Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Book 1 of Harry Potter)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997), J. K. Rowling. Paperback, 320 pages. 

Summary: A boy discovers that he is the only survivor of an attack on his family by an evil magical lord, and his parentage qualifies him to attend a magical school in a magical world that exists parallel to Britain. For a more detailed summary, click here.

     "Call me Hagrid," he said, "everyone does. An' like I told yeh, I'm Keeper of Keys at Hogwarts -- yeh'll know all about Hogwarts, o'course." 
     "Er -- no," said Harry. 
     Hagrid looked shocked. 
     "Sorry," Harry said quickly. 
     "Sorry?" barked Hagrid, turning to stare at the Dursleys, who shrank back into the shadows. "It's them as should be sorry! I knew yeh weren't gettin' yer letters but I never thought yeh wouldn't even know abou' Hogwarts, fer cryin' out loud! Did yeh never wonder where yer parents learned it all?" 
     "All what?" asked Harry. 
     "ALL WHAT?" Hagrid thundered. "Now wait jus' one second!" 
     He had leapt to his feet. In his anger he seemed to fill the whole hut. The Dursleys were cowering against the wall. 
     "Do you mean ter tell me," he growled at the Dursleys, "that this boy -- this boy! -- knows nothin' abou' -- about ANYTHING?" 
     Harry thought this was going a bit far. He had been to school, after all, and his marks weren't bad. 
     "I know some things," he said. "I can, you know, do math and stuff." 
     But Hagrid simply waved his hand and said, "About our world, I mean. Your world. My world. Yer parent's world." 
     "What world?" 
     Hagrid looked as if he was about to explode. 
     "DURSLEY!" he boomed. 
     Uncle Vernon, who had gone very pale, whispered something that sounded like "Mimblewimble." Hagrid stared wildly at Harry.
     "But yeh must know about yer mom and dad," he said. "I mean, they're famous. You're famous."


Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 4/10

Rounded Characters: 5/10

Well-Developed World: 7/10

Page Turner: 9/10

Kept Me Thinking: 4/10

Overall Recommendation: 6/10


Writing Quality: 6/10. From the get-go, Rowling displays a quick wit and and a facility for fun, quirky description that sets up a wild romp with magic and lighthearted humor, as well as surprisingly distinct characters. For instance, she doesn't just explain that Dumbledore has long hair and beard, but says that "both were long enough to tuck into his belt," giving us a fun and slightly absurd image that strikes a little at T. H. White's descriptions of Merlyn in The Once and Future King. The character dialogue is full of fun back-and-forth, spiced up by hilarious descriptions of and demonstrations of a magical world that we and Harry know little about at first. Having said that, Rowling rarely offers a line with the kind of poetry that we can find in The Once and Future King, or Gaiman's A Graveyard Book, or Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. And there are moments of dialogue that falter a bit in creative description, such as when a shocked Harry simply repeats, over and over again, the last word Hagrid says, without any trace of narrative irony. But if she sometimes falters, her writing and wit are mostly consistent.

Depth of Concept: 4/10. This isn't where Harry Potter shines. It's a coming-of-age story, told lightheartedly and without any particularly special insight into what makes a young boy tick. In that respect, it feels inferior to the graceful, sometimes sophisticated touch that Gaiman uses with a much simpler story in the The Graveyard Book, or what White does with brilliantly fleshing out a legend about a young Arthur. Still, there are those who would argue that Rowling includes a lot of social commentary, alluding to stratified class systems and social prejudices, peer pressures and social anxieties. They'd be right. Rowling's treatment of those themes is nothing very surprising, but still pleasantly satirized. For kids that may be enough, but it didn't make this adult think overly much. There's nothing so ambiguous, harrowing, yet mind-expanding as what you might find in Lois Lowry's The Giver, for instance. Or as intellectually sophisticated as what you'd find in Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. Or as emotionally honest about broken homes as what you'd find in Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee. Yet, inasmuch as Harry Potter became the bestselling series of all time, and the films based on it became the bestselling film franchise of all time, I think there's room to consider why the Potter story line struck such a chord with the public as a whole, and not merely children. I think it has more to do with the writing quality, the world-building, and the pacing, but I'm open to suggestions otherwise.

