Archive | November, 2008

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” by J.K. Rowling

28 Nov

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” by J.K. Rowling (766p)

The fifth book in the award winning hugely successful Harry Potter series is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Released in 2003, the fifth in the series takes Harry to his fifth year at Hogwarts and into full adolescence as he turns fifteen, now having to life with the reality of a returning Lord Voldemort to his former power while battling blatant bureaucratic stupidity from the Ministry of Magic.

As has become customary, Harry Potter is spending another miserable summer with his baleful relatives. He has heard nothing from the magical world since the return of Voldemort and finds himself desperate for the slightest bit of news, even hanging onto bits and pieces on the Muggle news. Finding himself walking down a street with his cousin Dudley, the two of them are attacked by a pair of Dementors. Harry drives them off with a patronus charm, and is surprised to learn that the Dursleys’ elderly neighbour is a squib and has been keeping an eye on him on Dumbledore’s orders.

On returning home, he immediately receives a notice of expulsion from Hogwarts for using magic outside school. An advance guard from the Order of the Phoenix arrives at the house and escorts Harry to their secret headquarters at Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place in London, where Harry joins the Weasley family, Hermione Granger, and Harry’s godfather Sirius Black. They tell him that Voldemort is building an army and is attempting to retrieve a weapon, but is still moving in secret. In this, he is actually aided by the Ministry, since Minister Cornelius Fudge is conducting an extensive smear campaign against Harry, Dumbledore, and anyone else that says Voldemort’s back. Knowing that Voldemort’s return would mean mass panic and then open war, Fudge believes that Dumbledore is lying and attempting to supplant him as Minister. A few days later, Arthur Weasley escorts Harry to his expulsion hearing, which Fudge has done everything in his power to slant against him. But testimony from Dumbledore and Mrs Figg confirms the presence of the Dementors, and Harry is found to have acted in self-defence.

At Hogwarts things are changing. The new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is also a Ministry stooge, installed to keep watch over the school and Dumbledore. Professor Umbridge changes the face of the school as she and the Ministry steal power away from Dumbledore, and with Umbridge installed as High Inquisitor Ministry approved rules are implemented, banning anything that might be deemed inappropriate. Umbridge also introduces cruel punishment to students not willing to follow her Orwellian dream of rules and regulations, in particular she punishes Harry for his out-spoken views by forcing him to cut words into his hands with blood-ink. Her tyranny and stout refusal to teach defence spell begins to affect their school work, and with OWLs1 coming Hermione devises a way for many students to learn the stuff Umbridge refused to teach: Harry would do it instead. Students from across the school sign up to the secret “Dumbledore’s Army” organisation and spend the autumn and winter months hidden away learning from Harry. As Christmas approaches, Harry enters into his first relationship with his long-time crush Cho Chang, but their romance ends shortly thereafter when Harry accidentally makes her think he’d rather be with Hermione instead.

Eventually, Umbridge’s spy network throughout the school uncovers the Dumbledore Army and Harry evades expulsion again with Dumbledore taking the blame for it. The Headmaster faces sacking and an arrest but evades capture from Fudge and Umbridge, escaping with his phoenix Fawkes. But with Dumbledore gone there is nothing to stop Umbridge becoming Headmistress, plunging Hogwarts into further tyranny and depression as Umbridge completely turns the school into an effective police state with more rules and restrictions placed on students. Only a rebel newspaper out of the Ministry’s control stands up for Harry and Dumbledore, printing an article where he spills the beans about what happened the year before with Voldemort, and gradually more people in the wizarding world start to accept Harry’s claims about Voldemort’s return. The disenchanted Weasley twins take advantage of it to revolt, unleashing relentless magical chaos throughout the school, while the staff purposely does nothing to help Umbridge regain control.

Throughout the year, Harry has disturbing dreams about running down a hallway and attempting to open a door in the Ministry’s Department of Mysteries. On Christmas Eve, he dreams he is a snake attacking Ron’s father. Mr Weasley is indeed found injured at the Ministry, suffering from severe venomous snakebites, causing Harry to fear that Voldemort is possessing him. In response, Dumbledore has Severus Snape teach Harry occlumency to block his mind from intrusion, but their mutual animosity ends their lessons prematurely. In the course of these lessons, Harry inadvertently sees one of Snape’s memories from his school years, and is shocked to see his father James Potter bullying Snape and acting as arrogantly as Snape always said that he did. He also notices (but is not surprised) that Snape refers to his mother as a mudblood2, despite the fact that she defended him. In the middle of his last OWL exam, Harry has a vision of Sirius being tortured at the Department of Mysteries, although Hermione suspects it may be a trap. Harry, with help from various members of Dumbledore’s Army, attempts to contact Sirius at Grimmauld Place via the Floo Network in Umbridge’s office fireplace, but he is caught. Believing that he is attempting to contact the fugitive Dumbledore, Umbridge interrogates Harry, who swears he does not know where he is. Umbridge summons Snape to bring truth serum, but Snape says he has run out. Before Snape leaves her office, Harry desperately tells him in code about his vision of Sirius. As he does this Hermione tricks Umbridge into thinking that Dumbledore has hidden his weapon in the Forbidden Forest, and in the forest they encounter the centaurs, who attack Umbridge and allow Harry and Hermione to escape.

Running back to the castle, they encounter Ron, and D.A. members Ginny, Neville and Luna, who insist on accompanying them. The students fly to London on the school’s Thestrals. Reaching the room in his dreams, The Hall of Prophecy, Harry sees that Sirius is not there, but notices a glass ball containing some kind of record, that has been labelled with his name. As soon as he takes it down off the shelf, a squad of Death Eaters surrounds them, including many of the recent escapees, and led by Lucius Malfoy. Malfoy reveals that Voldemort planted a false vision to lure Harry to the Ministry, as he is the only one (besides Voldemort himself) who can remove the prophecy from its shelf. The prophecy is “the weapon” Voldemort has been after the entire year. Harry and his friends heroically defend themselves, putting up a far tougher fight than the dark wizards expected, but are outmatched. As they are nearly defeated, members of the Order arrive, including Sirius. During the ensuing battle, the glass sphere that Voldemort was seeking is accidentally dropped and shatters, and the record is lost. However, just as Dumbledore arrives in person to help, Sirius is blasted with a spell by his Death Eater cousin, Bellatrix Lestrange, and falls backwards through a mysterious veiled archway. Lupin restrains Harry from going after him; Sirius Black is dead.

