Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizard Dystopia (Pt. 2) * 2007

Synopsis

We know we’re about to get into some heavy shit here because this is the first time Rowling has dropped an epigraph on us. Two of them, even. Both of them are extremely grim and make it extremely clear that things are going to get much, much worse before they get better. If you’re here at book number seven, I would imagine this is to be expected, considering the trajectory of these books so far. I wish I remembered the public reaction to this book at the time. I think this is the only time my wife and I bought separate copies of a book at the same time because neither of us had any intention of waiting for the other to finish. I remember reading for many hours in a row and finishing before 24 hours had elapsed. When it was done, I was very conflicted. I was pretty sure that I liked it, but even then I could see issues people might have with the way the story unfolds. I have reread the entire series a few times since then, however, and every time I appreciate and respect the whole thing a little bit more. I’m at a point now where I’m pretty confident stating that these books get better as they go. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a goddamn masterpiece.

Of course, the only way Deathly Hallows gets in this position is because of all the work the previous six books have done. That’s not to say that it’s easy to finish. Quite the contrary, ending is maybe the hardest thing to pull off, especially for such a long-running series. The vast majority of the time, the ending falls apart because it feels rushed, or underdeveloped, or is somehow incongruous with the beginning of the narrative. What makes Deathly Hallows special in this regard is that pretty much everything that happens is telegraphed almost from the beginning. Nothing feels cheap, and everything feels earned. I suspect any criticism people might have with the book is either in the middle or with the epilogue. The former because the pacing slows down a bit, which I actually like quite a bit, but I can see people getting impatient with the lack of hot action. The latter, well, okay I’m still conflicted about the epilogue. Obviously I’ll get to that later. In the meantime, however, there’s a lot to work through.

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Not sure why Harry still looks like he’s 11 years old, but whatevs. I like the bubble snake.

Discussion

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows wastes no time in subverting the established formula from the first six books in the series. The Harry Potter books are, in addition to a few dozen other things, about attending a boarding school. Each book begins in summer, with Harry living at his horrible aunt and uncle’s house. Then yay off to school, and there is a rhythm to the routine of attending classes throughout the year. This basic Hogwarts routine is the foundation for every book in the series, which was established way back in the first book. As the kids get older, however, the routine changes as more responsibility is added to their day-to-day lives. You know, like how life works. That said, it’s Harry Potter, so all the weird shit happens to him. It’s the subversion of the established order which makes a lot of what happens in those first books resonate. In Goblet of Fire, suddenly there’s no Quidditch because the Quad-Wizard Tournament intrudes on the routine, which of course upsets our expectation of how things work at Hogwarts, and the wizarding world at large. Each book introduces its own variety of disruption, but by the time we get to Deathly Hallows, the comfort and routine of Hogwarts has been taken entirely away.

After the events of Half-Blood Prince we expected this, but the absence of the comforting routine of Hogwarts haunts the entire novel. It begins right away when Harry leaves number four, Privet Drive for the last time. The Dursleys are forced to leave because of the danger, and while Vernon is as irascible as ever, Dudley at least seems to finally appreciate the gravity of the situation and gives a surprisingly touching farewell to his long-hated cousin. The final, frustrating safety net of the Dursley household is stripped away and Harry is finally free to embrace the magical world entirely. Unfortunately, he’s probably the most wanted wizard in the world, so Harry can’t actually enjoy his freedom from Muggledom yet. He also learns about the harshness of the new world order right away, and if we were still uncertain about how rough this road is going to get, Deathly Hallows states its intention immediately with the deaths of Hedwig the Owl and Mad-Eye Moody.

I do remember the first time I read that chapter. Despite being in a fever to finish the book, I stopped for a moment and said out loud to the pages “are you kidding me, the fucking owl?” Mad-Eye is one thing, he led a long, dangerous life and went out doing his duty. Hedwig though, shit, that’s just the stark, unrelenting randomness of life and death. Perhaps even more than Dumbledore biting it, the needless, pointless death of Harry’s poor owl really drives home the desperation of the situation. Everyone is in mortal peril. Nobody is safe. If the goddamn owl is vulnerable, nobody can be safe. Not just from Voldemort and the Death Eaters, mind, but from Rowling herself. Killing off Hedwig is an authorial statement of intent for the rest of the book. From here on out, the stakes are as high as you can imagine, and nobody is off the table. I know we were all surprised at what George R.R. Martin does in A Song of Ice and Fire, but despite being “for kids,” Rowling is just as ruthless here. After Hedwig fluffs it, I wouldn’t have been surprised if any one of the Magic Trio bit it either.

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OH GOD. It’s like the artist was like “Oh, you hated all my other abominations? Well I was just mustering my true power, shitlords.” This makes me like the book less. Someone should bury the copies of this version in the same landfill as the E.T. Atari cartridges. 

The casualties chill out for a while after that first harrowing action sequence, though, which is good because we as readers need to catch our damn breaths. What follows, and what comprises the bulk of the book, is the Horcrux hunt, and here’s where I can see some readers falling off a bit. There are, of course, some exciting sequences that happen throughout the slower-paced middle of the book, but there is admittedly a lot of camping and second-guessing happening. I will defend the shit out of these parts of the book, though. Everything that happens between Bill and Fleur’s wedding and the return to Hogwarts is harrowing and desperate, but are also a vivid description of surviving a totalitarian dystopia. When Harry, Hermione, and sometimes Ron are huddling in their tent away from everyone they love and any semblance of safety, they are living on the ragged edge of a dark, dismal society which is only getting worse as the days crawl by.

The wizarding world had a brush with a dystopic state in Order of the Phoenix. In that instance, Cornelius Fudge used his power to subvert the freedoms and well-being of his citizens because he was afraid of being usurped by Dumbledore. He lost his job anyway, of course, because Fudge was not an actual tyrant. Yes, things got out of hand, especially at Hogwarts, but for the most part there was no permanent damage done to society at large. The real danger was, of course, the return of Voldemort and his dark ambitions, and the real damage done wasn’t necessarily by the High Inquisitor of Hogwarts, but by the willful inaction taken by the Ministry. Now that Voldemort has seized the Ministry, however, we get a firsthand look at what a magical totalitarian state looks like, and you know, it looks an awful like any other authoritarian nightmare.

Each time the Magic Trio makes a move to secure a Horcrux or to find information regarding them, we get another window into the wizarding world beyond Hogwarts, and what that world looks like under the totalitarian rule of Voldemort. On their first excursion, the Trio visits the Ministry of Magic to literally rip a Horcrux from the neck of Dolores Umbridge, who you will remember is the absolute fucking worst. There is no whimsy left in this world, it has all been crushed. Magic is Might now, you see. The wizard racism from the previous books has been weaponized under the new regime, and the entire society has been torn asunder from internal conflict. This is all common totalitarian shit, by the way. The constant suspicion of undesirables, the inability to trust your neighbor, the petty tyranny of sycophants, the propaganda, the baseline of mortal fear, all of it. The only real difference between the Soviet Union and the Voldemort regime is like, dementors. Other than that, you’ve got undesirable registration and show trials and all the trappings of absolute power.

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Ah, that’s better. Just a nice, simple, striking composition. No terrifying hobgoblins here.

Once they have their Horcrux, the Trio finds themselves truly severed from the larger wizarding world. For quite a long time, they are outside of communication and are forced to rely entirely on themselves. It doesn’t work out so great. And let’s be totally fair here: how self-sufficient were you at seventeen? You’ve got three teenagers, who despite being somewhat experienced in danger and life-threatening terror, are still saddled with the task of overthrowing an immortal dictator. Ron Weasly doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory when he leaves, but his reaction is not exactly unrealistic. And I will stick up for the poor kid at this point, despite being disappointed in him for his emotional overreaction. One, nobody should have been wearing that fucking Horcrux. I can’t imagine why Hermione didn’t just put her foot down and refuse to let anyone wear it. Two, he was understandably upset at the lack of progress, and by that point he had gotten the worst of the danger with nothing to show for it. Three, he comes back. And of course that’s his whole arc, Ron the loyal sidekick. He’s seventeen. He’s allowed to fuck up, and he learns from it. Plus he kills the shit out of that Horcrux, so you know, Weasly redeemed.

The period where Harry and Hermione are on their own is the starkest, most desolate, desperate stretch of the entire series. Everything has fallen apart. The Golden Trio has been sundered. Hope has all but evaporated. They’re out of ideas and running out of emotional elasticity. The absence of the security and warmth of Hogwarts are never more keenly felt than now. As the only two left with any real sense of how difficult and dangerous the last remaining hope of overthrowing Voldemort is, Harry and Hermione have never been more alone. For the record, I’m undecided if they fuck or not. It’s not terribly important, and I think that thematically it makes more sense if they do not. On the other hand, seventeen has a way of subverting theme. Logically they probably bang, feel super weird about it, and never, ever, ever, never, ever, ever tell Ron. Anyway, it is at this point that Hermione makes her big mistake and despite a sweet moment when they realize they’re visiting civilization on Christmas Eve, Harry still almost dies.

This period of exile from the larger wizarding world, where these three characters come to terms with failure and the resulting desperation, is beautiful in its own desolate way. At this point, the magical fantasy of the series is almost entirely eradicated, and they’re just three scared kids way out of their depth. Rowling has done a phenomenal job over the series humanizing these terrifying wizard children by grounding their fantastic abilities in their universal, awkward, teenagery, everyday existence. The time spent in hiding drives home the Trio’s ultimate humanity in their own shivering vulnerability before the great, dark terror of Voldemort. At the same time, while they are in hiding, they’re shielded somewhat form the more overt actions of the State. Hermione never has to register with the Muggle-born Registration Commission. Ron isn’t suffering the daily indignities that he inevitably would as a known blood-traitor at dark-Hogwarts. Harry is still alive and not being executed in a massive public spectacle.

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I like me a minimalist cover, and while this isn’t great I bet it looks dope on a bookshelf.

We get a bit of a window into the everyday terror of existing in Voldemort’s dystopia when the Trio visit the home of their friend, Luna Lovegood. Her old man runs an underground newspaper, which usually is no big deal because he’s a conspiracy theorist and a generally harmless goofball. In the new world order, however, he’s a subversive. In totalitarian states, things tend to go poorly for subversives. Especially those without the sense to hide themselves properly. When the Trio show up looking for information, a few things happen. One is a touching moment where they look in Luna’s room and realize that they (along with Neville and Ginny) are basically Luna’s only friends, and how much that means to the sweet little weirdo. I like Luna a lot, you guys. Anyway, after that we get some nice exposition about the Deathly Hallows (which leads to Harry’s critical error). The final thing which happens is the Trio getting a first-hand lesson in how a dystopian regime undermines the social fabric. Luna has been abducted, and her father is forced into moral compromise in a pathetic, desperate bid to get his daughter back. Of course it fails.

Everything goes super bad after this, and nothing gets any better. Everything is nearly undone by Lovegood’s understandable treachery in combination with Harry’s obsession and hubris. The Trio are transported to Malfoy Manor, where we see that life for the lackeys of the absolute ruler aren’t exactly great either. There’s something about this aspect of humanity that I’ll never understand. When you support an amoral, ruthless overlord, why on earth would you think that you’re immune to their narcissistic wrath? Who the fuck would want to toady to a dictator? If shit goes sideways, it doesn’t matter if it’s your fault or not, they’re still gonna kill you. Anyway, it’s a bad time to be a Malfoy. Especially after Dobby shows up and saves the day. I would like to point out that his sudden appearance is not deux ex machina – all the background for his intervention is baked into the book. Rowling is real good at this stuff, y’all.