Rounded Characters: 5/10. The characters are sometimes charicaturish, but inasmuch as they stand for a certain archetype, they typically do so with a flare that makes them a whole lot of fun. And while many characters are not particularly real, they are very rarely flat. Unfortunately, Harry Potter himself is one of the less-interesting characters in the novel, and can't be said to achieve particularly insightful growth over the course of the novel. I've not read the other books in the series, and I know there are those who will say that the growth is there if you'll just read them through to the end . . . but since Rowling released it as a stand-alone book, that's how I've read it. When I have more time, I'll probably finish the series. But not right now.

Well-Developed World: 7/10. Although Rowling borrows liberally from the lore of many other great fantasy writers, and generally from a slew of different myths and legends, she combines together such a delicious and eclectic smattering of magical elements and creatures that the result is a really original expression of a magical world. And the transition between the regular world of Muggles and the magical world of wizards is done with impressive smoothness. In many books that create a whole other world and society, less capable authors have failed to create the sense that there is anything beyond the immediate settings that his or her characters are involved in. Rowling is not so limited, and it's always a fun anticipation to see what new aspect of the world we will see next. This, I think, combined with Rowling's consistently witty voice, really make the book shine.

Page Turner: 9/10. Rowling hits the perfect pace in this novel. It's just right for any reader starting at about eight years old, and it makes for a fast-paced but still pleasurable experience for an adult. If Rowling didn't score high in a few other areas (writing quality, well-developed world), this wouldn't matter so much, but I think that her really spot-on pacing allows both kids and adults to launch into the story and barely come up for a breather until the end; it is just so packed full of fun little gems, new settings, and off-kilter descriptions.

Kept Me Thinking: 4/10. Not particularly, I was having too much fun rushing through the story.

Overall Recommendation: 6/10. I might consider scoring this higher, but I think that it doesn't quite make it past fun and into really meaningful, which I typically hope for even in novels for young people (I mentioned some that are quite meaningful: The Giver, Maniac Magee, The Golden Compass). Terry Pratchett, for instance, is sometimes able to get a little more meaningful despite his silliness, whether through some surprisingly poignant character interactions, or through really intelligent farce and satire. With Pratchett (a review of Night Watch is forthcoming) there are moments when I am honestly moved, and I can't say the same for Rowling's first novel. In less humorous novels, I see people like Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising series) developing a greater sense of purpose and maturation in her characters. And Rowling just doesn't quite match Gaiman's poetic prose. But as a diversion for an afternoon, to fill the time on a boring car or plane ride, or while on the pot, it works just fine. And I have to say, that I'd much rather read these with my daughter, as she gets older, than the Babysitters' Club.

As a final note, I want to be clear that I am judging Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on its own merits, and not in its relation to the series as a whole (which I have not yet completed). This review considers a single novel (that's the way it was first released, after all!), and I concede that as I read further books, my appreciation for the series as a whole may evolve from what I gathered from this gateway book to the series. Eventually I hope to read and rate each subsequent book individually, and perhaps the series as a whole.

Books To Compare: There were "wizard school" books before Rowling wrote hers, and T. H. White's Once and Future King is probably one of the first and best (although nobody would describe it as merely a wizard school book). White's is more sophisticated, more meaningful, and probably appropriate for a slightly older audience. But that doesn't mean Rowling's is bad, just that it has some impressive precursors. Now, some interesting comparisons might be made to many of the older Medieval tales that involve characters being transported into the faerie world, a world parallel/overlapping our everyday world. Obviously The Faerie Queene does that, but it's a lot more allegorical and religious than what Rowling does. Many of the lais of Marie de France involve adventurers who pass into magical realms and encounter magical creatures, before returning to their own mundane world. You could argue that something similar happens in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Of course C. S. Lewis' Narnia chronicles are famous for this, but there's a lot less hopping around between worlds in Lewis' works, and you don't quite get the sense that the worlds are overlapping. Much the same occurs with Peter Pan. Ultimately, there is a quick wit and charm to what Rowling writes that is decidedly modern, and that you can find among her peers in the 20th century, perhaps most clearly in Roald Dahl before Rowling shot to prominence. If you liked Rowling's quick wit but want more adult perspectives, Terry Pratchett is a pretty solid option. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on Amazon.

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