The Death Eaters are captured except for Bellatrix, whom Harry pursues into the Ministry’s atrium. Bellatrix is far more powerful, but is taken aback with horror when Harry taunts her that the prophecy has been destroyed, and their mission has failed. In rage, Voldemort appears in person and attacks Harry, but is confronted by Dumbledore. The two duel furiously, but each is unable to finish the other. In an attempt to break the stalemate, Voldemort possesses Harry and tortures him, hoping that Dumbledore will kill Harry to destroy Voldemort. However, in the midst of his torture, Harry re-visits his grief for Sirius, and Voldemort is unexpectedly repelled by the emotion. Fudge and the Aurors arrive in time to see the Dark Lord before he Disapparates, taking Bellatrix with him. Fudge finally admits that Voldemort has returned.

Speaking alone to Harry in his office, Dumbledore reveals that he has kept many things hidden from Harry over the past five years. For instance, why he placed the baby Harry with the Dursleys and insists that Harry return to their home every summer, knowing what abusive guardians they are; the reason is, Dumbledore knew Voldemort would return one day, and that Harry would need the most powerful protection possible until he came of age. When his mother died to protect him, this created a powerful protective charm; as long as Harry stays at the house of his mother’s blood-relative long enough to call it home, it shields him in a way even Voldemort cannot overcome. The reason Dumbledore says he has kept this and other secrets hidden for so long is because he has been reluctant to burden Harry with the most terrible secret: the contents of the prophecy. The prophecy was originally made to him by Sybill Trelawney, while he was interviewing her for her teaching position. One of Voldemort’s followers overheard the first half of the prophecy, and reported it to him. Although there were actually two newborn boys whose parents fit the description in the prophecy (the other being Neville Longbottom), Dumbledore believes that Voldemort chose to attack Harry because he was a half-blood like himself, while Neville is a pureblood. In doing so, Voldemort inadvertently “marked him as his equal.” According to the prophecy, either Harry or Voldemort must destroy the other one day.

Dumbledore reveals that he cares very much about Harry, even to an unwise degree – Voldemort has always believed love to be a weakness that can be exploited, hence his use of Sirius to lure Harry to the Ministry. Dumbledore is reinstated at Hogwarts, and immediately rescinds all of Umbridge’s decrees. Umbridge herself is rescued from the forest by Dumbledore, and appears to still be in shock. Professor Trelawney is also reinstated, though Firenze stays on as well, since he has been expelled from the centaur herd. At King’s Cross station, several Order members are there to greet Harry and the Dursleys. Alastor Moody warns Uncle Vernon that if Harry is maltreated, they will intervene. Harry leaves to head back to 4 Privet Drive with the Dursleys, stopping once to look back towards his two best friends, Ron and Hermione.

You will note in my review for the Goblet of Fire I made an ordered listing of my favourite Harry Potter novels, and this one is ranked seventh (and last). There is a very good reason for that – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is crap. Well, “crap” may be a harsh word to use but it is dreadfully poor compared some of the others. I found it boring and tedious, and in essence it is over seven hundred pages of nothing just to get to the death of Sirius Black. Ordinarily I would have absolutely loved the reign of Umbridge and the Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque nature of it but it just took so long to get to the main crescendo I was getting very annoyed waiting. But then the big climactic ending came in one hit and where Rowling had spent probably a hundred pages on one or two things before, it went from being in Umbridge’s office to the end of the fight in the ministry in scarcely fifty pages. It felt rushed and disjointed from the rest of the rest of the novel, kind of like it was just tacked onto the rest of it when Rowling had changed her mind over something in the book. Considering this took three years to write after its predecessor that is very disappointing for a serious fan. So it goes to show how plodding the middle of the book is when it takes up more than two thirds of the story while the main action is smushed into the final fifty or so pages – what it needed was a hard edit and a shaving of about 250 pages to trim the fat, then I think it would have been a much better novel than the end product that is still sold in stores.

There is one thing that I noticed about this novel years after, probably when I saw movie, but it is a wonderful paradox of Britain’s position to the Third Reich in the 1930s. The role of Neville Chamberlain, paranoid and scared, is taken by Fudge while Dumbledore acts as Winston Churchill, the only cool head warning of the imminent danger of Hitler’s counterpart, Voldemort. The way Fudge used the Daily Prophet to discredit Dumbledore and Harry is reminiscent of the way Chamberlain used the The Times to do likewise to Churchill, calling him a scaremonger among other things, mostly out of fear that Churchill was after his job as prime minister, which Fudge also accuses Dumbledore of. Britain’s cautious approach, dithering and deference to Hitler mimics the Ministry’s attitude on Voldemort while the issue of blood purification is prevalent throughout. The racial policy of the Nazi Party is very similar to Voldemort’s stance on non-magical people, and like Hitler he believed it was his destiny to cleanse the world of those people. Dumbledore and Churchill, in the end, were vindicated by their claims and Fudge and Chamberlain were ruined. It is a real pity that never occurred to me when I first read it, for it is a wonderful paradox created by J.K. Rowling, and I doff my hat at her for it.

Still, it is hard to recommend this novel, for I think a lot of Harry Potter fans will agree with me this is the “worst” (or least favourite if you’re politically correct) of the seven and most people’s least favourite. It just isn’t very interesting. It just doesn’t have the verve and excitement of the others either side of it, and sticks out like a sore thumb in a group of brilliance. There is too much of nothing to read to make it as entertaining as the others, it is just too long. For me, I think the best way to sum it up for newcomers to Harry Potter (are there any?) is read it if you want to, but for casuals wanting something to do just watch the movie. Although that was almost as boring too.

5/10.

