Saturday, July 21, 2007

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (SPOILERS)

I wasn't going to buy Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows. I could have scraped together the money, but at the moment if I have a spare $35 sitting around it should go to the lock-out fund. But I remembered that I had a $20 Whitcoulls voucher, and wanted nothing more than to read the book in one sitting, and it was an enjoyable and engrossing five hours or so.

A lot of what bothered me in the last few books really worked in this one. There's much better pacing and much less artificial tension, and plots that only exist because the characters aren't talking to each other. From the seven Harrys on I was totally there for the ride. When I ended the book, I felt satisfied (the epilogue was another matter), and I was certainly cheering at times.

As I've said before, I love serial story-telling. The only thing I like better than enjoying serial story-telling is picking apart serial story-telling. I like the sense of collective ownership that fans feel over these stories.

So I'm going to spend rather a lot of words analysing the meaningover the meaning of these stories, what I liked about them, and what didn't work for me. If you don't enjoy this then go somewhere else. I'm using headings because I'm too tired for transitions.

Fight back
My favourite line was when Harry Potter can't find a good memory for a Patronus and Neville (or Luna or someone) says "We're still fighting, what's a happier memory than that?" I'm a sucker for messages about the joy and strength that comes from fighting together.

There's been a real tension in between the single hero who must go it alone, and the idea that people are stronger together than they are alone. I've not time for individualistic super-hero crap, so I've been glad that the tension has generally been resolved on the side of fighting together.

But I felt this book took the idea a little bit further than any of the previous books had, as Dumbledore's secrecy and authority were undermined. I think she could have gone further than this, and with Dumbledore's ambiguity (although I liked what we got).

We also got people challenging Harry for acting alone, not just Ron and Hermione, but most of Hogwarts by the end, and Harry agreed they were right, and couldn't have won without them.

Of course that doesn't make Harry Potter an ode to collective action, Harry does act alone, and wouldn't have succeeded out there. But I don't think it buys into the individualistic super-hero crap which drives me nuts in many fantasy books.

J K Rowling is a genre children's writer - most of what she's writing makes more sense when you know the genres she's writing in (I don't love the fact that she chooses the genre over sense, politics and at times characters). In the later books she's been pulling in world war two genres, and I think it works really well. I thought the creeping fascism of the ministry was very well done, and creepy. The scene's in the ministry of magic were particularly powerful.

I've preferred the books where our heroes were the resistance (5 and 7) than the others where they were more clearly part of the establishment. In this context the basic obstacles of the beginning, staying hidden, finding food and fighting boredom, worked really well. I also loved Lee's radio show (and could have used more of it actually, it'd be nice if it had been the consistent way our members had found out about the outside world - although would it have killed her to have a single female character on the show?). While the dangers of fascism isn't the most challenging message (although she has deliberately drawn parallels with post-September 11 Britain and US policy), I much prefer Harry, Ron and Hermione fighting the government, than being part of it.

The only way the occupation parallel didn't work for me, was the amount of collaboration at Hogwarts, which creeped me right out. Hogwarts was incredibly violent and abusive, bad enough that it would have done real damage to the students. Teachers like McGonagall just tried to mitigate that damage rather than fighting back. I think that decision was a serious one and should have been given more weight.

I think she should have killed off more people, Fred, Tonks, Lupin, Colin Creevy Crabbe (or was it Goyle) and Snape (although that was clearly inevitable)? And fifty people we've no idea who they are? The ratio of named deaths to unnamed deaths seemed far too high to me, particularly since the people we knew were shown as being in the centre of the battle. If she wasn't prepared to even kill off Hagrid, Luna or Neville, she should have killed some more Weasleys, teachers, or other characters who we'd known for seven books.

I also felt she fumbled a bit with Fred's death - the tragedy of Fred's death is George continuing on without them, much more than Molly Weasley's rage (although I'm not complaining about Molly Weasley taking action). I found Dobby's death easily the most moving and important in the book.

I said that the relationships would annoy me, and the idea of them certainly did. Why is it in fantasy everyone has to have met and got together with their soul-mate and life-partner by the age of 17? They're cookie dough; they're not done baking.

Having said that, I actually quite enjoyed Ron and Hermione. Their difficulties and uncertainties about each other, their unwillingness to declared. The way they treated each other didn't set off any dysfunction alarm bells for me (this is quite a major achievement really) Even Ron's attempt at suave moves in the beginning didn't annoy me; they were about him being nice, rather than about him being a dick. Which meant that I could appreciate that the reason he was turning to books for his moves was because he was really insecure about his position (I thought his fears that came out when he were trying to destroy the Horcrux were quite well done). When they finally get together, it's because Ron was listening to Hermione. She finally snogs him when he thinks about the house elves in the final battles. This seemed as good a basis for a relationship as any to me.**

But Harry & Ginny - 'I'm going to leave you because I'm putting you in danger' is my least favourite relationship device ever.**** Mostly because it usually just rings so false, it's a false attempt to create tension, where there's no real reason for it. If Harry and Ginny had just kept their relationship secret and made out at every opportunity the book would have been just the same. He wouldn't actually have put her in danger by kissing her (and she was doing a pretty good job of putting herself in danger).

