Source of book: Audiobook
Here are my posts about the previous books in the series:
I recommend reading the previous reviews for information such as “why didn’t you read the Harry Potter books before your 40s?” and “why are you using the British titles?” (Very short responses: (1) I’m old. (2) We are listening to the Brit versions narrated by Stephen Fry.)
I also should note that my parents still think Harry Potter is demonic, leading to an eye-roll from my second kid who adored the books in Jr. High. (Also the Redwall books. Now, she is on an Ursula Le Guin kick, after inheriting a huge pile of them from one of my legal colleagues. And wrote her English 11 paper on Le Guin. I shudder to think what my parents would think of Le Guin…) Anyway, Cordelia is unquestionably Team Ravenclaw, and could take on Hermione for most studious kid.
In any case, we have been kind of slowly working through the books. This one was quite long, and took us the better part of two road trips - and the final three books are even longer, I believe. Fortunately, Stephen Fry’s voice makes them go down easy, even if house elves are straight up annoying no matter what.
So, impressions of this book? Well, it is a bit of a departure from the formula of the first three. Sure, there are the usual things: misery with the Dursleys, a magical trip before going to Hogwarts, conflict with Draco Malfoy, quidditch, a twist at the end, and so on. Some things are mixed up a bit, though. No Diagon Alley, but rather the World Quidditch Cup. No “Harry is the hero of a quidditch match” this time - instead, he competes in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, kind of the academic triathlon of the wizarding world. And, perhaps most notably, the threat becomes much more personal. Voldemort has come back, and he wants to kill Harry for good this time.
A few of my disappointments about the third book apply here as well. There was little time in the plot for some of the secondary characters, particularly Neville and Ginny, who barely warrant a mention. Fortunately, I am informed that they eventually return to prominence. Fortunately, we get a bit of Fred and George, as well as Hagrid. There are other interesting characters in this book too: the unfortunate “red-shirt” Cedric Diggory, who seems to be the everyman kid. Fleur de la Coeur and Viktor Krum as the foreign exchange students (so to speak), not sure how to fit into British Hogwarts culture. Rita Skeeter as the tabloid reporter - all too accurate of a caricature of the British tabloid culture.
The teenage drama, while occasionally tiresome, is all too real. The fights among the central trio (Harry, Ron, Herminone) are familiar to any of us who managed to survive age 14. The terror of asking someone out, the humiliation of being someone’s second (or last) option - I felt for the Patil girls throughout the Yule Ball scenes. And, of course, the hero worship that irritated those of us who were hardly one of the cool kids.
As usual, the universe Rowling creates is fascinating and fun, if occasionally a bit internally inconsistent. (Don’t get me started on how incredibly stupid the rules for quidditch are…) A definite strong point of the books is the level of detail and love lavished on the Hogwarts experience.
The Quidditch World Cup is a rather amusing satire on futbol culture, too, even if the rules make no sense. Note on this: Krum’s decision to grab the snitch makes sense as a mercy rule. Bulgaria was getting murdered, had little chance to catch up the way it was playing, and play was getting riskier as things went on, so sparing everyone the devolution into violence was probably a good idea. And, it meant he got the replay highlights, so there’s that.
There were a few sour notes. First, as I have noted before, Rowling is a good storyteller and worldbuilder. But her writing is inconsistent and often a bit meh. I wanted to throw something at her for the endless use of the word “pretty” to describe female students. First, get a thesaurus. Second, perhaps figure out some way of making them interesting, not just attractive? The boys generally get something memorable, even if it is Krum’s big nose inherited from his father.
For my next complaint, there will be a huge spoiler, so skip if you haven’t read the books.
In Chamber of Secrets, the plot twist makes no sense at all, and is completely ludicrous. Sorry, it is just dumb as poop, and doesn’t stand up to basic logical scrutiny.
Hear me out.
Mad-eye Moody is a great character. Let’s start with that. He is eccentric and unpredictable and has a great backstory. He is quite idiosyncratic, and seems, unlike, say, Gilderoy Lockhart, to not be putting on a show. He is who he is. Second, he is well known - for years - to people like Dumbledore and the Weasleys. He’s not some guy who just shows up - he is a comrade in an old battle, now an eccentric who tends to get in trouble.