1 OWLs are a form of test done at the end of the fifth year to examine competency and magical knowledge
2 Mudblood is an offensive racial slur aimed at wizards whose parents are both non-magical, equivalent to n*gger

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” J.K. Rowling

19 Nov

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” by J.K. Rowling (636p)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was one of the most eagerly anticipated novel releases in history. By 2000, the first three novels had become an international success with sales smashing countless records, and a movie of the first novel was due for release the following year. This fourth in the series takes Harry and his friends back to Hogwarts for the return a famous wizards tournament against two foreign schools, but as always, something evil is lying just under the surface, waiting to strike when Harry is at his weakest.

The treacherous Peter Pettigrew and the soul of Lord Voldemort have occupied an abandoned house to plot the death of Harry Potter, but their presence is suddenly interrupted by a local muggle gardener, who Voldemort kills with the avada kedavra curse. Harry’s lightning bolt scar sears with agony as he sees it in a dream, but that he must forget because along with the rest of the Weasley family and Hermione, he is off to attend the final of the Quidditch World Cup. After the match, though, a pack of Death Eaters (Voldemort loyalists) storm the stadium grounds, creating fear and panic where they go. Harry stumbles upon the Dark Mark, Voldemort’s call sign, and it is initially thought he conjured the mark until it is discovered that Winky, the house-elf servant of a minister official, was at fault using Harry’s wand. The elf is sacked, thus beginning Hermione’s long-lasting passion for equality for house-elves that lasts several books.

Back at Hogwarts, Dumbledore announces that the school will be hosting the Triwizard Tournament, which consists of three champions from three schools (Beauxbatons’ from France and Durmstrang from somewhere in northern Europe) competing against each other in three difficult tasks. To select the participants, entrants put their name into a goblet and the most deserving winner is magically selected. Cedric Diggory represents Hogwarts, the beautiful Fleur de la Cour represents Beauxbatons and Viktor Krum, who also played in the Quidditch World Cup final, takes the place for Durmstrang. But the goblet inexplicitly selects a fourth champion: Harry Potter, despite Harry being three years below the minimum age requirement and him not actually entering himself. But he has no choice and must compete, which leads to a falling out with Ron, who believes Harry cheated to enter and is finally overcome with jealousy of Harry’s constant fame and attention. Harry is guided through the tournament by Alastor Moody, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, and he helps Harry find the clues needed to give him any chance of succeeding in the tournament – or surviving at all.

In the first task, the champions must retrieve a golden egg from a dragon – Harry curses his luck when he draws the Hungarian Horntail, the most aggressive breed of dragon to be found in Europe. With advice from Hagrid, Moody, and Hermione, Harry uses his broomstick to fly past the dragon and capture the egg, earning high marks. Ron realises Harry would not have cheated when he sees how dangerous the first task is, and they reconcile. Before the second round there is a break and a winter ball, the Yule Ball, is held which sees some of the funnier chapters of the novel as Ron and Harry try in vain to find dates, Harry’s preferably with his crush Cho Chang, but she has already been asked by Harry’s Triwizard Tournament opponent Cedric Diggory. As the ball looms ever closer Harry and Ron lump to go with twins Parvati and Padma Patil, while Hermione shocks everyone (especially Ron) by arriving with Viktor Krum.

The second task in the Triwizard Tournament required the competitors to retrieve something important to each champion hidden in Hogwarts’ lake; the chief impediment here because they must stay submerged for the time they are underwater without the aid of Muggle scuba gear. As the event is about to begin, Dobby gives Harry gillyweed so he can breathe underwater, and he successfully finds the four “important objects”: Ron, Hermione, Cho and Fleur’s little sister, Gabrielle. Harry stays on the spot to ensure that everyone is rescued, but Fleur never comes; he rescues Gabrielle in addition to Ron, which causes him to lose time but gain points for ‘moral fibre’. As the remainder of the school year passes, Harry regularly contacts Sirius Black, his godfather, still on the run for a crime he was wrongfully imprisoned for. One night, while talking with Viktor Krum, he finds a dishevelled looking Barty Crouch emerging dazed and tired from the forest, and runs off to find Dumbledore. While waiting in Dumbledore’s office for the headmaster’s return, Harry discovers a Pensieve, a method of storing memories one does not wish to be continually remembering, and enters it. It contains one of Dumbledore’s own memories: that of the trial in which Barty Crouch, Jr., a Death Eater, was sentenced to Azkaban by his own father for torturing Frank and Alice Longbottom (Neville’s parents) into insanity.

It was then time for the third and final task, which would decide the winner of the tournament. To win, they had to navigate their way through a complex maze full of magical obstacles, but eventually Harry and Diggory reach the trophy together, choosing to put their hands on it at the same time to share the prize. But unknown to them the trophy is a portkey and as soon as they touch it, they are transported out of the maze, landing in a deserted cemetery in the countryside with Peter Pettigrew and Lord Voldemort awaiting them. Voldemort instructs Pettigrew to kill Diggory and before Harry can do anything his friend is dead and he tied to a tombstone. Prone and helpless, Harry can do nothing to stop Pettigrew cutting his arm to take a sample of Harry’s blood, blood needed to break the defence charm protecting him and needed to restore Voldemort back to power.

For Voldemort has now come back with all his former powers and a new body. He summons his Death Eaters, and reveals that his servant at Hogwarts ensured that Harry would participate in the tournament, win it, and thus be brought to the graveyard. Voldemort challenges Harry to a duel, and punishes Harry with the cruciatus curse. Harry tries to disarm Voldemort with the expelliarmus spell, at exactly the same time as Voldemort uses the deadly avada kedavra curse. The two curses meet and interlock, causing an effect called priori incantatem to take place. This bond between the wands causes the spirits of Voldemort’s most recent murdered victims, including Cedric Diggory, Bertha Jorkins, and James and Lily Potter to spill out from his wand. The spirit victims provide protection to Harry, allowing him to escape with Diggory’s body and leaving Voldemort with his Death Eaters.

