I read my first Harry Potter book in 1998 on a crowded bus in Calcutta; this was at a time when Pottermania hadn’t risen to rival Beatlemania at its most insane, in a place where you didn’t have to bother with things like adult covers because people were far too busy keeping their faces out of one another’s armpits to care what anyone else was doing. I decided I was going to be a JK Rowling fan when Dumbledore put out the street lights on Privet Drive with a cigarette lighter somewhere in the first chapter. After finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the series, I’m not quite sure I’m still a fan, but I’m not at all surprised that Dumbledore’s lighter came back to play an extremely significant role in the Potter universe.
The first three books in the series were delightful; colourful characters, a wonderfully vivid, engaging world, a slow-spreading, delicious darkness and a sense of infinite promise. A promise that the next three books didn’t really keep; while the world continued to be incredibly detailed and the cast grew larger and stranger with every chapter, there was a sense of something missing; larger themes, perhaps, or a truly unique story. A series that was clearly aiming for mythic scale found itself spluttering and stuttering owing to failures that arose partly from the author’s strengths. Rowling is a master juggler, and her ability to keep hundreds of characters and objects and plot threads in the air at the same time is truly astounding. But in the middle of all the fine brushstrokes, the big picture was lost. Critics will keep pointing out that Harry Potter is no Lord of the Rings, no His Dark Materials, that while its popularity will stand the test of time, the books themselves aren’t classics; this is true, but not necessarily unfortunate. What’s also true is this: There’s nothing quite like Harry Potter. All comparisons are redundant because Harry Potter is so much more than a series of books; it’s an industry, a cultural phenomenon, a turn-of-the-century landmark. All of which makes reviewing a Potter book a difficult task; you need to master the magical art of Occlumency, a feat even Harry Potter found difficult.
At the end of the sixth book, our heroes Harry, Hermione and Ron are given the task of finding the Dark Lord Voldemort’s Horcruxes – magical objects or beings he had saved pieces of his soul in – because destroying them all is the only way to kill him. The Deathly Hallows, on the other hand, are three very powerful objects which might make Harry more powerful than Voldemort. Clearly, The Boy Who Lived has important decisions to make. And his choices lead him into yet another series of wild adventures, and ultimately into an all-out battle between the forces of dark and light, with the usual assortment of dragons, giant spiders, elves, goblins and other fantastic creatures in tow. Rowling achieves the seemingly impossible of tying up nearly every loose end in the mammoth series; Deathly Hallows is where it all comes together, where the entire sprawling cast, all the bizarre people left alive, and some of the dead as well, get together and slug it out – and this time everyone’s shooting to kill, and death tolls are rising like Harry Potter sales figures.
Despite its hundreds of plot twists, flashbacks, narrator changes, perspective tilts, hidden layers and easter eggs, Deathly Hallows is insanely readable; I couldn’t put it down for a second. The stakes are high, the movements fast; plot, counter-plot and subplot swirl and blend, old friends reappear and close friends die. This is the book where Rowling reveals all, where every mystery is explained, every shadow illuminated, something that the greatest fantasy writers have always avoided doing. Sometimes the explanations don’t work; you get the sense that Rowling is too eager to show how hard she worked putting it all together, how cleverly each piece fits. You’ll have to read all seven books again at some point, and it won’t be because of the writing, or the characters, or the dialogue; it’ll be because you want to see how the jigsaw came together, the ultimate triumph of plot over character or style. Most writers who write suspense novels, thrillers or whodunits know about Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece; Rowling looks at Chekhov’s gun, smiles, and then, like Neo in The Matrix, calls for ‘Guns. Lots of Guns.’
We learn about Dumbledore’s dark side, and see other sides to nearly everyone else; Harry’s parents, Kreacher, Lupin, the Dursleys. Rowling will doubtless please her curious teenaged fans, but has probably revealed too much about her backstage secrets; plot flaws that would not have been obvious otherwise come to light. Rowling’s characters have never been her strongest suit; the only two really memorable characters in the series are Hermione, one the smartest, most loveable heroines in children’s literature and Snape, who was much more sinister when we didn’t know everything about him. Potter himself started off well drawn, but got really annoying as the series progressed; one of the reasons Deathly Hallows is successful is that Rowling keeps the angsty monologues to a minimum – for most of the book. Occasional flashes of humour in between the murders and general unpleasantness also work to her advantage.
The series ends somewhat…predictably, if you’ve read all six books and have some sort of inkling about Rowling’s plotting methods. But then, when millions of fans are sitting on your head and demanding happy endings, and millions of dollars ride on keeping them happy, it’s difficult to upset the applecart. I wish it had ended differently, but it ended well and definitely deserves a place on your bookshelf.