Saturday, July 12, 2014

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

This book does not mess about.

Seriously, characters start dying just a few chapters in.  I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for a book that's not afraid to knock off large segments of its cast.  I like a good fictional bloodbath.  This is especially true when it comes to the final book of a long-running series.  Rowling has spent six books building up to a magical war against Voldemort, with the series growing progressively darker during that time.  It's the sort of thing you have to deliver on, and Rowling delivers in spades.

That said, between the bloodbaths at the beginning and end, this book has a tedious middle.  There's a lot to be said for the structure provided by the Hogwarts school setting: it means that there is always something happening, even when the main plot is not progressing.  Whether it's classes or Quidditch or just interactions with the other students, there's a sense that the characters are always doing things.  This book throws that structure away, and it flounders a little.  There are long parts where it's just Harry, Ron and Hermione teleporting around England with no concrete direction, and it gets a bit tiresome.

The ending makes up for it, though.  It really is an amazing conclusion, and I can't think of many long-running fantasy series that have done as well as this.  All the themes are tied in, all the characters get a satisfying wrap-up, and just about every element introduced earlier in the books plays a part.  I can think of very little I wanted to see that wasn't included.  A series often lives or dies by its ending, and I think that Harry Potter will live for a very long time.

I have only two complaints, one exceedingly minor and one that is quite a bit bigger.  The minor complaint is barely even worth mentioning, as it's more a thing I thought would have improved the ending than something that is a genuine problem.  I was never satisfied with Harry becoming an Auror, and thought it would have been a much more fitting wrap-up to the series for him to take the mantle of teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts.  Think about it: the position had six different occupants during the series.  It was an ongoing subplot about the position being "cursed".  Harry even starts teaching it, after a fashion, when he starts up the DA.  Having Harry become a teacher would have wrapped that sub-plot up nicely, I think.  But that's just me doing a little armchair-writing, trying to tell J.K. Rowling how to do her job.  Because I'm so much more successful than her, you know.

The major complaint, and one I've voiced before, is about the house elves.  That's a sub-plot that was introduced around the middle of the series, and the way it's dealt with is problematic to say the least.  I don't want to get too deep into it (because I might write a whole essay about it in the future), but all I'll say now is that one of the very last lines of the last chapter is Harry hoping that Kreacher will bring him a sandwich.  For a series that does so well in every other area, it's a shame that it stumbled here.

So where next?  I'm in a re-reading mood, and I can see The Wheel of Time taking up an entire shelf of my bookcase.  So I'm tackling The Eye of the World for the umpty-umpth time, but for the first time since the series finished.  I'm really rather looking forward to it.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

I'll admit this up-front: I don't have a hell of a lot to say about book six of the Harry Potter series.  That's not a knock on it's quality: it's really very good.  It's just that I finished it a while ago, and the details have started to inter-mingle with the rest of the series.  I have a few observations I want to share, though.

The Harry Potter books are generally structured as mysteries.  Each book has a central question that Harry and co. are trying to find the answer to, and that the book revolves around.  Who's trying to get into the Hogwarts vault?  Who's been opening the Chamber of Secrets?  Who entered Harry in the Tri-Wizard Tournament?  One of the things that has become apparent about these mysteries is that Harry Potter is always wrong.  He usually jumps to an early conclusion, often accusing someone he doesn't like, and his accusation gets slowly disproven as the book progresses.  What I like about Half-Blood Prince is that this is turned on its head.  Harry works out really quickly that Draco Malfoy is up to some shady business, and tries his best to stop him.  This time, he's right.  Draco was neck-deep in it.  It didn't do Harry much good, but I did like the reversal of the usual structure.

The other mystery here involves the titular Half-Blood Prince, whose potions textbook Harry acquires early on, and uses to great effect.  I was never quite satisfied by the reveal of Snape as the Prince.  It makes perfect sense, but as a dramatic payoff it didn't work for me.  I'm not really sure what the significance of Snape's book was, or why it was important at all for Harry to possess it.  I'm probably missing something subtle here, but there's just something about this subplot that left me cold, and I can't put my finger on it.  Perhaps it was Rowling trying to set up Snape's double-agent role, but I still can't see it.