After Harry returns to the school grounds through the portkey, Harry is in a terrible state and he refuses to leave Cedric’s body. Amidst the chaos and woe, Moody takes Harry to his office immediately. He reveals that he has been helping Harry throughout the tournament so that Harry would reach the portkey, thereby going to the cemetery so Voldemort could be restored. Moody then attempts to kill Harry himself, but Dumbledore, Severus Snape, and Minerva McGonagall arrive on time; Dumbledore had realised that something was wrong when he saw Moody whisk Harry away from the maze so quickly, and followed them. Dumbledore feeds Moody three drops of Veritaserum, a truth potion, and they discover that “Moody” is actually Barty Crouch, Jr. He has escaped Azkaban and used a Polyjuice Potion to impersonate the real Alastor Moody, who is trapped in a magical trunk. Crouch Jr. entered Harry’s name into the Goblet of Fire, covertly ensuring that Harry completed each difficult task by supplying help one way or another, murdered his own father, transfigured his body into a bone, and buried it. Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge arrives at Hogwarts accompanied by a Dementor. Fudge refuses to believe Dumbledore’s and Harry’s word that Voldemort is back, and orders the Dementor to “kiss” Crouch Jr. as his punishment: Crouch no longer has a soul.

Harry is taken to Dumbledore’s office where he reunites with Sirius and he relives his story of his night. He is taken to the hospital wing and is crowned Triwizard Champion and awarded with 1000 galleons. That same night, Dumbledore revives “the old crowd”, seeing Fudge and the Ministry denies the resurrection of Voldemort. Days later, Dumbledore then makes an announcement at the gloomy Leaving Feast, telling everybody about Voldemort and saying to forget would be ‘an insult to his (Cedric’s) memory.’ Harry gives his winnings to Fred and George to start a joke shop and Harry sets off for another summer at the Dursley’s.

When this first came out I could not have been anymore excited. I had read all the hype on the internet, posted on message boards about it, and quite genuinely counted down the days until it was released. I had only just turned thirteen at the time and I thought a 636 page book would be far too long and take me months to read. It took me two days as I was off school during our mid-year holidays, I read the first four hundred pages from the morning it came out until I went to bed – it was the only reason I stopped as I figured I should sleep a few hours. Page after page of the Goblet of Fire enthralled me as the story was so captivating with an outstanding, yet simple plot that so many could relate to. I loved the parts leading up to the ball – what teenage boy couldn’t relate to that? We have all been through it or about to go through it as I was at the time, and I went through that part with a broad smile on my face.

I loved this novel, it is easily my favourite in the whole series1 and I think I have re-read it about six times. It is quick paced and thoroughly entertaining with a great cavalcade of new and old characters to bring the story to life. The imagery is great and, as I said, the plot is very simple but one that is guaranteed to hook a reader in. This also further deepened the gradual change into a more adult novel as opposed to the heavily children-oriented nature of the first two. The return of Voldemort is brilliantly captured and my favourite part of the book. For that reason alone I encourage anyone to read it as I am sure you will fall in love with Harry Potter after reading this one, if you hadn’t already.

9/10.

1 For the record that goes: Goblet of Fire, Prisoner of Azkaban, Half-Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows, Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Order of the Phoenix.

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” by J.K. Rowling

16 Nov

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” by J.K. Rowling (317p)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third novel in the world famous seven-part Harry Potter series, released in 1999. In Harry’s third year at Hogwarts a dreaded serial killer loyal to Lord Voldemort has escaped from the once impenetrable fortress of Azkaban and is after Harry, seeking to do what the dark lord could not and kill Harry Potter. Or is he?

As has become the norm, Harry is back at his relatives house in Surrey and is thoroughly miserable, enduring another summer of ridicule, suspicion and utter boredom. His Uncle Vernon’s sister, Marge, is also visiting. At dinner one evening she mocks Harry, his upbringing and his deceased parents, to which Harry erupts in anger, losing his temper so badly he inadvertently causes Marge to inflate with air and float away into the night sky. He then decides he cannot spend anymore time at the Dursley’s and runs off, taking his chest and belongings with him. He is picked up by the Knight Bus, the bus for magical wizards lost without transport, and taken to the Leaky Cauldron in London. Harry spends the rest of the summer staying at the Leaky Cauldron where he first learns of Sirius Black, a man that escaped from the supposed impenetrable wizards prison of Azkaban seemingly intent on murdering Harry due to his loyalty to Lord Voldemort. Harry stills packs off to Hogwarts with Ron and Hermione anyway, believing himself to be safe under the protection of Dumbledore and the secure surrounds of Hogwarts Castle.

At Hogwarts, there are two new teachers: Remus Lupin for Defence Against The Dark Arts, while Harry’s friend Hagrid is the new Care of Magical Creatures teacher. The Dementors from Azkaban, soulless spirits that suck the happiness out of everything they encounter, patrol the school in search of Sirius Black. But it is at Hagrid’s first class of the semester where things first go wrong – to make an impression he has brought a hippogriff (the mythological mare/eagle cross-bread), but the animal attacks Draco Malfoy after Harry’s perpetual enemy insults it, resulting in Lucius Malfoy filing a letter of complaint and condemning the beast to an execution. The Dementors patrolling the grounds also seem to further effect Harry, causing him to faint and lapse into a state of unconsciousness, so he receives private lessons from Lupin in how to defend himself against them learning the patronus charm. Meanwhile, tensions between Ron and Hermione escalate as their pet rat and cat go to war with each other, while Harry receives a brand new firebolt broom, the fastest in the world but Hermione’s suspicions believe it is a dangerous “gift” from Sirius Black, still at large.

Over Christmas Harry is given the Marauders Map from Fred and George Weasley. The Marauders Map is a bewitched map of the Hogwarts castle layout that shows the movements of everyone in the castle as well as all the secret passageways in and out of the castle. Harry uses it to sneak out of the castle and join Ron and Hermione in the village of Hogsmeade, and again uses it to overhear the Minster for Magic discussing Black’s connection to the Potter family where it is revealed Sirius Black was Harry Potter’s godfather, best friend to James Potter and Harry’s legal guardian. Black was named the Potters’ Secret Keeper and he supposedly revealed the Potters’ secret whereabouts to Lord Voldemort and murdered their friend Peter Pettigrew, as well as the twelve Muggle bystanders to try and escape. The news devastates Harry and he vows revenge on Black, telling a stunned Ron and Hermione he plans to kill him.