Dobby’s sudden, heart-wrenching demise indicates that it’s time for the endgame. Seriously, if the owl and the house-elf are fair game, than anyone and anything is, so you better settle in. At this point, the Trio has more cause to hope, and things seem to be moving in the right direction. You’ll note this happens once they’re able to better plug into their support system (especially that support they’re entirely ignorant of, like that silver doe). The resistance radio is a nice touch, but seeing and talking with Bill and Fleur help immensely, placing the Trio back in touch with their people. Of course, they still need to get into some reckless shit, which they do with aplomb. The goblins are neutral, but really they just hate all wizards equally, and there are many hints that they have historic rights to do so. Still, it’s a super cool moment when Harry and his friends jack a dragon and burn it all down. Fuck big banks, am I right?

One of the many threads of Deathly Hallows is the posthumous questioning of the fundamental character of Albus Dumbledore. I’m not sure why Harry has so much trouble understanding that maybe Dumbledore has some skeletons in the old closet, after all it’s been made clear to him that Dumbledore has trouble opening up to people. That’s part of the curse of being the most powerful, most wonderful wizard out there, I guess. It seems Dumbledore made the (probably correct) assumption that others just wouldn’t understand. He’s withheld critical information, and he’s a bit of a user. Of course, Harry has his own issues which prevent him from fully understanding Dumbledore’s full character, including the not so great bits. They’re the same issues that prevented him from realizing that Sirius actually kind of sucks. Both characters functioned as a kind of parent-replacement, and he idealized them both. Now he’s grown up, and with that comes disillusion. And that is never fun.

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Most foreign covers are on a level with that horrorshow above, this one’s neat.

The Battle of Hogwarts is perfect. It’s the perfect cathartic moment after spending a huge part of the novel in unrelenting, uneasy tension. It’s the perfect culmination of six books of character building. The plot comes together just right. Everything about it feels exactly right, and even the horrible things which happen feel okay. I’m having a difficult time thinking of an ending sequence to a story that is so utterly satisfying, that does so well by its characters and pays off just about everything that has come before it. I don’t know what my favorite part is. I don’t know if it’s Minerva McGonagall going off the fuckin’ chain, I don’t know if it’s Neville finally stepping up and taking over the D.A. like a boss, I don’t know if it’s Molly Weasly swearing, I just don’t know. And since we’ve been forewarned since the epigraph, when the deaths come we are ready for them. They still hurt, but we’re ready. This is war, after all.

I don’t know what bit made my cry the first time I read this book. Probably Snape. That’s the real gut punch of a revelation, right? Poor son of a bitch. Lupin and Tonks happen off screen, so it’s hard to get super worked up about that. Fred Weasly is a huge bummer, but again it’s off screen so it still lacks that visceral punch. Even Snape, at first, isn’t a cause for tears. As far as we know, he’s the bad guy, right? Getting his just desserts for double-crossing Dumbledore? But if you’re here you know how this goes. You know the tragic backstory, the inability of Snape to transcend his base nature in time to prevent tragedy. Of course he did it to himself, that’s what makes his story tragic. He had the inside track when it came to Lily. He was the “nice guy” who had every opportunity but squandered them because he lacked the quality necessary to recognize what he had. More importantly, he was weak, and it was pride which made him weak. Afterward, once Lily was dead, which represented his own personal apocalypse, he was smart enough to realize what he had lost. It wasn’t just Lily’s life, but his life with Lily. Yeah, James Potter was clearly an arrogant jock, and I probably wouldn’t have liked him either. But Severus Snape was an arrogant nerd. If he had put his pride aside, and had a better nature to fall back on, maybe his story would have been different.

So yeah, the Ballad of Severus Snape is a sad one. And if you weren’t moved when Snape produces his Patronus, and it’s a silver doe, and Dumbledore asks “after all this time?” And Snape answers with his customary curt certainty: “Always,” you might was well be dead. Snape is, as Harry says in the epilogue, one of the bravest men I know, but he’s still kind of a dick. He still holds his animosity toward James Potter against the son, who had nothing to do with anything. Here’s a fun thought experiment: if Harry listens to the Sorting Hat and goes to Slytherin, does Snape embrace him? Forget how disruptive that is to the rest of the series, is Severus Snape capable of loving Harry Potter? Does his love for the mother outweigh his hatred of the father? Remember, both James and Lily went to Gryffindor, so House alignment only goes so far. I have to think that if Harry went to the house of green and silver, Snape basically adopts Harry. Severus would make a terrible father, but I bet he’d take Harry’s sorting to be a sign that he was meant to have Lily. Anyway, let’s get out of weird hypotheticals and back to the story. Specifically, what made this stony heart of mine fill up this time.

Look, this isn’t a macho thing. I don’t really subscribe to gender norms, and I certainly have nothing to prove when it comes to perceived masculinity. Still, I don’t usually cry. At this point in my life, I wish I was able to cry more. I can count the stories which have made me cry on one hand, and I’m pretty sure they’re all books. There’s a scene in the final Dark Tower book which always gets me: “In this haze of green and gold,” and if you’re a fan of the series you know what I’m talking about. That might be it? Oh god, I’m an emotionless lizard-person. Except maybe not. Here’s the scene that got me this time. I just re-read it in order to transcribe it and it still got me. In this scene, everything is all fucked up. There’s only one Horcrux left, but Hogwarts is being torn apart. Fred Weasly just died. Harry has no idea how badly it’s going, how many of his friends are dead. Hope is crashing down around him and fuck, Hagrid is being dragged off into the Forbidden Forest, and Harry can’t even deal with this shit. Not Hagrid. So he follows, and then….

“Ron and Hermione closed in beside him as the sounds of fighting behind them grew suddenly muted, deadened, because a silence only dementors could bring was falling thickly through the night, and Fred was gone, and Hagrid was surely dying or already dead….

‘Come on Harry!’ said Hermione’s voice from a very long way away. ‘Patronuses, Harry, come on!’

He raised his wand, but a dull hopelessness was spreading through him: How many more lay dead that he did not yet know about; he felt as though his soul had already half left his body….

‘HARRY COME ON!’ screamed Hermione.

A hundred dementors were advancing, gliding toward them, sucking their way closer to Harry’s despair, which was like the promise of a feast….

He saw Ron’s silver terrier burst into the air, flicker feebly, and expire; he say Hermione’s otter twist in midair and fade; and his own wand trembled in his hand, and he almost welcomed the oncoming oblivion, the promise of nothing, of no feeling….

And then a silver hare, a boar, and a fox soared past Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s heads: The dementors fell back before the creatures’ approach. Three more people had arrived out the darkness to stand beside them, their wands outstretched, continuing to cast their Patronuses: Luna, Ernie, and Seamus.

‘That’s right,’ said Luna encouragingly, as if they were back in the Room of Requirement and this was simply spell practice for the D.A. ‘That’s right Harry… come on, think of something happy….’

‘Something happy?’ he said, his voice cracked.

‘We’re all here,’ she whispered, ‘we’re still fighting. Come on, now….’”

I’M NOT CRYING YOU’RE CRYING. Okay. Okay. No, I’m fine. Okay. First of all, *sniff*, maybe lay off the ellipses, J.K. Rowling (said the ant to the goddess). Secondly, maybe you’re not seeing why this seemingly innocuous scene is making me cry like a little girl with a skinned knee and shit. Like, this scene didn’t even make the movie. Yet I can’t help but read this as the emotional crux of the entire series. Part of this is because I’m hopelessly Luna-biased. I’m happy to admit it, she’s the fucking best. Part of this is because if Luna doesn’t show up with her Patronus like a motherfucking badass, the Trio is fucking done. They’re dead. All is lost. Sure, sure, the Trio does the heavy lifting, and Neville kills the snake, and Molly Weasly murks Bellatrix (“NOT MY DAUGHTER YOU BITCH” is still the A number 1 line in the entire series), and a dozen other people have done their part, but this is Luna’s moment. And she saves them with the power of friendship. Which, okay, when I say it like that it sounds like some Mr. Rodgers-ass cornball bullshit. Yet I’m crying because this oddball weirdo who Harry took the time to care about is there to remind him that hey, we’re all here, it’s okay, it’s all okay, keep going keep going keep going.

I’ve seen the opinion thrown around that Harry should have died. He learns from Snape, in addition to the truth of Snape’s tragic past, that Dumbledore expects him to die for the cause. That his death is inevitable, because Harry Potter himself is the last Horcrux. I’m firmly in the camp that is happy that Harry lives. Fuck the tragic protagonist death, especially in this instance. I don’t care how dark this series gets as the books go on, its roots are still firmly implanted in the whimsical, fantastical wizarding world which captured our collective imagination way back when. And yeah it’s corny but fuck you anyway, sometimes we need that kind of thing. Harry dying would have felt entirely wrong. He’s The Boy Who Lived for fuck’s sake. Besides, if Voldemort’s rebirth is the wizarding apocalypse, there needs to be hope in the post-apocalypse, and that hope is represented by the heroism of Harry and his friends. There’s also the foundational aspect of this series. We’ve followed Harry and his friends for the seven years of his adolescence. A huge part of that is Harry’s growth as a human, a very real coming-of-age. To kill him at the end would invalidate all that character growth. Yes, I know that harsh reality ends lives prematurely every day. I live in America, and am forcibly reminded of that seemingly every other week. I don’t need it in my fantastical stories which dare to present a better world, you know?

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So Harry lives and I’m glad. The world of Harry Potter has always been fundamentally idealistic, in that the only social ills are those that come about over your ancestor’s ability to use magic. Nobody is squabbling over religion, or race, or the usual bullshit. Harry is able to win the day because he loves, simple as that. I guess that’s trite. Except, if I were to admit that, I would have to admit that love is trite, and that’s not true at all. It’s a human universal, after all, and it’s pretty clear that Harry is only able to triumph over Voldemort because Harry has an extensive support system based on love and loyalty and friendship while all Voldemort has is your basic fear and power combo. Dumbledore shows up to basically explain that character flaws do not make a person evil, before setting Harry loose to finally make things right. Which he does, even though victory is bittersweet. R.I.P. Fred, and Lupin, and Tonks, and Hedwig, and Dobby, and all the other poor bastards who bite it in the final battle for freedom. And the book ends, with our Magic Trio intact, victorious. And Harry, who has transcended the hero’s temptation of the Elder Wand, proclaims that he’s “had enough trouble for a lifetime.”

That would be a totally acceptable final line, but now we’ve got this epilogue to deal with. My wife hates it. I think it’s fine. She hates it because she refuses to accept that Ron and Hermione end up married with kids. I pointed out that it’s entirely possible that they dated other people and ended up settling for each other. She got depressed. Anyway, I’m not worried about this epilogue, because it’s vague enough to ask more questions than it answers. It think the reason it even exists is to underscore that the post-apocalypse is a return to the whimsical delight of the first novel. If anyone deserves a happily-ever-after, Harry Potter does. He had a rough go of it, after all, why shouldn’t he have a normal life? My only real complaint is the total lack of Luna. I assume she has her own TV show as a quirky magical detective, solving mysteries and learning how to love.

I think it’s Harry Potter’s particular kind of fantasy that brings so many hypotheticals to the fore when I reread the books. Unlike Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or whatever, Harry Potter is reality-adjacent. The entire premise is that this whole magical world exists parallel to our own, which makes daydreaming about it easier. Also the fact that the characters are so well-rounded makes fertile ground for what-ifs. If the core series is pre-apocalypse, what does the post-apocalypse look like? Do the Trio have to redo their seventh year since they missed their N.E.W.T.s? Or does saving everyone and vanquishing the most powerful dark wizard of all time earn them a pass? Assuming they get to jump right in, what happens in the ensuing power vacuum? I know what Harry says at the end of the novel, but there’s no way a kid who’s been adventuring since he was eleven is going to quit that shit cold turkey. There’s an endless number of stories that can be told on either side of this narrative, you know?

