The first of the four largest books in the Harry Potter series, and the book where we learn more about the wizarding world, but also see the characters develop a fair bit more, yet it perhaps also contains Rowling's most offensive moments, but also the most introspective.
I think, generally, this book was quite enjoyable. We've got a good variety of events that keep you interested - the Quidditch World Cup, returning to Hogwarts, the various events and interludes surrounding the Triwizard Tournament and, of course, a lot more information about the magic world. There's a lot going on for Harry, but also a lot happening behind the scenes. We learn more about certain characters, but also the build up of events from the past two or so decades that reach an apex during Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts. Whilst not necessarily complex on the level of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, there's still a lot of twisting and turning with the plot, with many false walls and too-obvious-to-be-true details. Rowling does a good job of keeping it in check, too, although it perhaps may require a re-read or two to really solidify it in your head.
Rowling also makes a point of picking up on the fact that a lot seems to happen to Harry, and that trouble follows him wherever he goes. I felt this was quite a good thing to do, because it shows that the author (and even the characters) are aware that sometimes it seems to be all about Harry, so much so that some of the more potentially-interesting moments and ideas aren't expanded upon, not to mention the fact that every single year at Hogwarts, Harry has basically fallen into huge trouble with alarming regularity. Whilst I still maintain that it's at least partially due to Rowling not expanding too much on the doings of other characters, I felt that this level of self-awareness was refreshing and showed that it's not just the reader who might think it's sometimes getting a little much.
That said, there's quite a lot to hate about this book. It becomes very superficial, and the level of hatred levelled at characters reaches a critical point. Viktor Krum is constantly degraded for his looks by the narrator, Hermione goes from cute-but-dorky to stunning almost entirely to stick two fingers up at Ron, we have the mishandled attempt to communicate Angelica Bell's skin colour and many other instances of such criticisms. I think one such moment really got to me, though, and I was fuming afterwards. A new character to the series is Rita Skeeter, an incredibly annoying and malicious journalist who writes what can only be described as glorified gossip. Her appearance is described to us as being fake (which one could easily understand), except Rowling goes out of her way to portray her as, basically, ugly in a masculine way. She's got a large jaw, apparently, and has "mannish hands". Right. Lovely. Thanks, J.K. Rowling, that's such a lovely way to describe someone and you totally couldn't have handled it better. It's also worth noting that Cho Chang manages to avoid description (for the most part) again. I also felt that some of the comments from various characters were
unnecessary, particularly Ron's "I'd like to see Uranus" comment in a
There's some mishandled 'racial politics' here, too. The way giants are described and handled is a little rough, but it's the house-elves that stick out a mile. We have Hermione fiercely arguing that house-elves are slaves and are unhappy and exploited, whereas almost every other character argues that house-elves are happiest doing what they do, and freedom is essentially the worst thing that can happen to them. This duality is reflected in two named house-elves - Dobby is a returning character, freed by Lucius Malfoy completely by accident thanks to Harry (I think it's at the end of Chamber of Secrets), and the other is Winky, who was dismissed by another new character for being seemingly involved in the attack on the Quidditch World Cup. Dobby loves his freedom, whereas Winky is mortified about hers, and I think the intention is for Rowling to want you to agree with the freedom 'path'. But... Ugh. I mean the arguments are horrific, whilst Dobby and Winky are asked, at no point does anyone seem to actually consult an 'expert', a senior member of staff, or even your average house-elf (including the ones at Hogwarts). Hermione pushes forwards with her new-found beliefs, and essentially shouts them at people. The way it's handled is ridiculous, and the potential comparisons to the African slave trade (e.g. the American plantations) feel clumsy at best, hyperbolic and insensitive at their worst.
Summary: For all I've complained about this book and even the series so far, I was gripped by much of this story. I wanted to see what happened, I wanted to see Harry win, but more importantly (to me) I wanted to see behind the curtains at what is making this story tick. I could have done without the way some characters were described, and whilst I was furious at one point, I managed to get back into the story and finish it on a high note.
Favourite Moment: I think there were a few, but the scene with Moaning Myrtle and Harry in the Prefect's bathroom stands out as being a fun moment with some good banter.
Least Favourite Moment: Pretty much any time a female character was described, with particular hatred for the description(s) of Rita Skeeter. It was completely out of line. The way some characters treated the girls and women was also a little iffy, too.
Improvements From Earlier Book(s): Characters like Ron and Hermione get fleshed out a little more, and this does improve the story as their own motivations and feelings get a bit more air-time. I also think Rowling managed to just about skew the story so that it's not just Harry doing these things, and we see that it's him as much as it is other people pulling the strings.