But for now the three are busy revising for the end of year exams. After Harry passes his Diviniation exam he learns of the hippogriff Buckbeak’s imminent execution that night and set off to visit Hagrid to console him. At Hagrid’s hut Ron’s pet rat Scabbers appears once again, biting him, so Ron runs off to find the rat but it has taken refuge in the Whomping Willow where a large dog attacks them and takes the rat and Ron under the tree. Harry and Hermione follow and discover it leads to a tunnel to inside the Shrieking Shack where they find Sirius Black. Black was the dog, his hitherto unknown ability to transform explained, and Harry confronts him. Lupin then arrives and disarms Harry, where all is explained. Black was not the Secret Keeper, it was Pettigrew, who is also able to transform into an animal – a rat, no less. Pettigrew is revealed as Voldemort’s servant, who convinced the magical world it was really Black who betrayed the Potters to Voldemort, and thus resuming his life in hiding as a rat for so long. Lupin further explains he is a werewolf and that he, James Potter, Black and Pettigrew used to hang around in the Shrieking Shack on full moon nights to keep Lupin company.

They head back to the castle with Pettigrew under arrest but that night is a full moon, Lupin transforms into a werewolf and Pettigrew escapes. Black transforms into a dog to defend Harry from Lupin but is badly injured, just as the Dementors arrive to claim his soul. But Harry sees a mysterious figure in the distance cast a powerful stag-shaped Patronus, scattering the vicious creatures. Harry becomes convinced it is his father, or at least his father’s spirit, who produced the Patronus. Black is then captured and taken to the castle where the Dementors intend to perform the Dementor’s Kiss, thus sucking out his soul.

Hermione reveals to Harry that she was entrusted with a time-travelling device called a Time-Turner, which is how she was able to attend simultaneous classes. Prompted by Dumbledore, she and Harry travel three hours into the past, watching themselves go through the night’s previous events. They set Buckbeak free and return to the Whomping Willow. As the Dementors are about to attack the “other” Harry and Black, Harry realizes that the mysterious figure he saw earlier was actually himself. Armed with the new memory of his talk with Black, he casts the powerful Patronus that repels the Dementors. Harry and Hermione free Black, who escapes on Buckbeak as the two return to Dumbledore and resume their normal timeline. At novels end, Harry travels back to London to spend another miserable summer with the Dursley’s, his mind totally on the godfather he wishes to be with instead.

One of the important things to note about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is that it represents a real shift in the direction and feel of the novels. Where the first two are, at the heart of it, intended for children this is different. It feels more adult, it’s darker with murder, betrayal and revenge being the key themes. It is also my second favourite in the series as I loved it, have re-read it several times and enjoyed the film version the most. It is a very fast-paced story and the school year flies by, often taking secondary importance to the story of Sirius Black, who would become a major figure in Harry’s life later on in the series.

It is full of fun little subplots as well like the complex developing relationship between Ron and Hermione, which would culminate in the final book. As it is, Harry Potter and the Prisoner and Azkaban is a fun little novel that entertains and takes little time to read. I heartily recommend it, even for people that were turned off by the first two as this one really does appeal to both children but even more for adults.

9/10.

“When Christ and His Saints Slept,” by Sharon Kay Penman

11 Nov

“When Christ and His Saints Slept,” by Sharon Kay Penman (901p)

When Christ and His Saints Slept is one of American author Sharon Kay Penman’s masterpiece novels of the Middle Ages. Written in 1994, this one tells the story of a bleak time in English history as rival claimants to the throne of England, Stephen of Blois and Empress Maude, fought a needless war for two decades that devastated England. It was the time of England’s history called The Anarchy.

It is 1120, and the son of King Henry I of England, William, is readying to return to England on the brand new royal vessel, the ill-fated White Ship. The seas are rough and the passengers drunk, too drunk to spot the sudden appearance of a reef in the ocean. It tears a hole in the boat and sinks, destroyed and drowning all of its passengers, including the heir to the throne. With no male heir, Henry I is forced to name his daughter, the widowed Empress Maude, as successor and forces his barons to swear allegiance to Maude. But none of Henry’s vassals wanted a woman ruling in heir own right, least of all one married to the hated Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. And so on Henry I’s death one of his barons breaks his agreement and claims the throne himself, making Stephen of Blois the fourth King of England since the conquest. Maude’s allies are outraged and immediately declared war on Stephen, but they were otherwise hemmed into Geoffrey’s Anjou, left with attempted sieges and small fights in Normandy while Stephen controls England. Stephen tries to consolidate his kingdom but the blunders which would characterise his reign surface soon after, eventually forcing the public support of Maude by her powerful half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. Eventually, the war tide favoured Maude enough for her to leave her exile in Anjou and return to England, ready to claim her rightful crown.

When Stephen is betrayed by his cowardly allies at the first pitched battle of the war, the Battle of Lincoln, and captured Maude is able to make her formal claim and hurries across country to be crowned. But she, like Stephen, makes far too many mistakes so quickly and quickly offsets the people of London. Londoners unite to scare Maude and her supporters out of the city before she could be officially crowned. The Queen consort, Matilda, rallies and begins a campaign to free her husband – eventually doing so after the destruction of Winchester, capturing Robert of Gloucester. Robert was traded for Stephen’s freedom, so the King returned to the throne, and Maude would never be Queen.

The two then fight a bloody, desperate and at times pointless war across the length and breadth of England with Maude narrowly escaping capture at Oxford, her legendary escape in the snow to Wallingford brought to life. Intermittent between this is the de facto protagonist, the fictional Ranulf, and his sorry tale of lost love and redemption as he seeks to find his happiness in the world while being one of Maude’s key supporters. After six years of getting nowhere, her dream of being Queen ends when Robert of Gloucester dies, and Maude decides to return to Anjou a defeated woman leaving her campaign in England to the rest of her allies and the Earl of Chester, as Stephen lurched from one political mistake to another, his kingship held together by his brilliance on the battlefield.

