“The Rest Of Us Just Live Here” by Patrick Ness (2015)

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We can't all be the Chosen One.

We can’t all be the Chosen One.

“On the day we’re the last people to see indie kid Finn alive, we’re all sprawled together in the Field, talking about love and stomachs.”

Every good story needs a hero. The Buffy Summers, Harry Potter or Darren Shan of the piece who has to save the world (and often just the school) from imminent destruction from the Villain of the Week. But there are only so many zombies, ghosts or dark lords to defeat, so not everyone gets to do it. This is a story about those who aren’t chosen. These are the characters who, rather than wanting to save the world, just want to make it to graduation without the school blowing up or any of their friends being used for a sacrificial ritual. After all, what was Hogwarts like if you actually attended all your lessons and never had to smuggle dragons out the castle or do battle with giant snakes?

Our narrator is Mikey, a high school senior with OCD who is struggling with growing up, the friendships that may be about to end, and his unrequited feelings for his friend Henna. Along with his sister Mel, a recovering anorexic, and his best friend Jared, who happens to be a quarter God, he’s counting down the days until the school year ends and he has to leave his pathetic little town in the middle of nowhere.

He has problems, but they’re mostly ordinary. Jared is keeping a secret from him, Henna seems to have developed a crush on the new boy Nathan, Mikey’s mother’s political ambitions are perhaps getting in the way of letting them have a united family, and to cap it all, Mikey’s OCD is getting worse again. Still, at least he’s not one of the indie kids. They’re the kids who keep getting involved in the strange events around town. Years ago it was zombies, or vampires, but this time the town is at risk from Immortals who glow with a blue light and are killing anyone in their way. But that’s not Mikey’s story – he just hopes no one blows up the school before he can get his diploma.

This is such a cool concept for a story. Yes, there is a massive threat to the town, and possibly the world, but this time we’re not going to be part of it. Every chapter opens with a brief summary of, basically, what we would see in that chapter if we were following the hero indie kids, but then will cut to a very ordinary event with Mikey and his friends. They sometimes brush up against the fantasy story, but they’re not directly connected. This adds so much to the world of fiction, and brings home again the notion that we are all the heroes in our own stories, but every single one of those stories are connected. Some people have to save the world, and some just have to survive the consequences.

Both heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, the story details much about the nature of family and friends, especially the family we construct from our friends and how that’s different for everyone. Patrick Ness writes with such warmth and sweetness that you can’t help feel for Mikey, Mel, Jared, Meredith, Henna, and the rest of them with their struggles. Jared is particularly interesting, as I love the idea of someone who just “happens to be a God”, but he doesn’t really let it affect him when he can help it.

A wonderful, funny and sweet novel about growing up, feeling unloved, struggling to move on, and why sometimes it’s best not to be at the heart of the action.

“Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins (2010)

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mocking“I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather.”

Trilogies are funny things. You have to try and get the balance right and have every story be equally weighted in how good they are and try not to finish everything up before you hit the end, but also not throwing in so many plot points that they end up getting unfinished at the end. Some people do it very well.

But here, with the usual warning that there are numerous spoilers ahead for the series – and in this case, I’m completely just going to give away the ending because it merits discussion – and a heavy heart, I begin my review of Mockingjay, the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy.

The last book ended with Katniss, Peeta and a few other tributes being rescued from the Hunger Games arena by a rebel faction who are determined to end this torture and take down President Snow, the Nero-like leader of Panem. This one opens a while later with Katniss exploring the ashen remains of District 12, her former home, before being told that the rebels want her as their Mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion against Snow and the Capitol. She is less than keen, and with all the other changes in her life, she wants to just try and forget that any of it happened, which is impossible. She now lives in District 13, entirely underground, and her friend – the boy she possibly loves – Peeta keeps appearing on television, being used as a mouthpiece by the Capitol, but clearly having undergone torture and worse.