I have a few last questions about the world in general that are fun to think about. First of all, I realized on this read-through that these books take place in a particular place and time. While visiting Godric’s Hollow, Harry sees his parent’s headstones, which have the dates of their birth and deaths. By doing basic math even I can follow, it’s clear that Harry was born in 1980. Therefore the first book takes place in 1991 and the final book takes place in 1997. That’s a particular time and place, which is curious for a series that feels so timeless. I guess at the very least it answers the questions I have about cell phones. Yet much is made about Muggle-born witches and wizards, and how they keep the wizarding world alive. That’s rather the whole point. Yet these eleven year old kids aren’t bringing Muggle culture with them? You’re telling me British kids in the 90’s aren’t listening to Oasis and Blur and shit? Nobody smuggled in a Tupac CD? This weird lack of cultural osmosis is a little thing, but still strikes me as odd, especially when Rowling decided to give the series a hard date.

All that said, who cares. Every time I read this series, I’m somehow still surprised at how good and vital and important it is. You’d think I learn. Yet I still come to it every few years somehow telling myself that I’ve overrated it in my mind, that because it’s a cultural phenomenon it’s somehow not as good as I remember. And then I reread it and right, shit, there’s a reason these things have sold a kerbillion copies and that twenty years later it’s still a cultural touchstone. The books are magnificent. That is all.

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This would be better without the fat logo in the middle. Still rad though.

A Note on the Movies

David Yates continues to knock it out. The only downside of these final two films is that he inadvertently kicked off a trend of needlessly splitting the final film of a series into two separate releases. To be fair to Yates, if any series deserves to do this, it’s Harry fucking Potter. I like the Hunger Games and all, but it’s not even in the same universe. Don’t even get me started on every other should-be trilogy that’s done this. Ain’t none of you Harry Potter. Please stop. Anyway, both films are great. I was a little surprised to be reminded that the first film covers a lot more textual ground than the second, but considering the pace of the first two thirds of Deathly Hallows, I guess it makes sense. My only regret is that the movie overlooks the scene I highlighted above. There isn’t a whole hell of a lot more to say about these two movies. Like the other Yates movies they capture the spirit, tone, and aesthetic of the books almost perfectly. They’re streamlined versions of the books, and in this instance, it’s hard to ask for much more than that.

Hey yo, the rest of the series is here: Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, Year 4, Year 5, Year 6

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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Novel * J.K. Rowling * Oh, Snap * 2005

Synopsis

We’re almost there. Although somehow things just keep getting worse and worse and the atmosphere of these stories become more and more oppressive with each subsequent chapter and by the time we get to the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the wizarding apocalypse is underway. Coming between Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows, Half-Blood Prince acts as a bridge from the official return of Voldemort and the desperate final battle we all know is coming. It’s a shorter book, which is a bit of a relief considering for a while there it just seemed like these things were just going to continue ballooning in size until the last book was like a thousand pages long. Rowling reeled herself in, and this book loses none of its power for its leanness. Nearly all of the characters have come into their own, flaws and all. Harry, now sixteen, has at left most of his angst behind but still finds ways to be an obnoxious teenager. Yet for all that, this book is mostly remembered for one thing, and one thing only.

Before we get to that thing, other stuff happens in this book. I enjoy the continuation of using the first chapter to explore other viewpoints, even if it’s a brief detour. In this case, we get a rare Muggle perspective, as the Prime Minister is shown fretting about how difficult his job is and how the whole magical terrorism thing isn’t really helping. Meanwhile, Half-Blood Prince is the one with Horace Slughorn and the Slug Club, Fred and George’s dope joke shop, the return of Fleur “Phlegm” Delacour, The Unbreakable Vow, Draco exacting some revenge, Felix Felicis, Ron Weasly getting some action, Luna Lovegood continuing being perfect, Ginny, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, and where we are introduced to Horcruxes and why they pose a problem. There’s a lot going on here, but of course when this came out all anyone wanted to talk about was the ending, which I’m going to do now.

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I appreciate a nice, understated cover. This evokes the grim undertaking of the whole endeavor.

Discussion

Since spoiling this novel has become a meme at this point, I figured we may as well discuss the nature of this particular spoiler, but also the term in general. The idea is, if you learn about a particular plot point ahead of time, the entire work is then ruined. I hate this idea, even if I understand the desire to experience a story fresh. The reason I hate it is relatively simple: it implies that the only worthwhile thing a good story does is surprise. The thought that “oh, well now that I know this certain thing happens, the rest of the story is pointless” is abhorrent, as someone who loves storytelling of any kind. That said, I do understand where this comes from. If you’re invested in a story, especially something like Harry Potter which has been coming in installments and is something people have spent years reading and relating to, you want to enjoy that newest story alone. I was certainly caught up with the series by the time the last books came out, and I bought the thing on day one and had them finished in a day or two. And the unexpected thing at the end of Half-Blood Prince is a real nutbutter, and I’m glad I was able to experience it without knowing that it was coming. It was cool.

That said, I’ve re-read these books many times, and I seem to enjoy them more with each reading, despite knowing exactly what’s going to happen. You can only rely on the unexpected once. If you need hot new surprising experiences every time you read a book, or watch a show or movie, then I feel sorry for your attention span, I guess. Now, if someone had told me the end of this particular book before I had finished reading it, I would have been irritated. But it’s not like I would have stopped reading it. It’s one thing to say “yo, Snape kills Dumbledore” and quite another to read how and why that ending came about. Rowling is an incredibly gifted craftsman and world-builder, and the way in which the story reaches this conclusion is of paramount importance. The ending of Half-Blood Prince isn’t a twist at all, but rather the logical payoff of five previous books setting expectations. What makes the climactic scene of this novel special is all the groundwork Rowling has laid out before we get to the pivotal scene at the end.

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Well, clearly no lessons were learned about not attempting to depict human faces, so enjoy this atrocity.

Rowling enjoys herself a good red herring fake-out. With the ending of Half-Blood Prince, she pretty much outdoes herself because she has five other books to lean on when it comes to setting our expectations. We know that Snape isn’t a bad guy. He’s a dick, obviously, but he’s not evil. We know this, because he’s been used as a red herring before and it has been explained not only to Harry, but to us. The same goes for Draco Malfoy. Yeah, he’s an asshole, but despite his father it’s been made fairly clear that the boy isn’t evil. So when Harry is immediately suspicious of Draco, his friends, who are by now tired of Harry’s obsessive nature, roll their eyes and try to change the subject. We as readers are also meant to be exasperated with Harry’s obsession with Draco, and I can’t be the only one who actively enjoyed Draco getting the drop on Harry for once. He just stomps on Harry’s stupid snooping face and it was like, yes, thank you, kick some sense into this idiot’s head please. Alas, it doesn’t work.

The annoying thing is, of course, that Harry is correct in his suspicions. Draco is in fact up to no good. Snape is assisting him. After all the previous fake-outs, the thing Rowling has been hinting at with her not-initially-subtle characterization of Draco and Snape is finally becoming reality. By the end of this novel, we learn that Draco has spent the entire school year trying to devise a way to murder Dumbledore. Snape has been trying to assist him because of the Unbreakable Vow he made with Draco’s mother. Of course, there’s a final detail about all of this that doesn’t really come up much in Half-Blood Prince and strings this aspect of the story out to the very end, and that’s the question of motive. Draco still isn’t evil. He flails at his job because it’s clear that he doesn’t want it. Of course, he almost murders a couple of students by accident due to his incompetence, but he doesn’t really have an alternative. He’s a kid, and by all accounts not terribly smart, and oh, if Draco fails he’s dead. That’s a lot of stress! By the end of the story, his entire motivation is self-preservations, which is perhaps less noble than what Harry Potter and his buddies strive for, but is nonetheless emphatically not evil.

Snape, on the other hand, has some issues. If you’ve read the entire series, you know where this all goes. However, at the end of Half-Blood Prince, it is apparent that Snape has been deceiving Dumbledore this entire time, and he has finally exploited that trust to murder Voldemort’s biggest obstacle to world domination. We don’t really see much of Snape in this book, at least not in person. Of course, the titular Half-Blood Prince is Snape’s teenage name for himself, so he is clearly the most important character here. As it happens, he was a talented, troubled youth. We already know that Snape was not popular, and that Harry’s dad was inexcusably mean to him. The Half-Blood Prince’s Potions textbook is an insight into Snape’s adolescent mind, and it’s troubling and sad. It’s clear that he was exceptionally talented, and you can understand why young Snape would feel the keen injustice of being marginalized in the eyes of others because he was oily and gross (although, I’m not sure why he couldn’t just whip up a magic shampoo that would take care of that). And so he flirted with the Dark Arts, mostly to show all those haters out there that it was a mistake to underestimate his abilities.

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This is the same exact idea as the cover above, executed about 7,000 times better. 

It’s no wonder that Harry identifies with the Half-Blood Prince throughout this book. After what’s been happening to him over the years, he’s obviously feeling alienated from the rest of the students. I mean damn, people were accusing him of attempted murder when he was twelve for crying out loud. There hasn’t been a year gone by when he hasn’t been singled out and isolated from the rest of the crowd. Even if he is inevitably redeemed, that suspicion is always there. Now of course Harry, for all his many annoying faults, still has a heart of gold. His best friends are all weirdo outcasts and Harry has embraced them in spite of their oddballness. Snape never had that, and from what information we’re given, most of that is his own fault. Snape is smart enough to recognize it, which is why he lashes out at Harry, who has figured out how to be an alienated weirdo without being a little psycho. Snape holds all that hate and anxiety within himself, because he was never able to bring himself to open up to anyone other than Harry’s mother, Lily. Without her, there is nothing keeping him from delving the depths of darkness, which of course culminates in Dumbledore’s murder.

Even without the benefit of knowing how the final book unfolds, there’s clearly more to Snape’s actions than we are told. I remember reading the ending for the first time and thinking, “oh, I don’t know about that.” I also remember thinking that the final book has a lot of goddamn work to do in order to wrap this all up. There’s a lot in the air at the end of Half-Blood Prince. We only just learn what a Horcrux is toward the end, and how difficult they are to acquire and destroy. The scene in the cave with Harry and Dumbledore is haunting and lonely, and the horror and heroism that happen simultaneously on the shores of that terrible lake are but a shadow of what’s coming. This book at least has the benefit of taking place at Hogwarts, where there is still some vestige of the lighthearted whimsy of the first books remaining. However, it’s made clear at the end of Half-Blood Prince that the final book is going to be something entirely different, and likely dark and horrible.

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It seems like all the later movies have about a dozen alternate posters, all of which are better than the ensemble one. On the other hand: Gherkin!

A Note on the Movie

David Yates knocks it out with all four of his films. They not only look great and fit the tone perfectly, but the adaptations are adequate. By now we know how this works. These movies work best when you’re familiar with the books and can fill in the gaps which are required by the limited space of a film. What stands out about Half-Blood Prince is its sense of humor. There’s more joking around than any of the movies since the extremely silly Prisoner of Azkaban. Obviously the actors have all grown a considerable amount, so they’re better at their jobs and as a result the entire production feels more relatable and real than the previous films. I think that the scene in which Harry takes the Felix Felicis is possibly my favorite scene in the entire series. Harry’s such an affable goof it makes up for a lot of his shortcomings. Like any adaptation, there’s always going to be curious changes made, but it says quite a bit about the quality of the movie that, despite watching this a few days ago, I cannot remember any examples.

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Despite the existence of another very excellent Luna poster, please enjoy the one time Draco gets to look cool.