What I find so frustrating about this, is that limiting women's choices for them is portrayed as a romantic act. Ginny's a smart girl, she can understand danger, he could have told her what his worries were and they could have made decisions together. Loving someone shouldn't mean limiting their agency.

But what's really odd is that the 'I'm a danger to you, I cannot be with you' plot was also part of Lupin and Tonks story. I guess I just don't understand where this plot comes from. Do people in times of danger break up supposedly to protect their partner? It seems completely unlikely to me. There aren't many circumstances where the enemy can use a relationship against you in real life. When authors use this device is there a real emotion that they're trying to map onto? Or are they just using it for cheap tension?

What I did like that the book ultimately valued friendship. Luna Lovegood's picture of Harry, Hermione, Ron, Neville and Ginny was awesome (if we had to have an epilogue couldn't we have found what she was doing).* The entire book is structured around Ron, Hermione and Harry, and the fact that Ron and Hermione start making out doesn't change the dynamic of that friendship. In the end it's Ron and Hermione that Harry turns to, even though he's decided that he's not a danger to Ginny anymore (I'm still rolling my eyes).

Ultimately the Harry Potter stories were about the power of love. But not the abstract hippy sort of 'all you need is love', but the very real love we have for people we care about. That loving one person can be transformative and the love of one person can be translated outwards to help you fight for everyone.

This idea was shown in all the characters on our side, over and over again, in the friendships they made and kept and the way they fought together. It was shown with Snape and Lily, even though that was infinitely predictable. But I thought it was the Malfoys that showed this idea most powerfully, when their love for each other, eventually led them to take a stand against Voldemort.

I'm not entirely convinced by this idea. I think in the real world our enemies are as capable as loving as we are. But I do think there is hope in love. I think most of us who fight for a better world get our strength to fight not from the abstract idea of people, but the concrete reality of the people we love.

There are worse messages for a generation of children to grow up with.

The epilogue was the most disappointing part of the book, partly because it was so trite and predictable. But also because it showed that they had just saved the world, not changed it.* While I was reading it I hoped that the book would go further than it did. During the book the wizards attitudes towards Muggles, Goblins and House-elfs were all shown to be limited. The Ministry of Magic consistently acted in their own interests, not in the interests of the people. Defeating Voldemort was not enough. I didn't need them to succeed in this, or even necessarily to try, but I'd liked it if she'd left open up the possibility of trying to create a bigger change than beating one evil guy. The epilogue shut that down.

*I think left-wing activist women would probably appreciate the fact that he was the one to change his views. I've seen many relationships with sexually transmitted politics over the years, and usually they go the other way.

** Well technically non-consensual sexual contact, which is somehow welcomed by the woman is my least favourite relationship plot device, but I'm almost always successful in trying to avoid stories which use that plot device (yes that was a pointed remark about Buffy, yes this review contains too many Buffy references)

*** I strongly identified with both Luna and Hermione. I was nerdy and completely out of it as a teenager. Obviously these characters are created for women to over-identify with, so that's not a surprise.


  1. Heh, I read it all day too. I'd been telling anyone who would listen my theory about how Snape wasn't really evil and how Dumbledore asked him to kill him, and everyone said I was wrong, and I was totally right. Hah!

  2. Anonymous11:04 am

    I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books YET,(except the first 6years ago) though Dane-ish (one of my brood) has read all of them several-10x) times each (and the last one he read within hours of it being released) I'm going to read them all now, starting at the beginning and going right thru (as is he again)..he's reading the first one again now, so I'm having to wait, the suspense is killing me. I don't care about spoilers, I always/normally read the last chapter of any book before I get to the end anyway. ;-)

  3. You're amazing! I knew I wasn't the only one being pissed off my the patronizing, "I can't be with you because it'll put you in danger" rubbish. For that reason alone I'm glad Lupin died (was I supposed to be grateful that Tonks ran after him to join the fray?).

    I also hate painful and contrived love stories. And Ginny and Harry's was both. Ugh. Just when she was beginning to show some personality she had to become the adjunct (which brings me to a rant about the increasing preponderance of female worthy adjunct characters.. but I'll save that for now).

    And I agree about the epilogue too. I was excruciating. Wasn't it enough to have one set of repeating personalities without having Harry's son be James as well. Don't even get me started on Albus Severus! What annoyed me the most though was the complete emphasis being on the continuity of the individual family saga and the absolute lack of importance given to 1. anyone else 2. the struggle. All is well: my family and my friends flourish... all else be damned.

    Right. Hmm... this is developing into a full blown rant. Okay so I'm going to go rant about this elsewhere!

  4. Good analysis- I agree with a lot of it. This one was far better paced. I found the previous one quite tedious at time. She just seemed to be maneuvering the characters into position for the next book I felt at times. That paid off though in this one.