Katniss decides to become the Mockingjay and is sent out to other districts to meet people and show support. Just the sight of her can be enough to make people think that all hope is not yet lost and they can and will win. Once the districts have fallen, it will be time to take the war to the Capitol itself and see that President Snow is executed. But it’s not that simple, as the leader of the rebels, President Coin, seems to have her own agenda, and it’s one that Katniss is not best pleased with. It all hangs on Katniss being the hero that everyone else wants.

So, I put up with the flaws of the first two books, but this one was really just a disappointment. Most of the action that drives the story – Peeta’s torture, the ongoing challenge to take down the districts, Katniss’s trial at the end – all take place off screen. It seems to go from having one or two districts aiding the rebels to all of them doing so with barely any time at all, and with Katniss only visiting District 8 on the page for any length of time. She spends the vast majority of her time moaning and griping, not sure whether she loves Peeta or Gale, and leaving me not understanding why either of them would even want to be with her.

Haymitch; one of the redeeming features of the series

In short, I think I just found it hard to care about any of them by this point. Yes, I understand that they wanted to end the Hunger Games and a full-scale revolution was was probably going to be the only way to do that, but it seems strange that after seventy-five years of accepting those games without any real qualm, suddenly everyone was prepared to start disobeying the Capitol, a force that has long been shown to have incredible power. Even if they do get their resources from the other districts, they still had more firepower and strategic ability to stop any revolution before it occurred, right? Maybe I missed something.

I also do have to discuss two bits that happen right near the end. Firstly, once Snow has been captured and the Capitol is at the mercy of the rebels, the remaining seven victors are called to place a vote. They must decide whether, as punishment, they will host their own Hunger Games using the children of Capitol residents as tributes. Shockingly, they vote yes, apparently not having learnt a single thing about the past and instead going for petty revenge. Oh sure, maybe Katniss and Haymitch were playing a different game by voting for it, knowing that it was the only way to convince President Coin that they were on her side, but the whole thing seems a bit ridiculous.

And then you’ve got the epilogue (referred to by a couple of my friends as the “crapilogue”), which is two pages long, revealing what happened twenty years later. It ends so abruptly at the bottom of a page that I didn’t even realise it was the end of the book and turned over to continue to find the acknowledgements. Meanwhile in those two pages, Katniss is stripped of all her strength, independence and volition when it turns out that Peeta wore her down for fifteen years about having children, something she’d always said she didn’t want. So while she ends the book with severe PTSD and generally being a mess, she still then has to become a mother because the boy she finally chose (only because the other never came home) nags her into it. That doesn’t seem like something the Katniss that Collins had been building up for the last three books would do. Bah.

The thing is, the best parts of the series are the bits taking place inside the Hunger Games arenas, and with that gone, so too is most of my interest. Oh sure, they try and get something similar going by having booby-trapped pods lace the streets of the Capitol once the rebels break in, but that doesn’t seem to make any sense anyway, and it’s just not the same. Also, Effie has all but vanished and I like her. Everyone warned me that the third book was a let down, and they were right.

So it’s a disappointing ending for the trilogy. If you haven’t yet embarked on it, it might be worth just sticking with the first one and not bothering to carry on. You could probably write your own ending that would be better than this. Ah well, another trilogy down.

“Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins (2009)

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Catching-fire“I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air.”

Writing about sequels and trilogies is hard because anything you say will undoubtedly be laced with spoilers. It’s like if you read the blurbs on the backs of progressive books in a series, you can work out much of what is going to happens. Blurbs, it seems, automatically fix cliffhangers.

But I give my usual warning anyway that if you haven’t read The Hunger Games, spoilers to that book start immediately below, so you can catch up with my review of that here, or just thunder on through.

So Katniss has survived the Hunger Games and is now back home, her and her people showered with gifts, this being the prize for winning the Games, but she’s not happy. As far as the world is concerned, she’s meant to be wildly in love with fellow combatant Peeta. However, she’s now sure that she loves her best friend Gale, only they barely get any time to spend together anymore. On top of that, there’s the never-ending nightmares about her time in the arena.

Out of the blue, Katniss receives a visit from President Snow, the leader of Panem, who is silently furious. Katniss’s tiny act of rebellion against the Capitol last year (to have both her and Peeta crowned winners of the Games) has led to murmurings of uprisings in various districts around the country. Should anything come of them, Snow suggests, it will be Katniss and those she loves that suffer the greatest punishments.

