Saturday, 22 September 2012
Review: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
Pages: 223 (Bloomsbury, 1997)
Series: Harry Potter #1
First Read: Spring 1999
Times Read: At least 10
Part of: The Harry Potter Readalong
First Line: "Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
Review: This book is very difficult to review, because it's Harry Potter and I just want to bounce around going "it's awesome, if you haven't read it before go and read it, if you have read it before then read it again. Either way, get thee to the book!" but that probably isn't very helpful. Also, I want to speak of spoilery things, but that's hardly fair to new readers, so I have divided this into two sections: one for those who haven't read the books, and one for those who have.
For those who haven't read the book(s) before
Part of me wants to say, simply, "remedy that" but that's not exactly a compelling argument. So I will say: the word 'magical' is constantly thrown around about Harry Potter - especially given its immense popularity and J.K. Rowling's rags to riches story - and it is an epithet that fits. These books are magical, especially this first one when everything is sparkly and new and the series hasn't yet taken the dark turn it does in later books (oh, the pain those later books can cause). Yes, the language is simplistic and geared at a young audience, and some of the characters are painted with broad strokes, but it is a fun, fast-paced read that perfectly sets up a series full of mysteries, laughs and drama.
Read it, and know that people are envying you for being new to the world and to not knowing all the answers (because the films don't include everything). As a piece of pop culture, it's worth reading; as a children's book, it's fantastic. Get thee to the book.
For those who have read the book(s) before
This is more difficult, because I feel like I ought to be talking about themes like love, death and loyalty, and basically writing an essay that encompasses the entire series and interviews from Rowling, complete with me fangirling all over the place and going "this is why I love her and her books, because of these moments, and because she'll talk about the coalition and how much they're screwing the country over! Stuff like this!". But I'm really not sure if that isn't something better saved till the end of the series as I'm constantly reassessing on this reread - for example, I've realised just how much Chapters 17 and 18 of Chamber of Secrets foreshadow Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows. There is so much there it's ridiculous in hindsight.
And because, on rereading, this book doesn't contain as much information as some of the later books. That seems self-evident, but in terms of moments where I was going "oh my God, that's setting up this!" it doesn't have half as many as in CoS. There's the mention of Sirius, and I really wonder if Harry's dream at the end of Chapter 6 (when Malfoy turns into Snape and there's a flash of green light) is a reference to Half-Blood Prince, but the actual information that Jo gives is minimal. It's really the introduction to the world and the big mysteries: why did Voldemort want to kill Harry? How did Harry survive? Why does Harry's scar hurt? And how much, exactly, does Dumbledore know?
I have to admit that, with hindsight, I am watching Dumbledore more closely. Not in a judgemental way, as you know he doesn't want to use Harry in the way he does (even if it's an action which even Severus 'I want that boy expelled' Snape is quick to condemn) but because you're aware of what his true actions are. When he tells Harry he isn't old enough to know the truth, you know that he has his reasons for not saying, all of which are explained in Order of the Phoenix - he loves Harry too much to cause him the pain of knowing the truth. Of course, another part of me was thinking "yeah, plus Jo needs to spin this out for several books" but, at the same time, I don't know that the books would be improved by Philosopher's Stone ending with "hey, Harry, there's this prophecy and you're in it!".
I think the thing that most staggers me, repeatedly, with Harry Potter is: how did J.K. Rowling* pull this off? The more I read the series, and the more I attempt to write my own books, the more I have to marvel at her achievement. Yes, there is the occasional plot hole that makes me want to tear my hair out** and yes there are times when I think "wouldn't this have been a bit simpler for the bad guys?" (particularly in Goblet of Fire) but ultimately: how did she do this? How did she plan it, hold it all in her head, and then get it down on paper over the course of ten years (seventeen including planning)? Even without the immense pressure she was under as the series went on it would be difficult, but with that media spotlight and the fans' expectations, I really don't know how she did it. The amount of care and attention and planning that went into these books is phenomenal and one of the things that I take away most from them.
So, I think my reaction to Philosopher's Stone is 1) I'm back at Hogwarts, yay!; 2) how on Earth did J.K. Rowling do this?; and 3) there is so much more to come and I cannot wait. Onwards!
* I know the correct, academic usage would be 'Rowling' but I feel weird writing that, just as I feel weird writing just 'Austen'. Though writing Jo also feels a bit too personal as I've never met her, however much I may be 'but that is my name too!'.
** There's one in Prisoner of Azkaban that I will discuss when I get there.