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizard Dystopia (Part 1) * 2003

Synopsis

Last time we were at Hogwarts, it was readily apparent that dark times were coming. Well, now they’re here. From here on out the situation within the wizarding world only gets worse and worse and the previously joyous and whimsical atmosphere becomes more and more oppressive. The set up for this book is pretty simple. Voldemort, the evil Dark Wizard with a desire for immortality, has returned. Nobody in the wizarding community wants to deal with this, because he was such a nightmare the last time he had power. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is about a lot of things, but the crux of the book is about the intransigence of the Ministry of Magic in the face of imminent danger.

Meanwhile, heroic teen-boy Harry is at his adolescent worst, which makes sections of this book hard to read. As I’ve brought up previously, Rowling does a magnificent job of presenting an unflinching viewpoint of a moody, angsty, despondent teenager. That’s not always a fun viewpoint to read from and there are times when I definitely wanted to reach into the pages and smack his dumb teen head around a little bit. Yet if we’re being fair, it should be very clear that Harry has every right to be angry with the situations he finds himself in. Sure, he makes some of them worse by being an insufferable fifteen-year-old, but he’s dealing with some seriously heavy shit throughout this book, the vast majority of which is beyond his limited control. That would be frustrating for anyone, so the tone of the novel makes sense. It’s just… a lot to deal with. Also maybe don’t take it out on the people who love you and are not responsible for your situation. Dickhead. Of course, it doesn’t get much better moving forward. Anyway, beyond that this is the one with the loathsome Dolores Umbridge, Sirius Black’s horrible house, series M.V.P. Luna Lovegood, Dumbledore’s Army, Occlumency, some of Snape’s backstory, Grawp, O.W.L.s, and the darkest ending yet.

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Kind of an odd choice for which scene to place on the cover, but it works.

Discussion

The Order of the Phoenix is where Harry Potter gets political, and it’s weird. I don’t mean political in the real world sense, obviously, but the role of government becomes the major theme of this book, and in a lot of ways becomes the focus of the series going forward. Yes, Voldemort is still the big bad evil villain. Yet it’s remarkable how little we see of him from here on out. In this particular book, he’s not even the biggest threat to Harry, his friends, Hogwarts, and the wizarding world at large. That would be the Ministry of Magic, the leadership decisions of the Minister, Cornelius Fudge, and the policies put forth by his government and their effects on the wizarding public. Of course, the reason the government becomes so obtrusive is a direct consequence of Voldemort’s return, but most of the actual damage done in this book is done by bad governing.

While Dolores Umbridge is the most visible villain in this book, and she is a wonderfully awful nightmare person, she is present in Hogwarts at the direction of the Cornelius Fudge, who sucks at his job. He’s extremely vain and paranoid, and places his own sense of importance over the welfare of his constituents. You know, like a politician. His whole deal is that he’s terrified that Dumbledore wants his job. This makes no actual sense, considering that Dumbledore could have had his position like five times over and turned it down, but when has logic ever gotten in the way of a politician’s ego? The problem, however, is that Fudge dictates policy within the Ministry, and his irrational fear of Dumbledore causes him to make all the wrong decisions in regards of the largest threat facing the wizarding world.

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I know I’m never going to like these covers, but this is the best so far. Because there’s no attempt at depicting humans in it.

Instead of mobilizing against the resurgent Wizard Nazis, Fudge pretends that they don’t exist and are therefore not a threat. This is a very Neville Chamberlin move of ignoring blatant hostility by a powerful, racist enemy, and of course the consequences turn out disastrously. To make matters even worse, and this is where any real-world analogue is lost (at least insofar as my limited knowledge of British history is concerned), Fudge turns authoritarian in his effort to ignore the truth. He unleashes Umbridge on Hogwarts in an attempt to lock down the educational system and to neutralize Dumbledore. He turns the media into a State organ, not unlike Soviet-era Pravda. The intricacies of Wizard Government are never spelled out – I assume they’re a democratic body, although I’m not sure there’s an equivalent to Parliament – but Fudge’s influence is clearly paramount to policy here.

Since the Ministry of Magic is hostile, the good guys are forced underground, which makes their job much harder. One of the first things Harry must do is head to the Ministry in order to face the Wizengamot, which appears to be a judiciary body. Harry’s been charged with using underage magic since he had to bust out his Patronus to save his idiot cousin from dementors. Harry is acquitted, of course, but the fact that Fudge is abusing his power in order to strike at Dumbledore through Potter is made exceedingly clear. After the trial, Fudge shifts tactics and leans on his influence with the media. As a result, the Order of the Phoenix must also fight a counter-propaganda campaign as well as continue their clandestine war against the Death Eaters. They’re essentially fighting two separate wars.

As the story moves on, Umbridge becomes the Fudge surrogate in Hogwarts, and is given unprecedented power through various Ministry decrees, all of which are varying shades of totalitarian. Unlike Fudge, Umbridge is not motivated by fear. As far as I can tell, she’s a psychotic, racist, sadist who’s in love with her own power. In other words, she’s the worst possible person to take over Hogwarts save Voldemort himself. She’s a representative of the repressive arm of the government, which is demonstrated through her willingness to torture students while simultaneously depriving them of an actual education. The formation of Dumbledore’s Army is a nice break from the oppressive atmosphere and I love Luna and Neville with all my heart. The D.A. is also a look at resistance dynamics within an oppressive regime.

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This is jarring, mostly because I’ve come to think of Order of the Phoenix as “the blue one.” Harry’s little floating head is also a bit much.

The conduct of the Ministry of Magic is of course the larger-picture, macro-scale problem in The Order of the Phoenix. From the perspective of Harry Potter, whose head we’re unfortunately stuck in (and starting with this book I almost wish Rowling would have jumped around other character’s perspectives, George RR-style), the lack of Dumbledore’s communication is worse than what the Ministry is doing (or not doing, as the case may be). Fudge isn’t the only person with authority who makes a critical error over the course of the novel. For Harry, the unpleasant overall theme of this year at Hogwarts is the realization that everyone fucks up. Those in authority, even those you respect, can and will make errors in judgement. When all is said and done, critical errors can do lasting damage regardless of the intentions behind them.

While it is immensely satisfying to see Neville and Luna kick a little Death Eater ass towards the end of the novel, it’s hard to come away from The Order of the Phoenix in a good frame of mind, what with the death of Sirius Black and all. Harry has been utterly disillusioned at this point, and since he’s fifteen he handles it rather poorly. Can’t say I blame him. Dumbledore really biffed it, just donked the whole operation up, simply because he forgot how young people work. Harry, as heroes are wont to do, takes the blame for the situation entirely on himself. From the reader’s point of view, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Personally, I think it’s clear that most of it lies with Fudge and the grossly inadequate response by the Ministry of Magic. Had they been on the trolley from the jump, the situation at the end would never have arisen in the first place.

That said, neither Harry nor Dumbledore are without their share of responsibility. Obviously, Harry is a minor. Yes, his more obnoxious tendencies kept him from doing what he was told and practicing the Occlumency which would have prevented him from being a dumbass. However, he’s fifteen. It’s a lot to ask of a fifteen year old to overcome his flaws right away and do what is the clear (to us) right thing. Therefore Dumbledore has to answer for his failings, which he does. And his reasoning for keeping Harry at arm’s length is sound. He’s a kid, and this whole “murder the most evil wizard ever” thing is a big ask. All things considered, Harry does well dealing with all of his losses, which are more than anyone should have to deal with at that age (or ever, really). At this point, if he were a normal teenager, he would be a total delinquent, smokin’ hella wizard weed and doing crimes. But for all his flaws, he still has a solid support system, and is therefore able to push on. He’s a dang hero after all.

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I like how they don’t even bother with the robes anymore. “Just try and look threatening. Try harder, Ron.”

A Note on the Movie

Not unlike the books, the movies keep getting better as they go. Once again, the biggest issue facing the filmmakers is turning a long, complicated, nuanced novel into a two-ish hour movie. As before with Goblet of Fire, the story here is a much simplified, streamlined version of what we get in the book. As with all of the movies, I feel they work best as supplementary material to the novels. They just work better once you’re familiar with the full characterization and plots of the book. David Yates, who takes over directing from here on out, does an excellent job of continuing to adapt the atmosphere and overall vibe of the novel, which is to say that things are much darker and more ominous, and the whimsy quotient is dialed way back. Meanwhile, as the actors get older they continue to improve, and luckily for everyone involved Daniel Radcliffe is able to convey Harry’s overwhelming angst without being too obnoxious about it. The casting of new characters continues to be spot on. Umbridge and Luna are perfect. Obviously there are going to be details from the book I wish made it in the film, but as a whole it’s hard to say much bad about this one.

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Bonus poster: Fuck yeah, Luna.

Posted in Books, Dystopia, Government, Harry Potter | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizarding International Relations * 2000

Synopsis

I believe we’ve reached the point of the series where it’s unreasonable to think someone would just bop in and start fresh. I can envision a world where people could start with Prisoner of Azkaban, even if those people are depriving themselves of quality world-building and an otherwise good time. But I can’t imagine anyone would take a look at a seven-book series and think to themselves that “yes, the fourth book seems like a good place to start.” So I’ll proceed as if you’ve read the first three books and have every intention of reading this book. If you’ve come this far, you’re into it. Now, as I’m re-reading these books for the first time in years, I’m reminded that they’re getting better as the go. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a step above Azkaban, and it only gets more intense as we go. Now, I can see the perspective that misses the more light-hearted whimsy of the first few books – it’s like when people complain about Adventure Time not being “about adventures anymore” but is actually just getting better at depth and storytelling– but insofar as quality is concerned, it’s hard to argue that the later books aren’t simply better. Anyway, if you’re familiar with the books but maybe haven’t read them in a while, this is the one with the Triwizard Tournament, the Quidditch World Cup, the Dark Mark, Mad-Eye Moody, Unforgivable Curses, Rita Skeeter, the Pensive, and Death Eaters. Shit gets real.

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Poor dragon, didn’t want anything to do with any of this nonsense. Goddamn wizards.

Discussion

As we’ve seen in the previous couple of books, J.K. Rowling adds depth to the world with each successive novel in the series, and Goblet of Fire is no exception. This novel marks the first time the wizarding world really opens up beyond the United Kingdom, and while there’s some playful stereotyping happening here, we at least get a small glimpse into a world that is expanded beyond a single European island. Appropriately for a novel that is about international cooperation, Goblet of Fire’s first big scene is the Quidditch World Cup. Since there are fewer wizards than Muggles, it’s a smaller event than the proper World Cup – although we can presume that this particular match between Bulgaria and Ireland (shout out to two countries whose soccer teams will never win an actual World Cup) is only the final match at the end of a longer tournament. That said, it’s still a mob scene. Harry and the Weasly’s get a rare taste of elitedom and get to rock the Top Box with high-profile Ministry of Magic officials, and everyone has a good time. Suddenly there’s this vast wide world beyond Hogwarts and school-age wizards out there.

Of course, as much fun as the game is (and of course Ireland wins), it ends in an act of soft terrorism. “Soft” in that nobody dies or is even seriously injured, but are nonetheless terrified. Some Death Eaters crash the after-party and cause a ruckus before someone shoots a Dark Mark into the sky. Ministry officials show up and immediately fuck up the crime scene (just sloppy, sloppy police work, seriously these fools just need to turn on Muggle TV and watch some CSI or something) and Barty Crouch, the hardline Ministry guy, tries to blame Harry because he’s a zealous idiot. Crouch’s counterpart, Ludo Bagman, is also present and presents another face of the Ministry, one which is enthusiastic and dumb. The critique of government hits its peak in the next book, but these two gomers foreshadow the depiction of the Ministry of Magic we can expect going forward.

