I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows after several days of fearfully rapid reading, concerned for the inevitability that the fate of the beloved characters would somehow be revealed to me ahead of time. Mercifully, I made it through without issue and now wish to discuss. But in the interest of those who have not yet finished and don’t want even a chance of spoiling the end, I’ll use the under-used (on ironSoap, at least) jump to prevent inadvertent plot leaks because I don’t want to be held back from the conversation.
It’s worth saying up front that in the wash of deserved praise Rowling will get for her now-completed work, book seven is by far one of the worst of the series from a strictly literary perspective. The Amazon.com book review notes that the Harry Potter books have suffered from a progressive lack of editorial guidance which is probably due to a misguided notion that Rowling sells a vulgar number of copies of each book so obviously she must know what she’s doing. The hands-off approach works for legions of Potter fans because they were so enraptured by the breezy, whimsical joy-bombs that made up the first three books. Had Rowling been let off the reins back then and let her propensity for meandering diversion show itself as strongly then as now with skillions of dollars under her belt perhaps the series would not have attained such a following. She’s still a very clever and entrancing writer but I think her books would be as good as her stories if they weren’t treated as untouchable relics that need no surgical fat trimming.
Anyway, it hasn’t been about the strength of the writing since about halfway through book four: We’ve been pulled along because we need to see how this thing ends. Now we know.
I found it a bit disorienting that in light of all the “will Harry live or die” brouhaha prior to the book’s release the answer to the question was really “yes.” I can’t tell if Rowling was so conflicted over which way to go with the character that she felt the need to have it both ways or if this had been the intention for as long as the question had presented itself to her. I found that in my own reading I was comfortable with the inevitability when it seemed that Harry was going to be forced to make the ultimate sacrifice: Yes, this is how it should be. When it came to pass that he was able to remain The Boy Who Lived after all, I was just as happy. The end result, I suppose, is that Rowling merely proved she could have handled the darker path with aplomb but ultimately either chickened out or felt the hero deserved a more pedestrian triumph.
And really, that’s how I found the final 100 or so pages: Rather pedestrian. All three main heroes survive and live fairy tale-esque happy lives. Ho hum. The biggest tragedy is the death of one twin who leaves behind a) a nearly indistinguishable doppleganger (I always found it odd that neither Fred nor George were ever given anything resembling individual personalities) and b) a large and improbably intact family. That Tonks and Lupin were felled was unfortunate, but hardly emotionally resonant especially in light of the fact that the parallel between their new son Ted and Harry himself wasn’t really explored. I don’t know who else I would have picked to die but since most of the principal characters survived, that meant that the only real resonant deaths that resulted from Voldemort’s supposed return and reign of terror were Sirius, Mad-Eye Moody and Dumbledore. Considering what we now know about Dumbledore’s demise (note that ESR called almost the entire thing, except for Draco Malfoy’s fate, nearly two years ago to the day) that pretty much means that despite the way it was presented, Voldemort’s return was hardly impacting: Not nearly as much as his original rise to power had been.
It may sound like I’m being kind of hard on Deathly Hallows. I suppose I am, in a way. For all the indications of how the series would progress, it felt the most disconnected of all the books. At least in the other recent chapters there was still the thrill of Hogwarts to ground the books in their whimsical places. Book seven found the characters wandering randomly around the countryside performing macguffin tasks and wasting valuable pages on pointless adventures and mistakes that neither ratcheted the tension nor provided much delight. By the time we catch up with Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows all the good stuff has already happened. I felt as though I would have rather read a book about what happened to Neville Longbottom before Harry, Ron and Hermione showed up than the other way around. I like that Rowling aged not only her characters over the life of the series but also her tone from book to book, but this book is so far removed from The Sorcerer’s Stone that it frequently feels like it might be from a different set altogether.
There are good things about the book, though. The way Rowling was able to incorporate elements from earlier books, especially during the latter third of Deathly Hallows, is welcome and clever. I doubt in many ways that these connections to earlier adventures were planned from the outset but unlike some connect-the-dot moments in other serials (ahem, Lost), they didn’t feel faked or forced. I like that at long last we see a lot of what makes Dumbledore tick and it feels genuine and he comes across as a well-rounded and complete character. One thing Rowling has always done well is give her protagonists real flaws so that we aren’t constantly reading about Superman. Dumbledore, like Harry, we find to be a genuinely good, well-intentioned and wise person but certainly not without problematic and worrisome aspects to his personality. Also the Epilogue was, in spite of its general corniness, a welcome and fitting close for the whole run.
A few things that have no bearing on anything of consequence but that I didn’t care for: The way Neville’s acquisition of Gryffindor’s sword from the Sorting Hat was never even remotely explained; the manner in which Draco Malfoy played practically zero role in the climax of the book/series except in a second-hand way by providing the means for his parents’ implied redemption; the lack of logic behind the secrecy of Harry’s mission to destroy the Horcruxes (even if he himself was the seventh, I fail to see how having Ron and Hermione’s help alone versus the entire Order of the Phoenix would have changed anything); the obtuse symbolism of the creature in King’s Cross Station during Harry’s vision/dream/visit to the afterlife; and finally, the lack of clear indication of how Harry, Ron and Hermione turned out aside from a general sense of happiness and their families. Some professions, perhaps? Living locations (did Harry and Ginny end up at Twelve Grimmauld Place)? A description of how they look at least?
Some minor things I did like about Deathly Hallows were: The chapter where the truth about Snape was revealed at last; the emergence of Ron—finally!—as a standalone heroic character; the focus once again on the three main protagonists without as much interference from secondaries; the fitting send-off for Dobby; the non-cop-out resolution of Harry’s relationship with his aunt and uncle plus the extra charm of Dudley’s last-minute decency that didn’t quite make up for everything else; the lack of time and space-wasting recap exposition; and the generally clear descriptions of the battle scenes taking place at Hogwarts. Often authors don’t effectively explain the whos and whats of large-scale action sequences but I felt the Battle of Hogwarts was easy to visualize.
Anyway, these are just my scattered thoughts and impressions. If you’ve finished the book, drop me a comment and let me know what you thought. What I’m really wondering at this point is what Ms. Rowling will do next. More books in the same universe with different characters? Something completely different? Retirement? I want to know.