With the threat lingering over her head, Katniss and Peeta begin the Victory Tour of Panem and as other districts become more restless, and Katniss’ own District 12 suddenly becomes a lot more militant, she begins to worry exactly to what extent Snow’s rage will stretch. And then it becomes clear. He’s going to get rid of her in the smartest way possible – he’s sending her back into the Games…

OK, so I still don’t like Katniss, which is a shame, because I like most of the supporting cast. Peeta, Haymitch, Effie and Cinna, the latter of whom gets precious little page time in this one, are all great, and I’m even fond of the Games participants, all of whom are previous champions. Johanna is clearly a bit mental and I think she’s great. The two nerds from the electronics district are endearing, and Finnick, a born fisherman, is very interesting, as is the eighty-year-old Mags.

In terms of plot, the pacing is all over the place. The book takes forever to get going, with large sections given over to Katniss worrying. She seems to not be a particularly active protagonist, merely instead letting things happen to her, although she generally handles herself very well in whatever situation. Too well, sometimes. For example, it’s mentioned early on about a secret lake that she used to swim in, and then the arena later on is mostly water, giving her an advantage she shouldn’t have had. The stuff during the Games is the best bit, and then the final chapter or two races through so much exposition, you can’t help but feel that Collins was coming up against her deadline and her publisher had said, “By the way, we want a third one too, so can you throw in a couple of plot hooks there?”

The writing, actually, isn’t bad. Collins is a good writer, but that’s not always the same as being a good storyteller. The best bits about these books are the times set inside the Hunger Games arena, and everything else is just fluff. That’s where the good story comes in, but it takes so long to get there this time, and a lot of the training set up feels so familiar from the last book that it’s not especially interesting.

So it’s OK, but it’s not as good as the first one, and everyone I’ve spoken to says that the third book is terrible (although, inexplicably, also claim that the film versions are the best) but I think I’m going to have to read it just for the sake of completion, although I think I can see exactly where it’s going. Collins will have to pull of a spectacular twist, here.

This is the ultimate difficult second novel. I will be interested to see if it can be saved, although my hopes are not high.

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (2008)

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Let the Games begin...

Let the Games begin…

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

For years I’ve been saying I’ll get around to this series. It’s not that I’ve not wanted to read it, I’ve just never been so desperate to get my hands on it. Most people I know have already read it and have their opinions, and perhaps I’ve been shaped by some of these. The first in the trilogy is already seven years old, and with the films having been released, many plot points had already been revealed to me, although not necessarily with the right context.

Nonetheless, I have finally read the first book. As usual, I’ll start with a summary of the plot (for those of you who are even later to the party than me) and then I’ll get on with the gritty analysis.

So, The Hunger Games takes place in an undisclosed year of the future in a country called Panem that was once the USA. After a war, the country was divided into thirteen districts and the capital city, The Capitol, each district having a responsibility for a certain product or aspect of the country, be it fishing, mining, agriculture, power, etc. Every year, two teenagers are chosen at random from each District and forced into an arena together where there are no rules and the last one left alive is rewarded with great prizes of food and comfort for the starving population of their District.

This year, Katniss Everdeen, a keen archer and natural hunter, and Peeta Mellark, the son of a baker, are the tributes for District 12. Katniss wasn’t selected, it was her younger sister Prim, but unable to see Prim go though with the trial, she volunteers to take her place. Her world is thrown into turmoil as she and Peeta are taken to the Capitol, dolled up to look beautiful and make the public love them, before being thrown into an arena from which only one victor will emerge, the other twenty-three contestants having died. And everyone in the country will be watching.

OK, so, I’ll get my complaints out of the way first. Naturally, through the fact that the novel is narrated in the first person, we know from the outset that Katniss will survive. (That’s not a spoiler, right?) The tension is also diminished by the fact that the series is over and we know that it’s a trilogy. By rights, Katniss has to survive. I’ve also come to note that people really play up the love triangle aspect of the book and say that the film took it to extremes, but if you ask me it’s not exactly an undercurrent here. I’m aware that the Katniss and Peeta relationship is being played up (by Katniss at least) for the cameras, but it’s definitely not a minor plot point that she has feelings for her friend back home, Gale, too.