The World Cup is doing triple-duty right out of the gate. It’s describing a much wider world than we’ve been exposed to, it’s setting up a particular viewpoint concerning the role of government in its depiction of the Ministry of Magic, and is most importantly setting the tone of the novel. In conjunction with the first chapter (which in itself is unusual because it’s the first time Rowling has written a viewpoint away from Harry), we are made immediately aware that the world has changed. Voldemort is still mostly powerless, but has since been reunited with noted coward and all-around fuckface Peter Pettigrew and is therefore a greater threat. When the first real action of a book is a straight up murder, you know things are going to get worse going forward. Between this and the Dark Mark, we know that Goblet of Fire is about to stray from the path we’re used to in a Harry Potter novel. Yet the first few chapters still contain plenty of the whimsy and fun that drew people in to begin with, but the tonal shift that kicks all the way in for the rest of the series begins now.

 

SCHOLASTIC GOBLET OF FIRE

Oh, I don’t know about that derpy-ass dragon. “Oi! I’m gonna bloody well getcha!” Sure you are, nerd.

The plot of Goblet of Fire is a massive gear change to the previous structure of the series which by this point has become almost predictable. Since each novel represents a year at Hogwarts, this structure makes a good deal of sense because one of the effects of going to school is becoming well acquainted with rigid structure and routine. Therefore we get used to Quidditch and House Cups and whatnot being integral to the proceedings, because these are things are very important to the characters. However this time all that gets tossed right out the window in an effort to expand the world-building further than before. Instead of more Quidditch, we get to read about the Triwizard Tournament, which is happening at Hogwarts in an effort to boost international relations. In this event, of-age wizards (17 and up) compete in three tasks meant to test their skill as a wizard. These teen athletes hail from the three major European schools of magic. Hogwarts, naturally, the French girl’s school Beauxbatons, and the vaguely Eastern-European school Durmstrang.

While the inclusion of schools that are not Hogwarts, and are therefore not British, are an opportunity to kick around easy stereotypes, they also allow for an expansion of the wizarding world in general. There’s a point where Harry admits to not even conceiving of other wizarding schools, and it’s possible that most readers never really thought about it much either. Of course, the fact that French school is uptight and aristocratic in nature while Durmstrang is a post-Soviet, disciplinarian situation, seems like a missed opportunity for a better characterization of these places, but whatever. I mean, when your post-Soviet schoolmaster is also an ex-Death Eater you’re not exactly being subtle. The outlier, to a point, would be Viktor Krum, who apparently has a heart of gold, but Rowling is still using a wide brush here, which is unfortunate.

It’s good then that the vast majority of the novel is about teenagers, and as we’ve seen (and will continue to see) that Rowling has no peer when it comes to depicting this mysterious creature. Teens are, and always have been, and always will be, the actual worst. If not handled carefully, this viewpoint could quickly become unbearable. Yet Rowling has a singular talent in being able to accurately convey how much it sucks being 14 (or especially 15) without making the character unbearable. We do begin to get a sense of Harry’s major character flaws in Goblet of Fire, however. He has a short tempter. He is often self-righteous and stubborn.  These things start to bubble up here, although to be entirely fair Harry has to put up with a bunch of heinous bullshit that no one else even knows about. Of course these things only intensify as the series progresses.

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Boy, these cover artists sure did love them some dragons, huh? These continue to be bad.

Meanwhile the poor bastard has to deal with the challenge of the Triwizard Tournament (more like Quadwizard Tournament, but whatever) while at a distinct disadvantage, and also put up with a corrupt FAKE NEWS press and plummeting popular opinion. Harry pulls it all off, of course, not only because his name is on the cover, but also because he was set up. Harry still had to execute, still actually had to do the thing, but he had a good deal of help. In the end, though, Harry ends up where he was intended to end up all along, and that’s face-to-face with a reconstituted Voldemort. Heading into this moment, Harry has had help. Not only unlooked for “assistance” from Barty Crouch, Jr., but from his usual cast of allies. In the end, though, it’s Harry alone facing his much more powerful, imposing nemesis. Cedric Diggory, sexy young hunk and superior older wizard, is killed as an afterthought. Harry, of course, escapes with his life, thanks in part to the ghosts who emerge from Voldemort’s wand. That said, this initial face-off with a restored Voldemort is the turning point in the series. Harry stands and faces what he thinks is certain death, at 14 years of age. That alone is enough to mark him for the rest of his life.

Goblet of Fire is a massive book, and so much happens that it’s impossible to talk about in depth without going on for ages. I’m pretty sure there’s a good paper to be written about Hermione, the House Elf Liberation Front and labor politics, for instance. There’s a depth and richness to this novel that is absent from the first three, but becomes the hallmark of the series from this point forward. The series never strays too far from its whimsical roots, but the darkness that is present at the end of this book permeates the rest of the series. And that final scene is harrowing. Cedric’s causal murder, Harry’s bravery in what he thinks will be his last act, his narrow escape and the knowledge that everything is going to get worse, and of course Harry bringing Cedric’s body back to Hogwarts. It’s rough, and the knowledge that nothing is going to get any easier or better is a perfect metaphor for the ultimate loss of innocence we all experience, even if it’s not quite as traumatic as what Harry has to deal with.

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I like their fake wizard jerseys and their like, wizard track pants.

A Note on the Movie

From this point forward, the filmmakers have their work cut out for them. As mentioned, Goblet of Fire has a lot going on. Even a long movie is going to miss some things, so it’s up to the screenwriters and the director to figure out how to best streamline the plot in such a way that the basic story still makes sense. Mike Newell, another one-off director for the series, does a decent enough job. The look of Hogwarts and the wizarding world in general is still solid, and already the films are steering toward a more austere look to match the tone. The casting continues to be great; Mad Eye Moody in particular is spot on. The depiction of the Yule Ball is perfect. There are a few missteps, of course. My favorite is the weirdly aggressive Dumbledore. I like when he damn near chokes Harry out when asking him if he put his name in the Goblet of Fire, but I especially like at the end when he’s confronting Barty Crouch, Jr. and he’s all like “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” Fuckin’ gangsta, even if it’s out of character. Speaking of Barty Crouch, Jr. though… seriously, what the everlasting fuck is up with this performance? My wife assures me that David Tennant is a fine actor, but the whole tongue thing is out of control. It cracks me up every time, and I’m guessing that’s not the intended effect. It’s also a shame, because Crouch’s big scenery-munching moment happens right after the most affecting scene to date. Harry’s return to Hogwarts with Diggory’s body is done perfectly, and it’s heartbreaking.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizard Injustice * 1999

Synopsis

The first time I read through this series, approximately one million years ago, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the point where I said to myself: “oh, this shit is for real, yo.” Considering that this was in the early 2000’s, that’s probably an exact quote, followed by a rousing chorus of “Nookie” and being scared of Al Qaeda or whatever the hell else we were doing then. Anyway, in contrast to the first couple of books in this series, Azkaban is where Rowling starts dialing up the reality quotient in terms of theme and her world building. Most people who are familiar with Harry Potter are well aware that as the series progresses, the stories get darker. That’s true, but I think a better way to describe this progression is to simply say they are about growing up. If nothing else, Harry Potter is a year-by-year, detailed examination of getting older. This being the third book, Harry and his friends are all officially teenagers, and the tone proceeds accordingly.

Think for a moment, if you dare, about being thirteen. It was exciting! Finally, you’re not just some little kid anymore but a teen. I think for a lot of people, this is the year where you start becoming more aware of the wider world, and start the arduous task of forming some kind of personal identity. The process is just awful, of course, and I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to think about the cringy, embarrassing, dumbass things we said and did during this process. It has been observed by many of my generation that it’s a good thing social media wasn’t a thing then, because hoo boy. That said, this was also an age of discovery. I don’t know about y’all, but this general age is when I first started becoming invested in politics and world events. I was 13 when the L.A. riots popped off, and I was riveted. It was like, oh shit there’s this whole entire world where things are much different and much worse than they are for me. It takes a while to wrap your head around, and if we’re all being honest, it’s kind of a lifelong struggle.

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These covers continue to be not great, but at least Buckbeak looks kinda cool.

What makes Azkaban special, then, is Rowling’s ability to deftly navigate the treacherous nature of thirteen, while simultaneously expanding her own world to account for her character’s growth. It becomes more apparent and obvious as the series moves on, but these are some accurate depictions of teenagers, and they resonate with my own cobwebby recollections of being a youth. Harry and his friends are not always likable, because they are sometimes insufferable teens. That’s realism for you. Likewise, as we learn more about the wizarding world at large, we find out that it’s not all whimsy and delight. As we learned in Chamber of Secrets, wizards and witches are humans, and as such sometimes they do terrible things, even outside the parameter of a dark super-villain. Again, as we move on in the series, these themes only get stronger, but they all appear very early on.

Prisoner of Azkaban begins a trend of more and more complicated plots which branch out and include an ever-larger roster of characters. As the principal trio grow up, they naturally meet more people and do more things, so as a world builder, Rowling never runs out of things to do. This is the one where we start learning more about the Ministry of Magic, are introduced to the Knight Bus and learn what dementors are. Harry is given the Marauder’s Map and the Firebolt, we learn about the village of Hogsmeade and we learn what Patronus’ are. Toward the end of the novel we get some valuable insight into Harry’s father’s past, and this is maybe the high point of Quidditch, insofar as narrative is concerned. It’s a very busy book which manages to hint at the more grave events that will happen down the line.

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Yeah, Patronus like a boss.

Discussion

Sirius Black is a strange character, and his relationship with Harry only gets stranger as the series progresses. As the titular prisoner of Azkaban who escapes after 13 years of torment, Black haunts these pages without actually showing up until the very end. To that point, this book may as well be called Harry Potter and the Big Fat Red Herring. Black is in prison because he was accused of a magic massacre. After the fall of Voldemort he was on the run as a presumed supporter who had betrayed his good-guy buddies. Rather than come quietly he blew up a street and killed a bunch of Muggles. He was captured and left to the mercy of the dementors who, to recap, suck all happiness and hope out of people. Sometimes they suck your very soul out (just like Hunson Abadeer!). Anyway, Black escapes and everyone freaks out. The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, responds by sending dementors abroad to protect Hogwarts in general and Harry in particular.

Harry gets jerked around a lot, and his entire existence is just one big emotional roller coaster. Part of this, naturally, is simply being an adolescent. More than most, though, Potter has a lot to sift through. He’s a celebrity from birth, although his entire upbringing has been a borderline child abuse situation in which he lived in total obscurity. The weirdest shit continues to happen to him, although to be frank Harry brings a lot of this on himself. He’s hardwired with a temper and a deep sense of self-righteousness, never mind his propensity toward recklessness. By this third book, there’s something of a template to Harry’s year. We begin with summer, and Harry is miserable. Then he gets out of the Dursley’s, and it’s rad. Then his term at Hogwarts begins, which is great until weird shit starts happening and then everyone hates him for a while before everyone comes around and loves him again. The thing is, it never feels formulaic. Yet the end of this novel really sets the poor kid up something awful.

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These covers continue to the be the best. Evocative!

Of course Sirius Black isn’t evil. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unjustly accused of being the worst kind of betrayer. Harry’s feelings are all over the place in this final act. He swings from murderous rage to blind optimism and cautious love in like, zero seconds. It’s weird. My main man Lupin probably has much to do with convincing Harry that justice is not always served, and finally Harry takes it upon himself to show mercy to Peter Pettigrew, the little bitch-rat that was actually responsible for the death of Harry’s parents. Because Harry is a hero, naturally. There is a complication, however, when Severus Snape shows up and allows his bitter school memories to overcome his good sense (a not uncommon occurrence, as we’ll continue to see). Anyway, there’s some time travel nonsense and Black gets away, but is still presumed by the public to be a dangerous evil baddie.