The final part of the novel deals with the rise of the future Henry II into adulthood. Together with his entertaining father, Geoffrey, the Angevins sweep across Normandy and completely take it out of Stephen’s control – not only pacifying the Norman barons but then becoming Duke of Normandy in his own right. The young Henry is a brilliant character – confident, intelligent, quick-witted, polite yet commanding. Henry surges to the fore of Anglo-French politics and becomes such a headache for Stephen and Louis VII that they try anything to get an advantage over the rampant Angevins. While on a visit to Paris Henry meets his future bridge, the teasing beauty Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France. Henry conspires with her to force her divorce from Louis and the two fall in love, secretly marrying weeks after Eleanor’s divorce from Louis. Henry was on top of the world then and continued to storm through the campaigning season with victory after victory, not even the sudden death of Geoffrey could keep him down for long. Eventually, Henry returns to England to reignite the Angevin cause in the sickly England, and beats Stephen across the length and breadth of the country. When Eustace, Stephen’s son and heir, suddenly dies, Henry forces Stephen’s hand and gets himself named as the heir to the throne, ending the bloody war at long last. At novels end, Henry Fitz Empress, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, becomes King of England as Henry II and the Plantagenet dynasty was born.

Compared to a lot of historical fiction readers, I’m a very late comer to Sharon Kay Penman’s books. Everything I have heard about them indicates the very tip of excellence in this genre … and I totally see why. This was just superb. Superb writing, superb characters, superb plot devices, and superb dialogue. The latter is particularly true. One of the things I noticed is that most of the story is told in the dialogue, as in it moves from event to event in the dialogue. I kind of imagine each chapter as a short play and the various characters lay out their lives like that. It is quite different from a lot of the things I read where the story moves from various action scene to another, but that did not deter from the reading experience at all. Instead of seeing castles under siege and torrid fighting, you hear about it, and it is left up to your imagination to picture it. I liked that.

The risk of having a novel mainly confined to dialogue is the characters rather morph into one and become the same person. But this is not the case in When Christ and His Saints Slept. All the characters have their own voices and their own defined yet easily recognisable personalities. You know it is Robert when caution and planning is spoken of, you know it is Stephen when chivalry and doing the right thing is spoken of, and you know it is Maude when it is a quick tongue and an impatience with the world around her. I enjoyed these recognisable personalities a lot with characters properly brought to life. Particularly I liked Geoffrey of Anjou, so often over-shadowed by his illustrious son. I felt pity for Stephen, he seemed like a nice person but never suited for rule, and I enjoyed reading so much about what is probably England’s most forgotten monarch. The only character I particularly didn’t enjoy as much was the fictional Ranulf – I felt him to be a little too perfect, you know? He seems to say and do everything right, and I found him to be a little on the nauseating side at times, and would have preferred him to have a little more chinks in his armour like some of his real contemporaries, people who could not be any more flawed if they tried. But he is an exception, and the rest of them are brilliantly developed and constructed people with a very clear voice that beam off the page.

At 901 pages this is one of the meatiest books I have ever read. I think only War and Peace is longer but I made my way through it reasonably fast. It took me a little longer than it should have but that is more because I stupidly chose to begin reading it in the middle of writing a couple of essays, so I went a couple of days without reading. For blokes who have reservations about historical fiction written by woman with a fear that it might be too mushy with romance (hey, there are some), fear not, for there is little of that. It is a rollercoaster ride of ambition, treachery and politics set against the backdrop of the turbulent 12th century, one of the most important in English history. Through Maude, the fictional Ranulf, Stephen, Robert, Geoffrey and Henry the twenty year civil war of The Anarchy unfolds in a truly excellent way, told in a style that is guaranteed to captivate any reader. Despite the length it is easy to read and very simple to understand with a style of dialogue that resonates in this century as well as one 900 years ago. It is very much worth taking the time to read this fantastic novel.

9.5/10.

“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” by J.K. Rowling

11 Nov

“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” by J.K. Rowling (251p)

The follow up to J.K. Rowling’s successful debut in the Harry Potter series is 1998’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. This second in the seven-part series takes Harry to his second year at Hogwarts where he learns more secrets, finds new enemies and reacquaints himself with old ones, and has another run in with the spirit of the dark wizard Lord Voldemort.

Like the year before, Harry is back at the Dursley house with his acidic relatives, gloomy and bored because his family have barred any contact with the magical world, confiscating his broom and textbooks and locking Hedwig, his owl, outside. On his twelfth birthday Dobby, a strange house-elf appears and warns Harry that returning to Hogwarts could put his life in danger. Dobby, determined to prevent Harry from returning to school, causes such a rukus that, when magic is performed, Harry is blamed by the Ministry and warned of expulsion. The Dursley’s lock him in his room and fit bars on the bedroom window. To his relief, he is rescued by pal Ron and his twin older brothers Fred and George and spends the rest of the summer at Ron’s house, before leaving for another school year.

At King’s Cross, Ron and Harry are unable to pass through the magical passage to the wizards platform, meaning the train has left without them. Desperate to get back to Hogwarts they steal their fathers enchanted Ford Anglia and fly the car to school, but crash into the Whomping Willow, breaking Ron’s wand.

Things start going badly at Hogwarts, too, when the mystery shrouded Chamber of Secrets is open and an unknown monster roams the castle, paralysing everything that meets its gaze. The founder of Slytherin house, Salazar Slytherin, was believed to have built the chamber to purge Hogwarts of those unworthy to study magic, and only be opened by his heir. Students and teachers alike start to suspect it may be Harry when it is discovered he speaks parseltounge, the language of snakes. But Harry, Ron and Hermione think it is their enemy from first year, Draco Malfoy, who is Slytherin’s real heir. So to reveal Malfoy’s true identity they conceal themselves with Polyjuice Potion, which transforms a person into someone else for a short time, but they find nothing and realise Malfoy is not the heir of Slytherin.