An expert archer at 16, because of course.

An expert archer at 16, because of course.

Also, I have to note that Katniss is one of those protagonists that I simply don’t like very much. She joins the ranks with Lyra (His Dark Materials), Alice (of Wonderland fame), and, yes, Harry Potter (let’s face it, no one’s favourite Harry Potter character is Harry) of protagonists that I find irritating. I know she’s playing up to the cameras for a lot of it, but, come on, how right is she about what’s going on out there? She has plot armour on up to her eyeballs, and I find her something of an insufferable know-it-all. I know you’re supposed to take all this with a pinch of salt, and I ran with it for as long as I could, but disbelief can only be stretched so far.

HOWEVER.

As young adult books go, this isn’t badly written. It’s smart and pacey, has a lot of very interesting ideas and builds a world that is horribly foreign and yet, at the same time, worryingly realistic. While I’m fundamentally bored by Katniss (Peeta exhibits traits that might make him a little more interesting), I do want to know so much more about this world. Who’s idea were the Hunger Games? How did the country get divided up? What’s going on in the rest of the world? Have they ever tried to stop Panem?

The supporting characters are more interesting, too. Effie Trinket is obviously a cog in the evil machine of the Capitol, but one that occasionally reveals glimpses of her true personality behind the mask, possibly suggesting that she doesn’t necessarily like everything that goes on. Haymitch is great, and while his alcoholism feels slightly tacked on at first, it quickly becomes obvious as to why he’s like that. Caesar Flickerman is also an interesting one, as I really can’t tell if he’s meant to actually be on the tributes side, or if he’s as bad as the rest of them and it’s all a front. My favourite of the supporting cast, though, is Cinna, who seems to be the only genuinely good person there. The other tributes feel pretty one-dimensional. Obviously many are killed quickly to bring down the number of characters we have to contend with, but even those that survive longer don’t excite me that much. That’s the nature of the story, I suppose; we have to know and see what Katniss knows and sees.

I’ll carry on with the series, sure, but not without trepidation. Most of what I knew about the series has happened here (although obviously my knowledge had enormous gaps; I had no clue that the Games were literally about hunger and the supply of food) so I’m going into murkier waters, although I can make a good guess at some of what’s coming. If you haven’t read the books yet, and aren’t put off by any spoilers I’ve revealed above (although I don’t think I’ve done too badly), then be prepared for the first few chapters to be a bit of a slog, but stick with it. The payout is very good.

“Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows” by J. K. Rowling (2007)

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I open at the close...

I open at the close…

“The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane.”

And so the series draws to a close for me once more. I have finished my re-read of the seven Harry Potter books, and once again found myself shedding a tear, caught up in the drama, finding nuances that I’d never noticed before and generally realising that this series doesn’t just deal with magic, but is imbued with the stuff itself. There are spoilers from here on in; if you’ve somehow never read it and want to remain uninformed, stop reading now.

In the final installment of Harry Potter’s adventures, he, Ron and Hermione are on a journey around the country in search of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, the hidden items that contain parts of his soul. If they can destroy them, then they can finally defeat Voldemort. But things are never as easy as that.

First they have to attend Ron’s brother’s wedding, deal with the fallout from Albus Dumbledore’s death, work out where the Horcruxes are, and avoid Voldemort and his followers, the Death Eaters. Their journey takes them around the country where they must break into three of the most heavily protected buildings in the wizarding world, deal with dark magic beyond anything they could have imagined, as well as get caught up in a secondary mission to reunite the Deathly Hallows, which will give the holder the power to cheat Death. It all comes to an earth-shattering climax during the Battle of Hogwarts as this thrilling series draws to a thrilling and powerful close.

