Sunday, January 12, 2014

Harry Potter Reading Challenge #1 - The Philosopher's Stone

None of the silly 'Sorcerer's Stone' nonsense here, nope! Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is the first book in the series, and the one that catapulted Rowling into the limelight. It's quite funny, actually, because I believe this was the second Harry Potter novel I ever had, after The Chamber of Secrets. Anyway...

I'm surprised how quickly I read this. It's about 220 pages long, and by the end of my lunch-break on the day I'd started it, I was over halfway through - and I finished it that evening. I think this owes a lot to Rowling's simplistic yet information-packed storytelling. She just does not waste space at all. Almost every name, place or thought that is mentioned has a point, and reading this for the first time in maybe ten years after a lifetime of cultural osmosis (I remember the fourth and fifth books releasing) is really quite enjoyable, because your inner Hermione is basically screaming in glee at understanding most of the references or seeing future plot lines basically draped in neon lights in the first chapters. On top of that, she makes you want to know what's going on - Why is this happening? What does that mean? What is that character up to? Questions like that are always on your mind, and it's supplemented with some really good twists that you don't expect on your first read.

I don't think it's perfect, mind. The way Hermione is talked about is a little off-putting, as I don't think any other character (even Snape and Malfoy) come close to being described in such brutal ways. It's clear she's annoying and snotty, but even then it sometimes feels like things go a little overboard. I also think the younger characters tend to speak with that exaggerated maturity and care that you tend to only find in children's books - I don't think I've ever really heard children talk like they do in the books. Despite the growing darkness the series experiences, it does initially have a kind-of safe, sugar-sweet sheen to it. Harry copes with massive culture shock by asking questions (for the reader's sake), he somehow overcomes a life of neglect and... well, fear, within minutes of meeting Hagrid. I suppose these things are just handwaved to broaden the appeal, but also to keep the tone up, and it kinda works.

I think another flaw is the final few segments, where Harry, Ron and Hermione manage to get through puzzles created by some of the most intelligent witches and wizards in Hogwarts without really all that much of a challenge. The final confrontation is also a little bit of a cheap shot that doesn't quite seem to make sense, plus it has an eleven year-old boy facing off against one of the most powerful and dangerous wizards... and coming out pretty much unscathed. But again, I think this is understandable in terms of it being a novel for younger readers. It makes it clear that these characters are something special, especially as a team. And yet these flaws are just, well, insignificant when you consider the book as a whole.

The Philosopher's Stone *is* magical, and it's not hard at all to see why the books have become a world-famous, multi-million-if-not-billion dollar money maker and a part of my generation's culture. Whilst not necessarily timeless, there's everything to love here. There's a whole new world, hidden behind a thin pane of magic, that sits right in ours. There's adventure, sneaking around, dark trips through forbidden places, escaping from a hated to place to one that gets nothing but love... It's everything kids (and even adults) want in a story! Rowling also does an excellent job of easing you in to the world, using the world itself as a way to give the reader the information they need. I think one reason this book is quite simple is because it doesn't want to overwhelm you, so the cast and the magic side of things are kept as basic as possible, and it does work. You know the important families, you know roughly how the magic works, you know bits about magic culture, and it sets you up perfectly for the later books. I found this so gripping that, actually, as soon as I finished it I picked up the second book and got started on that!

Summary:  Reading Harry Potter now, after years of reading more adult-oriented fantasy fiction, is surprisingly doable. Often when you try to re-read books you read when you were younger, the author's writing style is often too simplistic or glaring issues stick out. And yet with The Philosopher's Stone, I never really had that looming over me, even though I did pick up on some issues. It was fun, it was engaging, and it left me wanting more. I don't think there's anything else I can say that really sums it up better than that. Already I'm glad I started this re-read, and I'm really looking forward to see what happens in the later books.

Favourite Moment: Potter telling a teacher (Prof. Flitwick?) it's thanks to Malfoy he has a new broom. Boosh!

Least Favourite Moment: The broomstick-sized parcel that no-one was to know was a broomstick... so it got delivered in front of half the school. By owls. Real subtle, that.

Hopes for Later Books: More diversity - It's not stated whether any of the other students are non-white, and aside from Hermione, there's not really any females of Harry's age given much page-time, although you do see hints here and there that Hogwarts (and perhaps the magic world) is more 'equal', as there's a girl on the Quidditch team. I believe both of these 'issues' are addressed in later books, however.

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