worried about Quidditch? (Plus, I found Slughorn even more interminable than Lockhart.)
- Prisoner of Azkaban – Finally, while it has the best reveal of all the books (see below), Prisoner of Azkaban has a major plothole. If timeturners exist, and they’re willing to use it to save Buckbeak … why not also use it to stop Voldemort in the first place? Or save Harry’s parents? Or save Dumbledore’s life? Once time-travel is possible and so available as to be given to a student to use to take two classes at once, why not use it for far more noble and important purposes?
Rowling’s villains are obvious and easy to loathe. It’s clear in every book who the villain is, and they
are written in such a way that it feels like Rowling is right there with you, cheering you on as you heap scorn upon them.
I prefer my villains to be more relatable, because I think they are scarier or more dangerous when you catch yourself thinking, “Gosh, maybe so-and-so has a point.” But you’re never going to sympathize with Voldemort, Umbridge, the Malfoys, Bellatrix, etc.
Probably my favorite character in the series was Sirius Black, partially because we perceived him as the ultimate villain of Prisoner of Azkaban and yet he is revealed to be a loving, caring person and Harry’s closest family. His death was the hardest for me.
Rowling needs to lay off the sauce. Every character’s feeling, thought or statement comes amped with an -ly word. If you didn’t notice it by midway through the first book, I commend you.
Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner all feel tightly plotted and fast paced. It’s no wonder they’re half or even a third the length of Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows.
Throughout the latter three books, but Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows particularly, Rowling seems to wander in her plot. Much of Half-Blood Prince is taken up with Harry’s concerns over captaining the Quidditch team, or his thoughts and feelings for Cho Chang or Ginny Weasley. I get what Rowling was trying to do, but to me it came off clumsy and overwrought.
Equally, Harry’s long series in Hallows where he wanders in the woods, exiled from Hogwarts and wizarding society in general felt plodding and unfocused. Specifically, he spends four months debating whether to go to Godric’s Hollow. I’m not sure if this was again Rowling trying to build our relationship with the characters as people, or if she just got lost in plotting, but it felt like the last three books had too many words and not enough story.
Don’t let my criticism or armchair quarterbacking make you think I didn’t enjoy the books. I did. It’s impossible to write a perfect book that satisfies everyone, and I would be humbled to ever write a book or series that performs even 1/100th as well as Potter. (Considering the Harry Potter franchise made Rowling a billionaire, I’d still turn out quite well.)
Finally, if you haven’t read the books – what are you doing?! Go read them, now! Trust me. The movies don’t give you everything.