As the school year rumbles on, the attacks continue at random, claiming various students and people in the castle. All activities are banned and students are required to stay in their dorms. Hagrid, blamed the last time the chamber was opened, is sent to the wizard prison of Azkaban. The trio spend their free time working to discover what the real monster is after learning that Hagrid’s huge pet spider was not it, and they find out that is a basilisk (a giant snake) just in time for Ginny, Ron’s sister, to be taken into the chamber. Harry vows to save Ginny and through a few more clues, they find out how to open the chamber in the abandoned girls bathroom Hermione had taken refuge from in the first book.

Charging into the chamber, Harry goes alone and confronts Slytherin’s real heir – Tom Marvolo Riddle, otherwise known as Lord Voldemort (which is an acronym). Ginner, under Riddle’s control, had inadvertently opened the chamber. Riddle’s basilisk attacks Harry only for Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, Fawkes, to drop the Sorting Hat and Gryffindor’s sword into Harry’s lap. Fawkes blinds the snake and Harry slays it with the sword, and Harry destroys Riddle’s lecherous diary. As a reward Dumbledore gives he and Ron two hundred house points, winning the House Cup for Gryffindor again, and cancels exams.

Whenever the question is posed “what is your favourite Harry Potter book?” I usually put this one second last, because in comparison with some of the others I didn’t like it nearly as much. Granted, I did read this when I was twelve and have only re-read it the once, but it never grabbed me like the others. With the series over I can look back, though, and see all those clues about Voldemort’s destruction as a smack right in the face. Blimey, they’re obvious now!

As it is, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is an all right enough of a book. It is nothing special, though, and I feel it is a bit of a case of second book syndrome. It kind of plodded a little in the middle part with the search for the identity of the basilisk, like it need not have required so much dialogue to get to their discovery. Aside from that, though, there is nothing really wrong with the second in the series, but compared to the others? Well, it’s just not as good. Good, but not as good as them.

6.5/10.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” by J.K. Rowling

8 Nov

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” by J.K. Rowling (223p)

In 1997 struggling young British author Joanne Rowling saw her first novel about a boy wizard at last published, after no less than twelve rejections. The Harry Potter series, which covers seven novels on the young protagonists struggle against the evil dark wizard Lord Voldemort, would go to become the most successful series of novels in history, and making its author the first and so far only billionaire author. This first in the series introduces Harry to the wizarding world, takes him to his beloved school of Hogwarts, introduces all his friends and enemies, and begins the fight against Lord Voldemort.

It is circa 1981 and the magical world is in celebration at the downfall of the most powerful evil dark wizard to have ever walked the earth, Lord Voldemort. After murdering Lilly and James Potter he set to killing their baby son, Harry, but the killing curse backfires, rebounding off Harry and into Voldemort, destroying his body. It leaves the baby Harry with a noticeable lightning bolt car on his forehead. Meanwhile, he is sent to life with his Muggle (non-magical person) relatives, the Dursley family, until he was to be called back to the wizarding world in ten years time.

The story then jumps to 1991, shortly before Harry’s eleventh birthday. For Harry, life with the Dursley’s is awful, they treat him like a slave and have kept his true past from him. But their picture perfect suburban life comes to a crashing halt when Harry turns eleven and the truth is revealed – the half-giant Hagrid finds him and explains he is a wizard and he had been accepted into Hogwarts in the autumn. Hagrid introduces Harry to his first tastes of the magical world in the wizards district in London where he buys his school equipment, and one month later he takes the train from King’s Cross to Hogwarts, mysteriously located in the north of Britain. On the train he meets Ron Weasley, his closest friend, and Hermione Granger, who takes on a greater role later on. He also encounters future rival Draco Malfoy, a boy who would become an outright enemy beginning when Harry declined his friendship.

At Hogwarts, Harry is placed into Gryffindor House with Ron and begins his lessons as a complete novice. One of his first lessons is flying a broom to which he seems naturally gifted at, so much so that he is put into the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Quidditch is the magical equivalent of football (soccer) and the House Cup, in their eyes, means even more than the FA Cup. In Harry’s first match his broom appears to be jinxed by the baleful Professor Snape, and Hermione distracts him by setting his robes on fire, allowing Harry to catch the snitch1 and win for Gryffindor. Shortly after, it is Christmas, and Harry receives his first ever Christmas present: his fathers old invisibility cloak and uses it to go wandering throughout Hogwarts Castle at night. Thereafter, Harry learns that Nicolas Flamel is the maker of Philosopher’s Stone, stolen from the wizarding bank before the school year, which is a stone that gives the owner eternal life.

While out roaming at night Harry, under the cloak, sees Snape interrogating the weak Professor Quirrell about getting passed Fluffy the huge three-headed dog, confirming Harry’s long running suspicion that Snape is after the Philosopher’s Stone in order to restore Voldemort to power. In between, they are also caught being out at night after assisting Hagrid dispose of an illegal baby dragon, and forced to serve detention in the Forbidden Forest. While in the forest Harry sees a hooded figure drink the blood of an injured unicorn, confirmed by a centaur that the hooded figure was the ghost of Voldemort. They coax a drunk Hagrid into revealing how to get passed Fluffy and set off to get to the stone before it can be stolen to restore Voldemort.

This takes them into the bowels of the castle where the stone is protected by a series of curses and charms, put into the shape of challenges, and only one person can progress into the inner chamber, Harry. In the inner chamber he discovers that it is Quirrell who is after the stone, not Snape. Looking into the Mirror of Erised Quirrell forces Harry to find out where the stone is, but Harry successfully lies and the stone secretly drops into his pocket. Voldemort reveals himself as a ghastly face on the back of Quirrel’s head and tries to attack Harry, but the merest touch proves to be agony. Dumbledore returns in time to save Harry but can’t prevent Voldemort from escaping. As he recovers in the hospital, Dumbledore tells Harry about his mothers sacrifice but promises to only tell him about the real reason why Voldemort tried to kill him when he is older. The novel ends with the end-of-year celebrations and Dumbledore makes some last minute changes to the House Cup scoreboard giving Gryffindor enough points to win it, ending Slytherin’s six-year reign as champions.

