For the past few weeks it's been impossible to unaware of the name. No amount of Madison Avenue hype could have created the genuine fascination, the very real enthusiasm, that has been evident online, onstreet, onsubway. Adults and children, carrying the thick, colourful sixth volume; people on my friends' list saying "goodbye" for 2 or 3 days; Laura reading as I have never before known her to read, drowning for hours between the covers of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
So, at last, I decided to find out what all the fuss was about.
Enjoyed the first two as entertaining childrens' books with just enough meat to keep an adult curious to find out what happens next. Waited a couple of days and entered into the third volume, to find myself reading it every free minute I had.
I don't have anything to say about the series that hasn't been said before, so I'll keep this brief and do my best to avoid any important spoilers, since J.K. Rowling has written a very old-fashioned kind of book(s), in which plot and twists their in are important.
As a prose stylist, Rowling is no threat to the memory of Virginia Woolf, or even Isaac Asimov. She has a number of amateurish bad habits, the worst of which is the entirely unnecessary use of adjectives applied to the word, said. Unnecessary, because her dialogue is more than good enough to make it clear when a character is angry, or sarcastic, or surprised. These should have been caught and corrected before she was famous enough that no one could edit her without her permission - but now is not the time to bemoan the decline in the field of redaction within the publishing industry.
Another flaw is that it is clear she is making things up as she is going along. Harry Potter's world is not a fully-realized "secondary creation"; there are times one can see the backgrounds being moved quickly into place. Her secondary characters (particularly the grown-ups) are often thinly-sketched, though that is at least in part due to the story being told from the point of view of a boy largely cut-off from the adult world.
Judging by the first 6 volumes, the Harry Potter series will not take a proud space on the shelf of Great Books. It may well, however, find a permanent spot on the shlf just below, where sit the Flawed But Still Wonderful Books; certainly it will remain among the Great Childrens' Books for a very long time to come.
Rowling's strengths are strong indeed.
The world of Harry Potter is told from a child's point-of-view, and Rowling never lets us forget it. During the first 3 volumes, I found myself constantly siding with Hermione, wishing that Harry would put his faith in Dumbledore and tell (or McGonagall, for that matter), but it made sense that Harry, an orphan long mistreated by his adoptive family would not be quick to trust any adult.
Rowling brilliantly shows us a child's world, where interclass rivalries and sports are far more important than the goings-on in the outer world. For most of the series, Qiddich is in Harry's mind at least as (and much of the time, more) important than facing Lord Voldemort. In the emotionally complicated friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione, particularly as they enter their teens, Rowling shows a master's touch in her depictions of jealousy, crushes, and the teenagers terror at revealing what is in his or her heart.
Though the Harry Potter books are almost as heavy on plot and surprise as an Agatha Christie mystery, there is a great deal more there than just mystery (and adventure) to hold our attention. I cared enough about Harry and Ron and Herminone to be sad when they were sad, happy went things went well - I even managed an interest in Qidditch, a game whose 150 point Snitch bears far too much resemblance to barroom pool's 8-ball for my taste.
Rowling also knows how to show - without telling - kids growing up, changing. A review of The Half-Blood Prince I read complained that Harry had become too much of a complainer, too bitter, to be a fully-sympathetic character.
Well, of course Harry was bitter. He was 14 years old! He was under enormous pressures, he was (as Dumbledore would admit, near the end of the 6th volume) wrongly kept in the dark about the reasons for his involvement in matters far beyond his experience.
Beyond the characterization and the plot-driven mysteries of each volume but the last (the only one that doesn't come to a satisfactory conclusion of its own), Rowling brilliantly keeps the reader wanting to find out what happens next. Not interested in pleasing academe or theoretions, she is instead intent on telling a tale on its own terms. Like Tolkien, another author largely despised by academics who want an artist to footnote his or her own work with roadmaps to their metaphors and symbolism, Rowling instead has created a world (and never mind that her puppet-strings occasionally show, that makes sense on its own logic.
There are clear parallels (or so I choose to believe) between Rowlings world and our own - government more keen to promote the public's confidence in itself than to do its job, unconcerned about "mistakes made" or the innocent men and women who sometimes take the fall for the real villains' deeds; uncomfortable, but not really concerned, about its alliance with the Dementors, creatures whose only pleasure is to suck all joy - all life - from the living. It is easy to sea political parallels with Rowling's New Labour England - but it is clear to me that Rowling is only using her experience from the times in which she lives to tell an entirely different story. Should the reader choose to draw those parallels, he or she is free to do so (and I suspect Rowling would not object if he or she did), but she is not writing allegory, she is "only" telling a story.
And that story is almost all that a good story should be. Engaging, exciting, frustrating, relieving, even moving.
I have spent almost every waking hour of this long weekend immersed in a wonderfully-realized story and I can hardly wait until the 7th volume appears, so I can visit it again - and find out what happens in the end at last.