What always gets me about this book is the sheer number of emotional wallops that Rowling subjects us to. Before it was released, she announced that the gloves were off and anyone could die in this one. I think we all sort of shrugged this off, convinced that she didn’t mean it about anyone too important. But then Hedwig dies just a few chapters in (a moment that represents Harry’s loss of innocence and passage into adulthood) and we all went, “Oh, right, she really did mean anyone.” By the end of the novel, Lupin, Tonks, Snape, Fred, Moody, Crabbe, Scrimgeour, Pettigrew, Dobby, Colin and Bellatrix will have joined the ranks of the dead. With the exception of Crabbe, Pettigrew and Bellatrix, who arguably deserved their fates, the rest all have the power to make one cry. This time round, I only shed a tear at one scene, and it wasn’t even one with a death in it.

The final showdown has begun.

The book presents a cavalcade of activity. Some of the information given is new and, while some people argue that it’s not fair that we didn’t get to know everything before this book (such as the true identity of the Grey Lady, and the very existence of the Deathly Hallows), I beg them to remember that the books are told from Harry’s point of view, so we can only know what he knows. Almost every character from the previous six books turns up again here, if only to be name checked and not actually seen. Harry recalls numerous events from the last six adventures, and patterns often begin to emerge from them.

One of the most interesting sections is towards the end when, during the break in the Battle of Hogwarts, we finally get to see into the mind of Severus Snape and find out his past. It’s moving and heartbreaking, but while this is true, it’s also true that I still can’t find it in my heart to particularly like the man. He was nasty and vindictive, and regardless of which side he was on, he remained a bully.

The whole Battle of Hogwarts is an absolute masterpiece of writing, bringing together all the characters and allowing the story to reach its head. There’s so much going on in these scenes that I almost feel like I’m there, surrounded by wizards both good and bad, house elves, giants, centaurs, spiders, and everything else in between. The teachers come into their own – McGonagall leading school desks into the fray, Sprout throwing dangerous plants at the Death Eaters, Trelawney simply lobbing crystal balls on their heads from a high balcony – and every character we’ve grown to know and love over the series shows themselves to be brilliant, perhaps none more so than Neville. The absolute pinnacle, however, is still Voldemort’s body at the end, dead and very, very mortal. It shows so clearly how he was merely a human, not the super being that he thought he was. The film ruined this moment; sure, it looked more cinematic, but it was not what we were supposed to see.

Nineteen years later…

I have unanswered questions, of course. I want to know what happened to Vernon, Petunia and Dudley when they were sent into hiding. How did Vernon handle any of that? What happened to Hermione’s parents afterwards? Where was Voldemort’s body laid to rest? I want to know how Hogwarts  rebuilt itself, whether Slytherin ever became better thought of, and just generally what happened to everyone else. The epilogue does some service with this (I know some people can’t bear the epilogue, but I happen to love it), and I guess we’ll just have to wait for Rowling to release some more answers, if she ever wants to.

Re-reading the Harry Potter books has proved to me that this is not a series to be taken lightly. Oh sure, they begin with the lightness and fun of a Roald Dahl romp, but very quickly you descend into something far darker. This is one for the ages. Harry Potter is already part of the planet’s syntax – I can barely find a (British) book written post-2000 that doesn’t make some reference to the boy wizard. Rowling is a genius, a queen of world building and characterisation.

What else is there to say about this series that hasn’t already been said?

All is well.

“Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince” by J. K. Rowling (2005)

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Six down, one to go.

Six down, one to go.

“It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping though his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.”

And so the end approaches.

The sixth installment in the global phenomenon that is Harry Potter arrived in 2005, two years after the last one, and changed everything that we thought was true once again. Like last time, this review contains spoilers, so don’t say I haven’t given fair warning if you’ve not read the book.

The book opens with two chapters far from Harry Potter himself. The first involves the Muggle Prime Minister meeting the Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who has been updating his non-magical counterpart on the dangers the country is facing from dark wizards and witches. The second has Bellatrix Lestrange and Narcissa Malfoy make a house call on Severus Snape, as Narcissa implores him to help her son Draco with the task he has been given by Voldemort.