What this says to me is that he would be pretty much impossible to impersonate. And not just on one occasion, but for an entire school year. Really? Could someone impersonate your friend for that long without detection? Surely there would be a slip up somewhere, sometime, with somebody. This is like a conspiracy theory - easy to imagine, extremely difficult to impossible to pull off without a mistake.
Oh, and it gets better! So Barty Crouch Jr. went to Azkaban as a very young man, and upon being smuggled out by his father, is essentially imprisoned using the Imperious curse, which prevents him from acting or thinking on his own. So, a man who has hardly been out of the house in 13 years, had little life experience before that, somehow becomes an infallible expert in impersonation? Impersonating someone he appears to have had little actual contact with as an adult? This seems beyond ludicrous.
I feel like Rowling needed a twist - and the most unexpected one possible - and went with this one. Maybe she decided at the last, and forgot to go back and give some clues?
One more thing on that: Moody (who turns out to be Crouch Jr.) sure spends a lot of time teaching Harry to avoid curses. This was not exactly necessary to accomplish the goal of bringing him to Voldemort - and indeed, ends up allowing him to escape at the end. It seems foolish at best, and inconsistent with what Crouch Jr. would have actually done. But it is consistent with the real Moody. Which is one reason I suspect that Rowling made a plot change and never went back to fix the internal inconsistencies.
Had I written the book, I think I would either have had two Moodys, so to speak, or picked a different character for the swap. Just my two cents.
I also thought I might mention the fact that this book takes quite a long time to wrap things up after the big climax. While I have occasionally complained about this in other books, I think it makes sense in this case for two reasons. First, because it leads into the next book, it is good to set the stage for what will come next, and with Voldemort back to life and gunning to take down civilization, knowing what happened is important to the characters - and the reader. Second, because there were so many mysteries remaining, it had to take time to unravel things. This isn’t the simplicity of the first couple of books, and the big reveal isn’t the climax as in The Prisoner of Azkaban. So, I approve of the time it took to wind it down, even if it did make the book longer by an hour or so.
Perhaps my final thoughts all have to do with the character of Voldemort, and his villainous goals. Let’s not give Rowling any particular credit for coming up with him. He is a pretty stock villain, the subject of legend from time immemorial. And his goals are hardly imaginative. He wants power, and he uses his followers’ natural bigotry and cruelty to manipulate them. Does he hate muggles? It doesn’t really matter, does it? He’s part muggle, but he sells the idea of “pure blood” to those to whom it matters. Voldemort gets the power and attention he craves, they get to express their petty hatreds. Those who enjoy hurting others - the Malfoys of the world - get to hurt others and get praised for it. It’s all pretty, dare I use the word? banal. Rowling kind of took the stock villain, made the Nazi connection a bit more obvious, and made a story out of it. No shame in that, of course.
Where Rowling turned out to have been prescient is that her stock caricatured villain resembles a certain Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named...You Know Who. I give Il Toupee zero credit for having read anything, let alone a series of fantasy novels for kids and young adults. But, really, if he had tried to imitate Voldemort, could he have done better? If his followers - the toadies like Kevin McCarthy - have possibly imitated Wormtail and the other grovelers any more accurately? Could the MAGAheads with their “fuck your feelings” and “make liberals cry” flags have been more like Malfoy?
While granting that most white Evangelicals of my parents’ generation who pearl clutch about Harry Potter have never actually read the books, I agree with my wife and other Millennials that the real threat they feel from the books is that the story of Harry Potter undermines their belief in authoritarianism, their racial prejudice, and their condescension toward younger people. The magic is no more “evil” than any other imaginary technological system, and I strongly doubt any kids that read the books thought it was real. Puleeeze. But the fact that adults in authority can be and often are bumbling, incompetent, greedy, selfish, prejudiced, is very real indeed. And books that point that out are, to put it mildly, offensive to those sorts of adults in authority, who do not take kindly to their status being challenged. And nothing scares them more, in my experience, than someone who stands up and demands that they explain why we should accept the unjust status quo.
That is the genius of Rowling, is in understanding the fascist undercurrents in the Western world, particularly in her own generation, and writing a story that captured the next generation’s imagination while equipping them to fight against evil when it arose.
I expect we will try to find time to continue the series in the future. I do look forward to a bit more of Neville and Ginny, as well as meeting my kid’s favorite character, Luna Lovegood.