The Ministry of Magic, led by Cornelius Fudge, is not terribly interested in alternative explanations for Black’s accusations. Fudge, as we begin to suspect in this book, isn’t a great Minister of Magic. He’s worried about image and optics more than justice, and he’s more convinced of his own power than he is understanding of people’s reservations about the dementors. It’s a small thing in this particular book, but this aspect of the story become extremely important later on. Rowling is not a huge fan of government, it seems. That aside, everything mostly works out. It’s pretty much the last time one of these novels ends on a high note. Harry, who has a new father figure/pen pal, has pulled off more cool shit successfully, and is able to look forward to a better summer than previously. For all the danger and revelations, the tone of Azkaban is still mostly light and adventurous. Harry might be on the cusp of adolescence, but there is still a measure of childlike wonder both in himself and in the story as a whole. Like everything else, this changes. And that change comes at you quick.

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I think it was maybe a little too soon to try and have Harry pull off the ‘cool guy walking into the wind’ look.

A Note on the Movie

The third film welcomes a new director, and as such a new vision of Hogwarts and the wider world. Alfonso Cuarón brings a crisper version of Rowling’s world, one where the school seems a touch less cozy and touch more dangerous. This, of course, fits the tone of the book pretty well. There’s still a general sense of wonder, and I forgot how hard Cuarón brings the jokes. There are a ton of silly one-off bits that pop up throughout the film which generally have nothing to do with anything, but they help keep things light to balance out all the dementors and hippogriff beheading. This movie also marks the point where the novels become too complicated to adapt intact. There’s quite a bit of story that gets left on the cutting room floor, and I’m totally fine with that. These movies all work better once you’ve enjoyed the source material, and therefore obvious sacrifices must be made when trying to make it work for the screen. The movie does a good enough job streamlining a complicated plot while capturing the overall feel of the novel that I have little to complain about. I don’t really need to watch a full season of Quidditch, after all. Adaptations are always going to miss fun details and make arbitrary changes, but nothing here is a deal breaker. Besides: jokes!

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

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Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizard Racists Suck * 1999

Synopsis

As we saw with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling spends a good deal of time in these early novels building the world up so she can basically tear it down over the course of the series. That first novel was mostly about cementing Hogwarts and the wizarding world at large as a realized place. Most of the principal characters were also introduced, however in deference to Harry’s age, most of the character depth found in this series comes gradually. As I progress through the series, it’s almost appalling how subtle and effective Rowling is with building not only the world but the people in it and how they interact with each other. These first two books, which are generally told from the perspective of extremely inexperienced preteens, present things much more broadly than the later books do. In the first book, Snape was the big bad red herring. In this book, Draco Malfoy takes over that role. The Slytherins are all just bad people, Malfoy is basically a caricature at this juncture, and anyone in Gryffindor are clearly the Good Guys.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is very close in structure to the first novel, and it has a similar tone, especially compared with later entries in the series. However, Chamber of Secrets isn’t a retread (although I’ve heard that criticism before). What Rowling is doing with this book is layering her world, and creating expectations of how things work so that they can be subverted later on as the principal characters grow and learn. For instance, these first two novels place a lot of emphasis on the inter-house competitions and Quidditch. As the series progresses, the importance of these things fall by the wayside as real world events become paramount and Harry and his posse grow up. Those losses wouldn’t have the same impact later on, however, if Rowling didn’t put the work in here.

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This… this is a bad cover. It’s like they forgot to finish drawing Harry’s face and Hedwig is like “Nah, I’m outta here.”

The main characters in Chamber of Secrets are all twelve, and they have twelve-year-old priorities. One of the things that Rowling does so well is adapt each book to the age of the protagonists, Harry especially, which is why the tone of the novels is constantly changing. I’ll mention this probably five more times as we work through the series, but Harry’s coming of age is the crux of these books, and Rowling does it better than I’ve ever seen.

All of that is in the future though, because now we’re still in Year Two and life is nothin’ but a good time. Actually, that’s not true, even though Harry doesn’t have to kill a guy in this one. In case you’ve forgotten, or have not checked out this series, this is the one where Dobby shows up and starts fucking with Harry, it’s the one with the flying car, it’s the one with Gilderoy Lockheart and Moaning Myrtle, and it’s the one where everyone starts getting petrified. Already, the tone is a shade darker than the first novel, because of the creeping terror surrounding the opening of the Chamber of Secrets. This is an aspect of the second book that’s another layer on an already well-realized world, thematically speaking. The first book was mostly concerned with the realities of the wizarding world – oh ha ha, there’s jelly beans that taste like earwax. However, beginning with this book and definitely moving forward, we become more aware that wizards and witches are, at heart, just people. And a lot of times people suck.

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Now this is nice. All whimsical and pleasant, like you’d expect.

Discussion

If you’re going to pick a single theme out of Chamber of Secrets, it’s that some people are racists and racists always fucking suck. Now, there’s an idealized nature to the world of Harry Potter. From what I can tell, there’s no actual racism, or sexism, or any kind of LGBT-phobia. Witches and wizards appear to have equal footing in society, and race is only ever mentioned in context of what a person looks like or where they are from. Criticism can (and has) been levied at these books for not being more explicitly diverse, and from a certain perspective that’s valid. Yet there’s still no getting around the fact that thematically, Harry Potter books are about acceptance and equality. Instead of using real world problems and prejudices, however, the ingrained social bias in the wizarding world has to do with the family history of magic ability.

There’s a point midway through Chamber of Secrets where the Gryffindors are practicing their sick Quidditch moves when the no-good Slytherins show up and start trouble like they always do. Of course the two teams start sniping at one another, especially once Draco Malfoy pipes up about Slytherin’s new brooms and how poor people are inherently inferior – typical Draco shit, in other words. However, Hermione gets a good one in, and points out that Malfoy was only able to buy his way on the team because he, in fact, sucks flobberworm ass (pretty sure that’s what she said). His immediate response is “No one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood.” Everyone flips out. The Weasly twins jump at him while the rest of the Gryffindors are riotous. Ron tries to curse him but it backfires, and eventually the trio make their way to Hagrid’s cabin where Harry and Hermione are at a loss as to why everyone freaked out. Hagrid makes clear what we’ve already figured out: Draco just dropped the wizarding equivalent of the n-word on Hermione.

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First of all: spoilers on the cover, dang. Second, Harry needs a haircut. 

From this point onward, the slur “Mudblood” gets tossed around liberally, usually uttered by Slytherins at Muggle-born witches and wizards like Hermione. Later in the series, the derision of “pure-blood” wizards is extended to wizarding families like the Weaslys, who are referred to as “blood-traitors,” and if all this sounds familiar that’s because the further along we get in the series the more clear the parallels between Voldemort’s followers and Nazis become. Thematically, this doesn’t become truly paramount until book five, which holy shit, but here in Chamber of Secrets is where this unsavory aspect of the wizarding world is introduced. The whole point of this book is, after all, to bring about the “Heir of Slytherin,” who is of course Voldemort. As it happens, the O.G. Slytherin was a wizard racist too. This book adds another layer to the description of his house as “cunning,” which would be “pureblood.”

I have a question. Why were the other founders of Hogwarts friends with Slytherin if he was such a piece of shit? This deceptive motherfucker exploited the trust of the other three dudes, hid a secret weapon meant to dispatch mixed-blood wizards, and was otherwise a total douche. Maybe they didn’t know at the time, but after a few hundred years of bad wizards only coming out of one House maybe they should figure it out? Anyway, whatever, Harry goes down there and saves the day again. Not from actual Voldemort but from the weird ghost-teen version of himself that possessed poor Ginny and tried to murder Harry with a giant death-snake. That’s cool and all, but the book actually ends with a scene that’s more important in the long run, which is when Harry contrives to free Dobby from his servitude to the Malfoys. We’ve learned over the course of this book that not all wizards are cool. Lucius Malfoy, elitist aristocrat, is the actual villain here, although the whole house-elf-slavery thing will come back up in later novels. All is not necessarily well in the wider wizarding world, and they have as problematic history as the rest of humanity.

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This is a much improved poster. Harry looks ready to get into some shit, you know?

A Note on the Movie

The adaptation of Chamber of Secrets is a companion film to the first, as it has the same director and aesthetic and actors. It’s fine. If I remember correctly, this is the last of the films that doesn’t make drastic cuts to the source material. You see everything you expect to see, and the tone is lighthearted and whimsical. Nothing really jumps out at me, other than the principal actors are all babies and that makes me feel ancient, like the Grand Canyon. I will say this about the Columbus films though: as films meant to encapsulate the tone of the first two books, I think he does an admirable job. Going forward, as the series gets darker, the right choices were made in moving on at director.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

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Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizards N’ Whatnot * 1997 (1998 in the U.S.)

Synopsis

Every once in a great while, someone comes up with a perfect idea and all you can do is shrug and accept their superiority and give them all the money in the world. There’s a common misperception that things which are popular cannot also be good. There’s plenty of incredibly popular trash out there that would seem to bolster this particular worldview. Twilight exists, after all, and Big Bang Theory is the number one comedy on television pretty much every year so I hear you, champions of culture. Sometimes, though, a bit of popular culture bubbles up and transcends mere trends and torrid cultural affairs with subpar art. Remember when The Da Vinci Code was a whole thing? No, I’m talking about the landmark, quality works of popular fantasy that become not just iconic, but fundamental to a culture. Oh, you think I’m hyperbolizing this? All told this series has sold more than 400 million copies. Books, mind you. With pages and everything. They don’t even light up. This particular book came out twenty years ago, and we are still going to theme parks and discussing how Dumbledore is actually a jerk sometimes. These are generational works. Kids will always love Harry Potter. This because the idea is perfect, and Rowling has the talent to execute the idea.

The only other foundational work of fantasy I can think of with a further reach than Harry Potter is Lord of the Rings, and even then Potter’s popularity as a book has always been greater. The only reason I’d say LotR is more foundational is because of its wide-reaching influence on all modern fantasy. Basically everything dubbed “high fantasy” is in debt to the structures Tolkien put into place. Everything from Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft to just about every cheap TOR paperback you’ve ever read rely on Tolkien’s work. Harry Potter can’t claim that kind of ongoing influence, even if the source material is way more accessible and arguably more widely beloved. If Tolkien’s world-building is top-tier – and it is, even if his prose is dense and minutia of his invented histories and languages are overwhelming – Rowling’s is right up there with him. Perhaps her greatest achievement is creating an entire new world out of nothing, and cementing it in the popular imagination with a breezy 309 pages.

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I enjoy this cover but that font is messing me up.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read through the series. So long, in fact, that I’ve misremembered details and forgot which plot points happen when. As I make my way through these books, I’ll often remember a thing maybe three pages before it actually happens and I’m like “oh yeah, that thing. Weird.” However, the long absence from this world has allowed me to come back and appreciate it all over again. In the past I’ve made the mistake of dismissing the first two books as inessential, that the series “doesn’t get good until the end of book three.” I’m happy to report that no, in fact, these books are good right away. The differences between the first few novels and the ending of the series are stark, of course. Most of this has to do with tone. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is an introduction to a brand new fantasy world in which the protagonist is introduced to this magical new world alongside the reader. This character is also eleven years old, and as such is ready to accept this new reality in which an entire hidden society exists alongside the more mundane reality in which he’s lived his whole life. Harry brings with him all the enthusiasm and wonderment of an eleven year old kid. The book carries that feeling throughout.