I was about to turn twelve when I first read this in 1999. When I was younger, I used to read all the time, but then a particularly unpleasant teacher made me hate reading books from the rubbish she forced down our throats, and I swore off them forever. It still took a few years for me to start reading all the time again, but this is where it began again. Despite what a lot of people may say about the series, I loved it, and I am grateful for what J.K. Rowling brought back to my life.

Of course these books are hardly the peak of high-brow literature and this first one is very much the children’s book it was intended to be. There is nothing special about J.K. Rowling’s writing style nor is there anything exceptional about the overall plot of this first one, but it is still a very good and easy read, one that I have re-read about four times since I first read it in 1999. The characters are rich and very fleshed out, each one has its own identity (Hermione is bright and bossy, Harry is brave yet melancholic, Snape is cynical and sardonic, Dumbledore is worldly and almighty, and so forth), while the imagery of the setting is easily brought to life in the books. Simple and fun, this is the first in a series that brought so much joy and entertainment to hundreds of millions, and all lovers of books should check it out just to see what the fuss is all about. Despite reservations, you’ll find yourself being sucked into Harry’s world very easily indeed.

7.5/10.

1 For those who have not read Harry Potter: in Quidditch there are three types of balls, the large red quaffle which is used to score goals by the three chasers; the two black bludgers which are hit by the two beaters toward chasers in possession of the quaffle in defence; and the one golden snitch, which is hunted by the seeker. Whoever catches the snitch first ends the game and scores 150pts for their team, so sometimes catching the snitch may still result in a defeat if the other team is up by 160pts.

“Sword Song,” by Bernard Cornwell

1 Nov

“Sword Song,” by Bernard Cornwell (360p)

The most recent novel in Bernard Cornwell’s current series, the Saxon Stories, is Sword Song. Written in 2007, this fourth in the series takes fictional protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg yet again away form his homeland of Northumbria to the future capital of England, London, while Alfred the Great begins his quest to unite the English kingdoms and free the country of its Danish invaders, in the year 888.

London is a city in a unique situation in 888: it belongs to neither Alfred nor the Danes, for the city straddles both the Wessex, East Anglian and Mercian borders, but officially falls under the jurisdiction of Mercia. But Mercia is a kingdom of two halves where the Danes control the north while Saxons loyal to Alfred have the south. It is obviously in the interests of both sides to secure the largest city in the country and Uhtred is Alfred’s man. But the Danes also want Uhtred on their side, for he is a man with a great reputation across England. Uhtred’s nemesis Haesten returns with a trick of a message from beyond the grave and Uhtred is partially swayed because his loyalty to Alfred is quite thin, so Uhtred allows Haesten to introduce him to a pair of Norse brothers, Sigefrid and Erik, with the same ambition of making Mercia theirs. He seems to be falling for the idea of the Norsemen until they force an old friend of Uhtred’s into a fight to the death, and Uhtred leaves with much to ponder.

His oath to Alfred is called upon again as Alfred asks him to formally take back London into Saxon Mercian hands again; hands connected to the arm of his disliked cousin Æthelred. Uhtred’s surprise attack by boat catches the city garrison unawares and the Danes inside become wedged between Uhtred’s army inside the city and Æthelred’s Mercian fyrd coming the opposite way. Sigefrid, the Norse leader, is left permanently injured when Alfred’s bastard son Osferth leaps off the city wall and lands on top of him, crippling the Norseman terribly. With London back in Saxon hands again the Danes return to the safety of East Anglia. After a few months of quietness, Æthelred begins to get ambitious in his bid to completely control Mercia. He launches a sea raid on the Danes hideout which goes well until Æthelred becomes a little too ambitious and the Danes strikeback, capturing the prized asset of Æthelflæd – not only is she Æthelred’s wife but also the daughter of Alfred.

Uhtred is then sent on behalf of Alfred to buy back his daughter’s freedom at whatever cost. When he returns to the camp of the Danes he learns something very interesting about the King’s daughter, that she had fallen in love with Erik, and so Uhtred tries to arrange a dangerously deceptive plot to free Æthelflæd and allow her to run away with Erik with neither Alfred, Sigefrid or any of his oathsworn men knowing. But his attempts to free Æthelflæd quietly into the night go awry and a fierce battle breaks out in the sea and on marshland between Saxon and Dane. They fight on boats rammed into each other, on marshland and in the water. In the mayhem of a fight with no idea of who was fighting who, somehow, Uhtred’s men manage to come out on top and rescue Æthelflæd and crucially they also destroy one more enemy in the way of Alfred’s dream of creating a peaceful, Christian and lawful England free of outside Danish invaders.

As it is stated in the author note at the end, Sword Song is almost entirely fictional because it covers a few years of relative harmony between the Saxons and Danes. I think the main point of the novel is to show Uhtred in a new light as a grown up mature adult whose life has more to it than just being at the centre of a shield wall. He learns to govern, he learns how to play politician and he learns how to suffer grievances without immediately resorting to violence. In an ironic way, he becomes more of what Alfred would prefer to see in his nobles. But at the same time Uhtred is still every bit the brave, fearless and dangerous killer he was as a teenager. He is just a little wiser and smarter now, perhaps those two years on the slave ship weren’t so bad for him after all?

I liked Sword Song quite a bit. It follows the same trend of the other three with the trademark trappings of a Bernard Cornwell novel – lots of dashing and perilous action, strong characterisation, a fiendish villain and a big fight at the end. It ticks all those boxes and makes for a nice, quick and easy read that shouldn’t take more than a few enjoyable days. In addition, like The Lords of the North, some fans will be a tad disappointed that Alfred is often conspicuous by his absent. But that is also the point of it, too, because making Uhtred in effect Governor of London would mean he has some degree of autonomous freedom and the king is bound to leave him alone for periods of time. Alfred’s aim was to unite England and the real point of Sword Song is to begin that unofficial unification of Wessex and Mercia with Alfred’s people at the top. The slow process of creating England had properly begun during this book and will really take shape in the next one. It is just a shame I have to wait until 2010 to read it …

8/10.