    The Ginny Harry thing didn't really bother me though. I guess I saw it as appropriate to the genre and the phase of life the characters are at when best friends are most important-the transition to prioritizing partners usually begins to happen round the time of late teens. And also I saw the book as being partly about the orphan Harry forming his own family with Hermione and Ron as his sister and brother as well as his comrades in arms. Having a wife comes later after the war is won.

    Dobby's death was the only one that really moved me much emotionally. I'm glad she didn't kill more people though- or milk the deaths too much as Joss Whedon would have done. At the end of the day its light entertainment and I was happy not to feel emotionally wrung out by the experience.

  5. The Harry/Ginny "relationship" made no sense to me, since they rarely were shown interacting with each other and it reinforces the whole courtly love from afar crap that I've always hated. So yeah.

    Other than that, and of course the epilogue (WHAT the HELL?!), though, I thought the book was a nice summary of the overarching themes begun by the other books, but it definitely left me wanting more. The Battle of Hogwarts, though, was just cool, and my favorite character, Neville, made me very happy.

  6. Anonymous8:17 pm

    I totally agree with you, Maia. You said it all so well.

  7. Anonymous7:33 am

    I loved the epilogue. I was really afraid she's try to tie everything up and spoil the geeky fic possiblities... but she didn't, YAY. Albus Severus instead of Albus Sirius was amusing too.

  8. Anonymous7:08 am

    I know in a story with so many characters to juggle an author can't develop a plotline for everyone, but I was still deeply disappointed that Ginny and Tonks seemed so diminished, when we had every reason to believe them capable of Great Things.

    Don't forget MadEye and Hedwig died too. Hedwig had been there from day one, so that hurt.

    Still found much that was satisfying. Tell me if this is odd, but the most moving moment in the whole thing, for me, was when Snape made his patronus for Dumbledore to see.

  9. I didn't actually like it that much, for reasons I've posted about at my own blog, but I wanted to second (third, fourth, fifth?) the sentiments here about the treatment of Tonks and Ginny in the book - from being such strong characters in the past they hardly featured and when they did it was mainly about their relationships with guys, rather than themselves. I was annoyed at Rowling for killing off both Lupin and Tonks just to make Harry an active godfather and echo his own situation as a baby.

    I was also disappointed at the portrayal of Hermione at times. She seemed to do an awful lot of crying. She also wasn't very assertive with Harry about getting their act together and having a plan, which is quite at odds with her behaviour in earlier books. I do like what you wrote about Ron and Hermione, and Ron changing his views though Maia, that is bang on.

  10. Anonymous4:53 pm

    I don't know if anyone could explain, but what was the thing that was whining the whole time while Harry was talking to Dumbledore after he was "killed" by Voldemort.

  11. That was supposed to be the bit of Voldemort's soul that had died. Fucking pathetic if you ask me.

    I actually thought the book was fairly decent, up until the point that Harry died. Everything from then on was awful.

  12. Anonymous6:08 am

    the fact that Harry was dangerous to Ginny was truth, but I do agree that he could have let her take the decision of breaking up, together with him. But you say it's lame that he later gets together with her again, because he is still dangerous, but that ain't right. They get together for real when Voldemort is gone, then Harry is just a normal guy, no more dangerous than anyone else. The fact that both Harry and Ginny, and Hermione and Ron, falls in love at that young age is quite all right with me, but I get why you think that is not realistic, and do partly agree, but it is only these two couples that gets together for all time at so young a age, the way you say it makes it feel like everybody in the book ends up happy in this way. Why Lupin is dangerous to Tonks is a whole other thing, since it is not based upon the fact that Lupin is fighting against Voldemort, but the fact that he is a werewolf. Werewolves attack everyone near when they're transformed, and this makes him dangerous, but I think he is mainly getting cold feet while Tonks get pregnant and all. He has experienced being an outcast because he is a werewolf, always happy for the friends he could get, while society hates him, and are frightened to bring the same status at both Tonks and the baby, that might end up a werewolf as well. but, hey let's do as Dumbledore and judge him, not by the fact that he ran away, but by the fact that he came back:P And however, that there is no women at the radioshow is irrelevant, it may occur, I hope you know, that people that have relevant things to say about a case happens to be all men, and that might mainly be a coincidence, and I say this as a woman, and rest of it not as such a great fan of Rowling that it might seem, I'm simply bored, and I think you are wrong in some cases. And just as a comfort, Rowling has stated in interviews that Harry, Hermione and Ron later gets jobs in ... oh, what's it called ... the Ministry of Magic or whatever, and that the death of Voldemort revolutions the whole magical world to a better place. And Luna, as one of my favorites I had to check, Rowling says may end up traveling around as a nature scientist or something, maybe marrying the grand son of that dude who wrote 'magical beasts and where to find them'. I know this is a very long and nerdy comment, but it's summer break, and I am all alone with nothing to do. Excuse the english, though, I'm 16 and from Norway, so it wont be to perfect.