It’s tempting to dismiss Sorcerer’s Stone (or if you must be endlessly pedantic, Philosopher’s Stone) as a kid’s book since compared to the later books the tone is much lighter. However, it’s pretty clear from the onset that Rowling knows what she’s setting up. This first book sets the structure for the entire series, while simultaneously building a world. Everything that happens to Harry feels natural, from his miserable existence with the Dursley family (I know the abused black sheep is a trope, especially in British fiction, but someone call child services, dang) to his awkward-at-first friendships with Ron and Hermione. Everything we need to know about this world are taught to us here, right away. There are hints at the wizard-racism that becomes important later, alongside the more fun aspects of the wizarding world like Quidditch and Diagon Alley. With Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling pretty much drops a fully realized world in your lap like it’s no big deal. If that doesn’t impress you, then back to reruns of Big Bang Theory for you, I guess.

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I almost picked this version up when I was in the U.K. and then didn’t for some reason.

Discussion

So far, I haven’t talked much about the actual story of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Part of the reason is because I’m assuming anyone reading this is familiar with the Harry Potter universe, and probably loves it as much as me and the rest of humanity. I’m having a hard time envisioning anyone who’s never been into Harry Potter suddenly having a desire to dive in now. I know there’s plenty of people out there who go “Wizards? Feh, I hate fun and delight and joy.” They’re not reading this. Nah, anyone here knows what’s up. If you’re hazy on the plot of this first book, it’s one where the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is that wiener Quirrell and has Voldemort on the back of his head and our Heroic Trio have to utilize their skills to get past some obstacles before Harry saves the day by straight up murdering Quirrell. No really, at eleven years old Harry takes a life. He’s a stone cold killer, and it barely phases him. This is also the introduction to the nearly series-long red herring that is Severus Snape.

You know the story, then, which begs the question: what does this have to do with apocalyptic fiction? Well, if you’re familiar with the entire series arc, you wouldn’t be asking that. However, here in this introduction to this world, the stakes are much lower. Yeah, Voldemort is threatening to come back, but at this stage in the game we don’t have any real idea as to what that means. In the context of the story, the bad times were before Harry was even born (since it was baby Harry who ended them in the first place) and so there’s no first-hand experience with the darkness of Voldemort’s reign of terror. That comes later. Meanwhile, by the end of this first book, Voldemort is seemingly banished and everyone is free to continue their idyllic and quirky wizard existence.

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This is probably my favorite of the alternate covers. So much dang whimsy!

It’s the idea of this alternate universe which is so compelling, and I’m pretty sure is the reason that this series is so universally popular. I don’t know if you know this, but the modern world can be a huge bummer. It’s a paradox of human nature that we can continually improve our quality of life through technology and continue to be unhappy about it. Living in a civilized, modern country is obviously an easier life than it would have been 1000 years ago, but contentment is elusive. It’s no accident I’m reading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents alongside these novels, because in that work he fully explores the psychological reasoning behind our dissatisfaction with our own society. There’s an abstract sterility which comes with civilization, and the more we rely on rapid technological advances the more abstract our relationships with other become and as a result we become less happy. Harry Potter is emblematic of this discontent, because here comes this kid’s book with its fully realized universe and provokes your imagination to wonder: what if?

What if, just out of sight, is an entire world that has refused to move in tandem with technology? A whole society that functions on magic and an unending sense of wonder? A society that considers nothing to be impossible? That idea speaks to the modern reader at a fundamental level. All fantasy does this, of course, but because the world of Harry Potter is so well realized, the pull of the fiction works for just about everyone. Unlike something like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Potter’s world is within reach. It takes place here, on this very planet, juuust out of sight. These books tap into that latent human desire to believe in something greater than technology. That belief that somewhere, somehow, there’s a place that just does it better. And despite the manifold problematic issues that society has – all of which are distinctly human – the wizarding world is exactly that.

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This is a terrible poster, but look how tiny and cute everyone is!

A Brief Note on the Movie

As I complete my read-through of the series, I’m also watching the film adaptations. Aside from a few minutes here and there, I also haven’t seen many of these in years. Now, before watching the first movie, I had even more reservations than I did about the book. As we’ve seen, the book is still solid – fundamental, even. The first couple of Harry Potter movies don’t have a great reputation, I don’t think. However, the movie is doing the same work the book is doing and establishing an entirely new world. Chris Columbus was tasked with creating an entirely new visual language to try and evoke Rowling’s superb world, and I think he did a pretty good job with it. The plot is simplistic enough that not many sacrifices were made in regards to the plot and characters, and the many details that pop up throughout are vital to making Hogwarts a believable space. That said, yeah, this is a kid’s movie. Proceed accordingly.

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Iconoclasts

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Game * Konjak * Fantasy Religious Dystopia * 2018

Synopsis

Oh hey, it’s the first new game of the year that I’ve played. I suspect I will be looking at Monster Hunter World sidelong for a few months while I decide if I’m a Monster Hunter guy, but other than that it’s been a slow start to the year. Which is fine, considering the ridiculous release schedule from last year. Meanwhile, here’s Iconoclasts, which is a small, single-developer game that I had never heard of which has apparently been in development for like seven years. I kind of feel bad for the developer too, because right now the industry is in love with another indie darling, Celeste, and it feels like Iconoclasts has been eclipsed in the zeitgeist’s heart. That’s a shame, because I like this game quite a bit, despite a few rough edges here and there. If you need a one-phrase description, the game is a competent metroidvania situation with an above-average narrative.

I won’t get into particulars above the break, but the story is the main draw of Iconoclasts. As such, you should expect plenty of text, all of which is dialogue. If all you’re excepting the usual sparse, largely environmental storytelling that these games generally employ, then it might very well be too much for you. There is a decent cast of characters here, and they all have some shit to talk about. I happen to think that the story is mostly successful. There are narrative techniques here that I don’t often see in games, and honestly the story requires active participation from the player in order to piece everything together in a satisfying way. Not everyone has the patience for that, especially in a genre that is nearly always gameplay-first, and that’s totally fine. Just know what you’re getting into.

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There are quite a few cool boss fights, which with one exception are more fun than frustrating.

If you’re fine with the story structure of the game, then the narrative is actually pretty cool and the world building is pretty solid. You play as a young lady named Robin who is a mechanic. That seems like an innocuous thing, but in this society mechanics and engineers are forbidden on theological grounds. A lot of what happens over the course of the game is presented as just what happens in this world, and it’s up to the player to piece things together. It’s nowhere near as extreme as a Gene Wolfe novel, but it’s the same kind of thing. Robin isn’t a terribly well-developed character, but pretty much everyone she comes across is. Robin likes to help, that’s about it. The (near) silent protagonist is a trope I don’t like, but since this isn’t a first person game, the disconnect isn’t quite as severe as it could be. Anyway, this society relies on a substance known as “Ivory” to fuel all technology, and it is treated as a holy relic, the harvest and exploitation of which is a sacred endeavor open only to the church. There’s an enforcement agency known as One Concern, which uses force to keep everyone in line. Once Robin gets going on her adventure, however, the whole thing starts falling apart.

Robin sets off because the village where her brother lives is being attacked by One Concern, under the cover of something called “Penance.” This is like an orbital laser type deal and is attributed to the deity, “Him,” and is used when people sin. And by sin I mean pose a threat to One Concern and the exploitation of Ivory. Robin’s dad is already dead, and now her brother is in danger and her village is all fucked up and mad at her for helping, so now Robin’s on the run from One Concern with nothing but her wrench. The game itself is an open exploration game. Some areas are inaccessible until you gain new abilities, you probably know how this goes. There’s a map with boxes. The actual gameplay is probably the weakest part of Iconoclasts. I like it, it was fine, there were some frustrating bits, but whatever. There’s no gameplay surprises here, it’s all here to support the story.

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For the heaviness of the story, this game is bright and vibrant, which matches Robin’s optimistic helpfulness. 

Discussion

Okay, hold on a moment, I’ll get to that story but first I would like to complain about some of these game mechanics. And by “mechanics” I mean the mechanics of being a mechanic. Robin has a big wrench, which is how she interacts with the world. She also has a stun gun which eventually upgrades to lob bombs and also a weird reversy-laser, but the wrench is her identity. As you traverse the world, you come across various bolts which you can use your wrench on. Sometimes you tighten them up to open doors, sometimes you can hang from them, sometimes you can zip around on electrified tracks. All that’s cool, but it’s very finicky. There are areas in the game which are just big puzzle rooms, and they are fun, but there was more than a few times when a puzzle or a boss took longer than they needed to because despite knowing what to do, execution was chore. Sometimes Robin’s wrench doesn’t hit just so, and you’re fucked, which is frustrating. Also I guess I’m not in love with the upgrades, which for this kind of game is the big draw. They’re fine and functional, but nothing mind-blowing. Anyway, back to the stuff I like.

Now that I’ve finished the game, I’m still finding myself trying to piece together what actually happened. As noted, Robin is on the run. She keeps running afoul of One Concern, but is usually able to escape because she’s crafty. Her main pursuers are Agents. At first they just seem like scary hunters out to capture you by any means necessary. Agent Black, in particular, is short of patience and is seemingly the only competent Agent, and she very much wants to end you. However, as the story unfolds and we learn more about the nature of the world, we learn that the Agents are actually infused with the Ivory that powers the rest of the society’s technology, which makes them near-invincible. However, Robin is able to find temporary refuge with another community, a small group of “pirates” who live underwater.

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The Agents aren’t particularly open-minded.

These pirates have their own belief system which operates outside of One Concern and the rest of, uh, surface world (I don’t know that there’s a proper term used in the game). They appear to be a society of people descended from a colonial seedship, or maybe a team of ancient scientists. Their society is based on ancestor-worship of a kind, but is mostly reliant on plant-based science. You make a fiery pirate friend, Mina, who is motivated by wanderlust. She has a mom who constantly attempts to guilt her into staying home, and a friend Samba who is marginally less obnoxious about her desire for Mina to stay put. As the story moves along, the conflict between Mina and others not of her community keeps flaring up. Mina is extremely defensive about the society she is constantly trying to leave, and she lashes out at everyone who points this out. This happens a lot, because this group of characters are extremely entrenched in their own points of view.

I think this is what resonates for me about Iconoclasts. I mean, given the title it makes sense that pretty much everyone here has deeply held convictions which they feel are under attack. As a silent protagonist, it’s hard to say that Robin is responsible for much of anything happening in the narrative, so it’s a little weird when other characters are basically blaming her for everything falling apart. Her awful, obnoxious, sanctimonious little fucker of a brother blames her for constantly leaving him under the pretext of “protecting” her. He’s the goddamn worst and I’m glad he loses his arm. Little bitch. Royal, who is a pretentious little wiener, takes blame unto himself for being unable to properly communicate with what he assumes is a deity. Turns out nah, it’s an alien exploiting this society in order to easily harvest Ivory for itself. But since Robin’s only motivation is to help, she does so my murdering that fool. The tirades of the various characters are all cut off by the silent heroic action of Robin, who, job done, simply goes home and takes a nap. The story is impactful, especially in our current political climate, because the most important person is motivated simply, and isn’t trying to scream her unmoving position from the rooftops while everything falls apart. It’s good stuff, despite her wrench being unreliable sometimes.

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BS at the VS: Automata

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Film * Gabe Ibáñez * Solar Flare Apocalypse Also Robots * 2014

Synopsis

I really had no intention of this, uh, “feature,” becoming a catalogue of apocalyptic foreign films, but here we are anyway. At least this one is in English and features recognizable (to Americans) actors, even if it does hail from Bulgaria. Like all of these films, the budget is pretty slim, but what I’m seeing so far is that in a lot of cases, the small budget doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot. Automata looks good, you know? I like the robot designs, and the post-apocalyptic city is nice and grimy, and the stark, barren desert is also beautiful. Also like these other films, the story is kind of all over the place and never really cements into something that works as a narrative. Once again, this movie isn’t bad. There are some aspects that work better than others, and maybe it’s not the most satisfying film ever made, but it’s still coherent. It just kind of is, which I guess isn’t the most resounding endorsement.

