I know I’m in the minority on this, but me and a friend happened to be talking about our disappointment with the Harry Potter series. I think talking about J.K. Rowling’s new book was what started it. We agree that 6/7 of the series is quite good. But the last 1/7 is a different story.
The series starts out magnificently, the first 60% or so being among some of the finest adventure epics I’ve ever read. In the second half, it gets weaker, but still very, very good. But it culminates in an inexplicable and unforeseeable disaster that tarnishes the whole thing. It is the 2007 New England Patriots of Y.A. fiction.
The first four books combine adventure, humor, horror and mystery into an excellent package. The climactic scene in the fourth book where Voldemort rises again gives me chills every time I read it. The next two books are not as good—they have more pointless teenage angst, and seem less tightly-plotted and well-edited than the previous ones. But they’re still quite good.
And then, alas, we come to book seven. The best thing about it is the cover. (In fact, the quality of Harry Potter books is inversely proportional to the quality of their cover art.)
This book is a mess. There is no gentler way of putting it. Early on we have the inexplicable alteration in Remus Lupin’s personality. Why he would suddenly become so reckless makes really no sense for the character, except, I guess, to set up a tearjerker fate for him and Tonks. It doesn’t work for me; it feels like the character just wildly altered his personality for no reason.
Then there is there is the posthumous destruction of Albus Dumbledore’s character. Now, I like the idea of a seemingly generic, stock character (kind, wise teacher) turning out to be more unique and interesting. Theoretically, it sounds like a good idea. But it doesn’t work with Dumbledore, because it comes too late in the story, and moreover it takes too much time away from developing other characters. Which leads me to my next point…
The marginalization of Severus Snape is another weird error, compounded by the fact that he got all the advance hype, and yet was barely in the book save for one flashback chapter. Snape is by far the most interesting and complicated character in the series, but he gets largely ignored and instead we get “The Dirty Life and Times of Albus Dumbledore”, or whatever it was.
This is all pretty bad so far, but I might have liked the book despite it all. What ruins it for me are the following catastrophic things.
First and foremost: The pointless introduction of the Deathly Hallows, which just confuse everything and add even more MacGuffins on top of the already hard-to-keep-track-of Horcruxes. The first six books were spent setting up the Horcrux plot thread; the Deathly Hallows just show up out of left field. They are a magical device too far.
This is closely related to the problem that the Deathly Hallows, particularly the Elder Wand, are governed by a set of byzantine laws that seem designed arbitrarily for dramatic effect. And even for dramatic effect, they fall short. The entire book hinges on Dumbledore’s “final plan” going awry, Voldemort not studying his Wizarding law, and Potter just happening to disarm Malfoy at the right moment. Not on Potter learning something, or having courage; it’s just sheer luck. Realistic, I guess, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the series. (Jenny Sawyer wrote a review when the book came out that addresses this in a bit more detail.)
Finally, in the atrocious epilogue, I don’t understand how it is that no one seems to have learned that Slytherin house creates vastly more problems than it solves, and that it really should be abolished. Here they are, with the old rivalries still maintained, despite the fact that Slytherin’s Founder buried a giant monster under the school, his “heir” tried to conquer the world, and all but two of the people who are known to have attended Slytherin have been evil. (Even Snape and Slughorn aren’t exactly model citizens, but they keep it from being uniformly bad.)
But no, nobody cares, and they are still admitting people into Slytherin, effectively sorting all the little maniacs into one isolated group, cut off from the rest of the school. I would have tweaked the Sorting Hat’s algorithm to distribute the evildoers into the other houses, where they might be reformed, or at least restrained.
There are other flaws as well–the extremely dull camping trip (and the attendant return of pointless teenage angst), the comical ineptitude of Voldemort and his minions, the unbelievable ease and speed with which the entire Ministry of Magic converts from being a liberal democracy into an authoritarian regime. (Did all Ministry of Magic employees get a memo “You’re all going to be Nazis now”?) but these could be overlooked, if not for all the major flaws mentioned above.
All this adds up to a disaster. The characters are inconsistent, which makes them hard to care about. The MacGuffins and plot devices pop up everywhere, and are not really connected to each other in a meaningful way. The climactic battle between Potter and Voldemort is resolved by a quirk of wizard law, an ending which would be very well in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, but not so good in an epic high-fantasy novel.
Star Wars fans moan endlessly about how “the prequels ruined Star Wars“. Putting aside that I like the prequels, I never understood how the creation of a new movie could somehow retroactively ruin previous ones. But I can sort of feel that way with Harry Potter thanks to Book Seven. It sort of dulls the appeal of the whole series for me. It probably shouldn’t, because I can still go back and read the brilliant Chamber of Secrets and it is every bit the tightly-plotted magical thriller that it was before Deathly Hallows was even written. But, the fact remains, I have not bothered to revisit any of the other Potter books since Hallows, and I suspect my lack of motivation to do so is because of the awful finale.
When you criticize something popular, people usually respond with: “could you do better?” Fortunately, I don’t have to. The good people at “How It Should Have Ended” have already supplied an answer to that question: