July 26, 2007

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, By J.K. Rowling (Scholastic, Inc., 2007, 784 pages)
Reviewed by Glenn Given production@hippopress.com

Rowling recovers the fumble of Half Blood Prince with the pleasingly adventurous Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

WARNING: SOME SPOLIERS! No, not the ending but if you want to remain completely pure skip to the last paragraph.

Adventurous for the Potter clutch who eschew a return to Hogwarts in favor of scouring the land for pieces of the Dark Lord’s soul. Adventurous for Rowling in casting off the annual magical crisis of the prior six years and their herky-jerky unfolding as dictated by the scholastic calendar. Deathly Hallows stops limiting its wonderment to the magic academy and skips our heroic trio across nearly all the set pieces of its predecessors.

Of course, it takes a few chapters of action before Ron, Harry and Hermione find themselves cut off from their elders’ support and on the run from Voldemort’s forces. Seizing power, albeit indirectly, Big V institutes the timeworn signet of bad guy-ism: a fascist regime complete with a wizardly ethnic cleansing. In any other book this kind of ham-headed nod to Nazis would end a story. Yes, yes, we get it, you’ve let us know in the least imaginative manner possible that your baddies are a truly Hitlerian evil. Bravo, freshman creative writing class champion.

Rowling gets away with it, though. Maybe expectations of allusion, subtlety, subtext and elegance are so low that the simple addition of a second one-note theme genuinely elevates the story!

Deathly Hallows flounders soon after Harry and co. hit the trail as they recognize how their inadequate knowledge of the wizarding world leaves them breadcrumb-less on the hunt. Of course, what better way to illuminate this than by bludgeoning the reader with a few chapters of bickering, despondent teenagers, punctuated by re-listing the goals they are failing to achieve? Rowling’s failings shine through here; without deus ex machina or wizened elders to guide them her characters must rely on their wits, a trait which is severely restricted by the skills of the writer. Eventually the giant neon sign clues that fall to them pop a neuron and we’re moving forward again. A goose egg, an ambush, an infiltration into the Ministry of Magic and a schism take us to the halfway point, where things really begin happening.

The action is swift and satisfying and the synthesis of the series’ sprawling collection of characters into an entwined embattled community is executed wonderfully. Harry, with increasing frequency, revisits the perceptions of his nemesis to the reader’s delight as the tantalizing mystery of Voldemort’s motives and movements propels our interest. The hints of the wizard world’s transformations brought in scraps to the traveling protagonists engage the mind far more than the stock arc of ego-doubt-courage that Harry undergoes.

Dumbledore’s bequeaths to Harry and Hermione take us into the mid-book reveal as we learn the delightfully sordid and complex history of the World’s Greatest surrogate Grandpa. There ensues a scamper for secret items from out of wizarding mythology that finally, after six books of poorly explained reverence for some glittering plot device, find root and resonance as part of this world and you’re caught up in Harry’s quest to obtain or understand them. And when the final battle between our -tagonists ensues it’s a humdinger. All the threads of Harry’s world show up at the field of conflict. Harry gets past/through/on with his Jesus-by-way-of-King Arthur archetype and battles Voldemort with originality and yes, people die. In fact dozens of people die, many of them important.

What you’ve been waiting for shows up. Dumbledore’s secrets, Snape’s motives and a heist that involves a half-blind dragon and a piggyback-riding goblin. If we didn’t have those, Rowling would likely have been strung up a few days ago and word of the book’s critical disappointment should have reached your ears. But the goods get crammed in in due time. With that we also get Rowling’s trademark exposition of shaky continuity and logic but it’s nowhere near the groaning slog of book six. Harry and the Potterton gang get pissy like they’re all leads in Order of the Phoenix’s angst-fest but Rowling reins it in to an acceptably dull roar.

Aside from the fan service, plot requirements and faults there are some truly well-executed flourishes to Deathly Hallows. Unexpected redemptions occur, an incongruously well-written fable sneaks in and an exceptionally fulfilling epilogue round out the most interesting (if not the best-executed) and moving Potter tale of the septilogy. A-Glenn Given