One of the issues facing Automata is that it wants to do all the things all at once. I suspect there’s been a similar situation with all of these films so far, in that a director is given a few million dollars for the first time and they want to make the most of it. Automata in particular seems to want to do too many things. It wants to be an original post-apocalypse. The setup is that solar storms have wrecked such havoc on Earth that only like 20 million people are left. Most of the oceans have burnt off, and the vast majority of the landscape is now radioactive desert. The few remaining people have created a walled city from which they can hide from the poison atmosphere and surroundings. Automata would also like you to think fond thoughts of Blade Runner. The city has every appearance of a corporate dystopia, with giant holograms projected into the moody, rainy night sky. Oh, and also the film is about artificial intelligence becoming self-aware. It’s actually mostly about that last one, just couched in all this other stuff.

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There’s some cool faux old-timey shots about how the post-apocalyptic urban dystopia came about.

To be fair, the way these three different kinds of fucked-up future are married together is actually kind of cool. I like where the idea is going, even if I’m not in love with the results. Humanity is dying, and has contracted into a few large cities for survival. As such, many of the social structures we were dependent on are still intact. The protagonist, Jacq (played by the Nasonex bee), is an insurance claims adjuster, for crying out loud. So everyone’s in big, festering cities trying to reclaim the glory of human civilization and slowly failing. As such, technology has regressed – and this is the part that’s kind of cool. Everything is clunky and analogue, including the robots. The robots, which are actually reminiscent of the other Automata, are big and slow and chunky. Automata also borrows heavily from Asimov, in that these robots are limited by two protocols: you can’t harm living things but also you can’t repair yourself. Obviously, the robots find a way to circumvent those protocols.

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I enjoy the grimy, creepy AF dead-eyed holograms, and Jacq’s very preggo wife being utterly bored with them.

Discussion

Okay, so we’ve got Jacq, who is burnt out on his job and is looking old and grizzled and totally over the whole miserable dystopia on the edge of oblivion thing. Somehow, because movies I guess, this totally unremarkable dude has a beautiful young wife who is just about to have his baby. Given the state of the world, his wife Rachel was a moment where I was like, “age appropriateness aside, how on earth is this lady so bright and pretty and vital when literally everyone else is a sad lump?” Anyway, she’s mostly just there to act as a motivation for Jacq, which is unfortunate. There are two other major female characters. One, Melanie Griffith, is shot in the head by a child. The other is a sentient sexbot. I’m not going to go on a whole sexism rant, mainly because the only compelling characters of any kind are the robots, and they don’t actually do a whole hell of a lot.

Jacq, who becomes more insufferable as the film goes on, comes across a strange case of a “pilgrim” robot who is accused of repairing itself, which you may remember as violating one of the two protocols, which is supposed to be impossible. Anyone who’s into robot fiction knows that of course it’s possible, and you better buckle up because half the time when the robots become self-aware it’s bad news for humanity. Given the fragility of humanity in this movie, self-aware robots would likely have little trouble finishing us off. Considering how humans behave in Automata, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. By the end of the movie I was actively hoping that the robots finally rise up and start murdering these assholes, and I was disappointed that they took the moral high ground. Ugh, we’re the worst species. Anyway, the robots of course are thinking for themselves, but they’re not terribly interested in human activity, even if they’re still seemingly bound by their first protocol, which forbids them from harming humans.

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Humans are jerks. Also get a load of all these doughy, dumpy, dumbfucks.

Automata kind of goes off the rails about halfway through, and I rather lost the thread of what it was going for. After all, for as cool as the setup for the movie is, it’s still trying to do entirely too many things, so the fact that it bogs down and fails to capitalize on any one thing isn’t a surprise. There’s a sudden shift away from the weird, post-apocalyptic noir thing it had going on in the beginning to a tepid message of robot acceptance at the end. Things end up going sideways for poor Jacq, and his own company tries to murder him. He’s saved by Cleo the sexbot and some other sentient robo-buddies, if by “saved” you mean “doomed to a slow death by radiation.” Turns out they have a hidey-hole in the desert, and they’re creating robo-life out there where humans can’t go. Until they do, and they bring guns, and the robots are like “oh no we never expected this please stop shooting our heads.” None of this feels terribly connected to the beginning of the film, even when there’s a clumsy attempt to bring Rachel (and her baby) back as a foil for Jacq.

Here’s the thing about robot fiction and sentient A.I.’s in general: stories need to start pushing further than “are sentient machines alive?” There’s a lot of screaming and yelling in Automata about how impossible it is for a machine to be alive, but that runs counter the past fifty years of science fiction. By now, we know that once artificial intelligence becomes self-aware it will be a new form of life. Johnny 5 is alive, motherfuckers, we know this! It’s like zombie movies where the characters don’t know what zombies are. It’s frustrating as a viewer when the people onscreen are somehow exempt from decades of culture. That’s why something like last year’s Nier: Automata was so refreshing. Every character in that game is an artificial construct, and therefore consider themselves alive – that’s the basis. The rest of the story is figuring out what that means in the context of the larger world. Instead, this film is content to pore over the same worn territory, which squanders the intriguing initial setup, and that’s a shame.

Posted in Artificial Intelligence, Bottom Shelf, Corporations, Desolation, Film | Leave a comment

Robopocalypse

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Novel * Daniel H. Wilson * The Title is Pretty Self-Explanatory * 2011

Synopsis

Is it possible to be disappointed in a book that a) I had never heard of before picking up, and b) has a title like Robopocalypse? Like, I know I’m one to talk what with the name of the blog and all, but I’m also not selling anything to people. As you might surmise, this is a novel about robots overthrowing civilization. You know, like that episode of Futurama. Between the title, and the cover, and pretty much everything about this book apparent at a glance, I didn’t expect much. I was hoping for a pulpy, borderline silly romp. There are times when that’s what I got. Yet I think the overall issue I have with the novel is that there’s a good deal of ambition here that’s not matched by what’s actually on the page. There are lots of good, interesting ideas here. The execution of those ideas never really comes together, however. The story just kind of meanders, and the rest of the action is never quite over-the-top enough to compensate for the lack of coherent characterization or narrative. That sounds like a sick burn, but at least the book is breezy enough not to feel oppressive in its mediocrity.

Let’s roll back a little bit and set up what this novel actually is. Robopocalypse is a near-future sci-fi story about a self-aware artificial intelligence that infiltrates the world’s networks. Like self-aware A.I. are wont to do, Archos pretty much instantly judges humanity and finds us wanting. Civilization is a cancer, and we must be wiped out. The variation on this story in Robopocalypse is actually a neat subversion. Instead of going all Skynet and letting fly with the nukes, Archos is fascinated with life. All life. Therefore, it is suboptimal to simply blow everything up, or release plagues which could threaten other species. Civilization is the problem, so the solution Archos comes up with is to infect the machines rather than the humans. In this near-future version of our reality, robots continue to advance. All technology becomes “smart,” in which it communicates with other tech and world-wide networks. Once Archos is able to infiltrate and subvert that network, it can compromise the planet’s robot community and force them to turn on humanity.

Once that happens, civilization falls pretty quick. One thing Robopocalypse does well is underscore just how dependent we’ve become on technology, and how integrated into our social structures it’s become. Most of the damage done to civilization isn’t from automated war machines, it’s done by domestic robots and other common machines, such as smart cars and the like. Your phone starts lying to you, alerting you to emergency services and directing you to safe zones that turn out to be death camps. Once the malevolent super-intelligence takes over, the cities collapse almost immediately. Those who live in rural communities fare better, and the book’s protagonists center around an Indian tribe out in the middle of Oklahoma since they weren’t attacked right away. Because of course humanity fights back. Since Archos doesn’t go scorched earth on us, that gives humans the opportunity to do what we do best and adapt to the evil A.I.’s tactics.

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Probably halfway through I was just thinking about this episode constantly. “No, Comrade Bender. Liquor is the opiate of the human bourgeoisie.”

Discussion

The setup, then, is pretty cool. Not the most original thing in the world, but whatever, I’ve long held the belief that tropes and clichés are acceptable as long as they’re done well. And to Wilson’s credit, he tries to do something different with this particular malevolent A.I. story. Unfortunately, the narrative tricks used don’t work particularly well. Now, I’ve haven’t read World War Z (yet, it’s on my list), but I understand that it’s written in a sort of oral history style, in which the author writes from a variety of perspectives which illustrates a broad spectrum of an apocalyptic event. It seems to me that Robopocalypse was going for a similar effect, except with an apocalypse that could actually happen. The novel begins with the ending. The ragtag human resistance finally storms Archos’ underground hidey-hole in the wilds of Alaska and unplug it. Yay, humans! Once they pull the physical manifestation of Archos’ brain out of the tundra, the narrator character realizes that he can interface with it and cobble together the story of the war using various means, like surveillance cameras and phone transcripts and the like. The rest of the novel is laid out thusly, a series of snippets from various perspectives.

That’s actually a cool idea, you know? An apocalyptic event of any kind is rather beyond us. Humans have a hard time with large numbers of concrete things, which includes each other. Our brains aren’t equipped to process something like 10,000 people, so we have to abstract it. Once something is abstracted, scale becomes a difficult thing to capture. So using a structure like the one laid out in this novel could help convey scope and scale to the sheer size of the disaster. The first few chapters of the book unfold just like I expected, given the framing at the beginning. There’s an early chapter that’s a transcript between a cop and a victim of a robo-crime. A deranged domestic robot breaks into the shop where this kid is working and tries to kill him and his coworker. The chapter is just a window into a society at the very beginning of the coming apocalypse. There’s a chapter that’s the transcript of a hearing about a military officer who lost control of their peacekeeping robot. The first section of the novel shows a lot of promise in its scattershot depiction of a world slowly falling apart as the robots take over.

The downside of this approach is that you lose the ability to tell a proper story about a central group of characters. If you stick to the above structure, what you’re really doing is telling a series of short stories set in the same world. That is a totally acceptable way to do things, and in this instance I think Robopocalypse would have been a much stronger work if had stuck to that structure. That first section is by far the best, with the most vibrant ideas and the most compelling storytelling. The problem is that Wilson also wants to tell a longer story with familiar characters and tie everything into a continuous narrative, and it just doesn’t work. The book basically splits the difference between a series of framed short stories and a traditional novel, and both aspects suffer as a result. After that first section, when we start circling back to characters we’ve already met, the novelty of their situation and perspective is gone. Yet at the same time there simply isn’t enough time spent with them to flesh out their characters. The narrative is still fragmented, but the characters are the same, so now the structure is working against the story. By the end I’m simply not vested in anybody or what they’re doing, not only because I already know they win in the end, but because what they’re doing in the interim isn’t compelling.

I had next to no expectations when I picked up this book. I was looking for something quick and dirty, a nice pulpy in-between kind of book. Instead, for the first 100 pages or so, I was pleasantly surprised by it. Robopocalypse rudely adjusted my expectations, setting them much higher than when I first bought the book. As a result, I’m probably a little more down on the novel than I otherwise would be. It’s still a pulpy good time – there are some brutal action scenes in here that are thrilling and fun. However, this still isn’t the book I wanted. And to be fair, the book I want is the one promised in that first 100 pages. The following two-thirds of the story simply don’t keep that promise, which is a bummer.

Posted in Artificial Intelligence, Books | Leave a comment