And then we meet Harry, fast asleep and waiting for Dumbledore. Unlike last time, when Dumbledore was barely present in the novel, here he appears regularly and is responsible for extra lessons with Harry once term starts up. Before then, however, Harry and Dumbledore get hold of former teacher Horace Slughorn and entice him back to the school.

With the whole wizarding world now knowing that Voldemort is back and the Ministry doing its best to protect everyone, including sacking Cornelius Fudge and replacing him with the apparently much more reliable Rufus Scrimgeour, tensions are high, and Harry is soon suspicious of Malfoy who seems to be sneaking around and doing things he ought. Convinced that Malfoy is now working directly for Voldemort, but with little evidence to go on, he becomes obsessed with finding out what’s happening.

Meanwhile, back at Hogwarts, Harry has been made Quidditch captain, has become an expert at Potions thanks to the marginalia of an ex-student calling himself the Half-Blood Prince, Hermione and Ron are barely speaking after he starts going out with Lavender Brown, and Harry’s private lessons with Dumbeldore turn out to be viewing memories that show Voldemort in his youth, piecing together what is known about his rise to power. The magic he used appears to have been even darker than Harry could ever have imagined…

Fig 2: Not boyfriend material.

Fig 2: Not boyfriend material.

Even though the series is nearly over, we are still introduced to a whole collection of new characters, again many of whom are wonderful and interesting additions. Perhaps after people continually wondering why Slytherin still existed when it seemed to be nothing but evil-doers, Rowling gives us Horace Slughorn. He is a Slytherin, but shows the other side of the coin – ambitious, certainly, but only through a desire to be well-connected. He knows his limits. He is charismatic and charming, and displays immense bravery, showing that that is not a trait unique to Gryffindor. Conversely, new Gryffindor characters include Cormac McLaggen and Romilda Vane, who show the arrogant, vain and self-important traits related to Gryffindor.

This book also does wonders in showing that it isn’t just Harry having to deal with horrors. Draco Malfoy is now in too deep, perhaps at first believing that he was strong enough to help Voldemort, but now he’s been given the task of killing Dumbledore, he finds he cannot bring himself to do it. Voldemort, it seems, knows this, and will use Malfoy’s failing as a reason to do away with him. Malfoy remains a wonderfully interesting character, now no longer interested in bullying other students as he has for the last five years. He’s finally been given a taste of the glory he’s sought for so long, only to find that he doesn’t suit his palate. Again, as Rowling says, he may be seen as worryingly handsome, thanks mostly to Tom Felton, but there is no real niceness beneath.

This isn’t my favourite book of the series, and it seems in many places to be a retelling of Chamber of Secrets. Both involve the destruction of a Horcrux (although only this time round do we know that’s what we’re dealing with), and the book is mostly devoted to backstory. Through the use of the Pensieve, Rowling allows us to actually see the action of years previously without resorting to Harry and Dumbledore merely talking it through. These insights into the life of Voldemort before he became powerful, and indeed his family, are rather interesting, but all they do is show the similarities between him and Harry. Harry could easily have become either Voldemort, or Draco, but his choices show who he truly is.

In amongst the darkness of this novel, we also have the burgeoning problem of teenage hormones running as rampant as the Death Eaters. The teenage characters are coming of age and Rowling doesn’t hide away from this change in their personalities. Ron starts dating Lavender, but both he and Hermione are coming to terms with how they feel about each other, and Ginny dates Dean before finally moving onto Harry. The couples are in place, but it will all go sour again before they get their happy endings.

There’s just one book left to go, and everything hangs in the balance.

“Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix” by J. K. Rowling (2003)

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phoenix“The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.”

The best and most insane review I ever saw on Amazon was for a regular-sized paperback. The review stated that the book “was too heavy to easily hold”. Clearly the poster has never had the joy of carrying Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix around for a week. Seven-hundred-and-sixty-six pages later, I’ve finished it and can return it to my shelf and start using a smaller bag again.

