*I’m at it again. This is the uncut version, some 300 words longer than what appears in the paper today*
The world of publishing has been redefined. Again. In the week between the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and this review, everyone who reads in the world has either read the book, or has bravely decided to continue fighting the Potter empire. This does not include astronauts, terrorists, or those vile scavengers, book borrowers, but if you haven’t formed an opinion on Harry Potter yet, you’re either seriously clueless, or seriously young.
Harry Potter Episode Six, the grimmest yet, is essentially a 600-page-plus setup where loose ends are tied up, explanations are made and characters are placed in position for the seventh and final book in the series, where JK Rowling takes several deep breaths and plunges into the thick of things. And things are growing thick indeed in Potter’s world – hapless Muggles are being slaughtered as Voldemort and his evil minions set about proving how evil they are. It’s a world of paranoia, hate crimes, preventive detention and hypnotized duck-impersonating Prime Ministerial aides.
Harry is now sixteen and has to cope with being the Chosen One, burdened with the responsibility of fulfilling a prophecy and killing Voldemort. And that’s far from all – sinister Severus Snape is the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Draco Malfoy is up to no good, the new Potions master is clearly trouble, someone’s attacking Hogwarts students, Dumbledore is injured and often missing, and (the last straw) everyone around Harry is kissing everyone else. And the only person who seems able to help him is the mysterious Half-Blood Prince, whose potions notes help Harry overcome many an obstacle.
The plot is interspersed with frequent flashbacks where Voldemort’s origins are revealed to Harry by Dumbledore. Harry has to help his headmaster find hidden magical objects which Voldemort has used to store parts of his soul – only when these are destroyed will the Dark Lord be mortal again. Dumbledore and Harry embark on a dramatic quest with disastrous consequences, and suddenly everything that Harry thought strong and sacred begins to fall apart.
The story ends with a dramatic death, a funeral, and a Harry’s superhero-esque realization that With Great Power comes No Love Life. All the pieces are now in place for a great fantasy-land quest in the final volume, where Harry and his motley band of companions will gather objects A through Z and then proceed to kill the Dark Lord. Unless Rowling has a huge surprise in store for the world.
Assuming a Hogwarts Professor’s robes for a moment, if I were to place Half-Blood Prince in a Potter merit list, it would limp home a distant fifth (Books Three, One, Two, Four, Five filling in the rest of the slots). The series has headed rapidly downhill since Prisoner of Azkaban – while Half-Blood Prince definitely justifies expectations of a spectacular end, it still does not do justice to the way the series began. The first three Potter books were taut, focused narratives, full of inventive names, magical props and monsters and, most importantly, fabulous characters. If you consider the six most interesting characters in the entire series, not counting Harry, we met them all – Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Sirius, Lupin and Snape – before Book Four. From Goblet of Fire onwards, Rowling seems have been overwhelmed by the details – the plots have turned from well-paced mysteries which never failed to thrill and surprise to meandering, fat narratives which end in overblown action sequences. Harry was an endearing ugly duckling but grew into a petulant, noisy swan. Instead of Howlers and Norwegian Ridgebacks we now have curses, zombies, pain and death. All the Potter books had a dark undertone, but by magnifying the horror and shutting out her immense skill for light, funny writing, Rowling has done herself and her readers a great disservice. Fortunately for everyone concerned, her immense skill at fitting a sprawling, complex tale together, making sure that every stray clue scattered in previous volumes returns with deadly significance and that every character makes an occasional appearance will ensure that no Potter fan abandons Harry and friends until the very end.
The secret behind Potter’s popularity is Rowling’s ability to seamlessly combine popular genres of children’s literature. The Potter books blend fantasy novels, myths, detective stories, school stories and thrillers. The sources are equally diverse – Tolkien, Blyton, Dahl, Star Wars, TH White, Alice, Mary Poppins and even, in the last three books, horror movies, Mervyn Peake and Kafka.
But in the end, what gives Potter the edge is the manic way it’s sold. Other books might have huge campaigns behind them, but only Harry Potter has the capability to turn the whole planet into a circus. Without the giant marketing machine that keeps the world’s children potty about Potter, JK Rowling’s contemporaries, some better writers, have been cast into the shadows. There’s a lot of current children’s writing in the same genre that is easily better than Potter. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, with its darkly fascinating, complex vision of multiple worlds is often cited as an example, but there are others; Jonathan Stroud’s delightfully irreverent Bartimaeus trilogy creates an England ruled by djinn-controlling magicians. And then there’s Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series about a teenaged criminal mastermind and his dealings with laser-blaster-wielding underworld creatures out of fairy tales.
What these series have in common is that, like all classic children’ s literature down the ages, from The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland to Adrian Mole’s diaries, they are multi-layered enough to appeal to children of all ages, cultures and times. This is a quality that the Harry Potter series, while structurally more complex than most adult literature, has lost somewhat down the years.
It’s possible that these series will be as popular as Potter in twenty years – but then again, twenty years later, JK Rowling will probably still be writing. And unless her books then are the stories of Barry and Larry, the twin sons of Harry, it’s quite possible her magic will still be stronger than anyone else’s.