The following review assumes that you’ve read this book, and contains spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

In the fifth installment of the enormously successful blockbuster series (I’ve already covered the first, second, third and fourth), teenage wizard Harry Potter has been left with his non-magical relatives once again and has had very little contact from the wizarding world. No one seems to be able to give him any information, and it’s clear that his friends are together without him. At the end of the last school year, Harry saw the evil Lord Voldemort return to power, but the Ministry of Magic are pretending that it hasn’t happened. Harry is frustrated, and things become even more confusing when he and his cousin are attacked by two Dementors and Harry ends up having to undergo a trial to see if he will be expelled from school or not.

Once Harry gets to school, things go from bad to worse. It’s their exam year so the teachers are throwing even more work at them than ever before, everyone thinks he’s a nutter as the newspapers are pretending that Voldemort isn’t back, and there’s a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, a Ministry official who is there simply to make sure that Dumbledore and the students aren’t going against Ministry wishes. On top of that, Harry’s hormones are going wild, he’s having strange visions and Hagrid is nowhere to be seen. The story runs on through the year to the most shocking showdown of the series so far.

Throughout my time in the fandom, I have yet to meet anyone who says that their favourite character is Harry Potter, and I put that fact down solely to this book. Harry is fifteen and, obviously that’s a difficult time in anyone’s life, emotionally, even without the issues of being possessed by Voldemort and having the fate of the wizarding world on your shoulders. But throughout this book Harry is moody, irritable, sulky, and generally not particularly pleasant company. I understand that he’s going through a lot and his rage does make sense, but while Rowling does portray this well, he comes across as melodramatic most of the time and I just want to give him a slap. There’s an arrogance there, and he once again proves that he has a hero complex.

True evil wears pink

True evil wears pink

While this book isn’t my favourite, it does however introduce us to one of the finest characters in literature, Dolores Umbridge. Just as no one prefers Harry over everyone else, absolutely everyone is united in their hate for Umbridge. Whereas Voldemort is evil in more of a fantastical, cartoony sort of way, Umbridge is bureaucratically evil, obsessed with rules and laws, regardless of how they actually impact people. She unswervingly does whatever she is told to do, grasps power wherever she can and never questions that what she’s doing might be wrong. Umbridge is so much more scary than Voldemort because everyone has known an Umbridge. Her high girlish voice and penchant for pink clothes seem to emphasise her nastiness, and she produces such a visceral hate within me (and others) that she really is the pinnacle of Rowling’s outstanding skill at three-dimensional character creation. She gets her comeuppance, although this isn’t the last time we see her in the series, and when it comes, the reader cannot possibly feel sad about it. Indeed, it feels hugely justified.

This book really draws home how many strong characters there are in the series Minerva McGonagall remains my favourite, and even more so after a reread of this, and I also once again found myself remembering how much I enjoy Luna Lovegood, Kingsley Shacklebolt, all the Weasleys and Neville Longbottom.

This book is also notable in being one of only two that make me cry every time I read them. (The other is The Time Traveler’s Wife.) And no, not when Sirius dies. I’ve never cried at that because I’ve never been massively connected to Sirius as a character. Yes, it was tragic for Harry, but their relationship was always a bit too neat for me, and while I do wish he had stayed alive, I’m not upset by his death. The bit I always cry at is when Harry, Ron and Hermione meet Neville in St Mungo’s – the wizarding hospital – where he is visiting his terminally insane parents. Neville’s mum gives him a sweet wrapper in what she presumably believes is an affectionate gesture and Neville, instead of throwing it away, pockets it. There is an implication that this happens a lot and he always does it. It is perhaps the most heartbreaking thing I have ever read and I adore it.

This book is far and away the biggest of the heptalogy, and it isn’t my favourite. As mentioned, there are some very incredible scenes, characters and set pieces going on, but it always feels a bit too long. I realised early on that on page 200 of Philosopher’s Stone, the trio are just going down the trapdoor to face the final battle. On page 200 here, it was the first day of school. There’s a lot of exposition here, but I suppose that’s just how it has to be right now. There’s even more to come in the next book.

The novel ends with the Second War beginning and the wizards preparing themselves to fight back against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. There is a glimmer of hope among the wreckage of what happened in this book. We are left with no doubts at all that whatever’s just happened has changed everything, and the end of the series is rushing ever closer. Soon, all will be well, but not just yet.

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