Also, is this the book where Harry hooks up with Ginny?  Because I always felt like that came right out of nowhere.  Literally, in the space of one paragraph, Harry is suddenly smitten, with zero indication that he had any feelings for her before that.  I'm not convinced by their relationship at all (to be honest, I find that romantic relationships are the weakest aspect of Rowling's writing, expecially where teenage boys are concerned).

I think that's about it, but there was a ton of stuff I liked.  The secret history of Voldemort was awesome.  The whole sequence with Harry and Dumbledore in the cave trying to get the Horcrux was beautifully eerie.  Dumbledore's death was perfectly done.  It's a great book, and a great set-up for the finale.

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

I've mentioned it before, but when I first read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix some ten years ago, I was disappointed.  The previous volume had ended with some serious business going down, and my expectations were high.  After all, Voldemort was back, and he was actually for real killing people.  There was no way that book five could be more of the same Hogwarts boarding school drama.

And yet, when it came out, that was exactly what I got.  More of Harry and his friends at Hogwarts, and very little of Voldemort and his crew.  I had not gotten the book I wanted, and that, combined with this being the first in the series that I had to wait for, led to disappointment.

Here's the thing: I was wrong, because this is a cracking book.  A little long in the tooth, but cracking nonetheless.

The lack of Voldemort was one of the things I criticised it for in the past, but what I've realised during my reread is that Voldemort is really not all that interesting.  He's effective as a super-evil villain, but as is often the case with super-evil villains he's a bit one-note.  The real villain of the book is the Ministry of Magic, particularly Dolores Umbridge, and that's a much more complex thing.

Umbridge herself may just be the best villain of the whole series.  I never had a particular hate for Voldemort, despite the frequency with which he tortures and murders people.  Umbridge, on the other hand, I have genuine loathing for.  She just so easy to hate, much easier to hate then Voldemort, even though her brand of evil is a lot less extreme than his.  I think I know why that is.

I think most of us has met an Umbridge in real life.  We've all been punished by vindictive teachers, or become the victims of bureaucracy, or met seemingly lovely people who are horrible, horrible racists.  Hers is a real-life brand of petty evil, whereas Voldemort is on another level entirely.  I doubt many people interact with murderers and would-be despots on the regular, at least not the sort of people reading Harry Potter novels.  It's not very likely that I'm going to be tortured when I go to work, or suffer from ethnic cleansing.  Plus, Voldemort's a badass.  He's got that I'm-a-killer coolness factor going for him, the sort that only fictional killers have.  Umbridge has no coolness, she's just a terrible person of the sort we have to deal with every day, and therefore she's much easier to hate.

I don't have a lot of other notes about this book, except to say that it really is better than I remembered.  I finished it ages ago, so the details are hazy.  Hopefully I'll do better with book 6, but I finished that a long time ago as well.  As usual, I've been slack.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Project Round-Up

Okay, so I haven't updated this blog in close to a month.  Okay, so I've barely done any writing in the last month.  I'm not going to dwell on those facts, as it doesn't do anybody any favours.  Allow me to continue with my post and pretend that I'm not a complete screw-up.

So what I really want to do today is give an update on the various projects that I've been promising since I started this blog.  I have a tendency to get high on an idea, go at it full steam for a day or two, then drop it.  Let's check my track record for 2013-2014.

The Lightless Labyrinth:  This is the big one, and it's been my major project since early this year.  I would estimate that I'm about 1/3 done with the first draft, which puts me a little bit behind schedule.  My plan was to get the first draft done by the end of the year.  There's still time, if I pull the proverbial finger out.

Jack Manley Sequel:  This could be either Jack Manley and the Interchronal Deathmatch Tournament or Jack Manley and the Fist That Punched the Devil, depending on which takes my fancy when it comes time to begin.  I had previously said that I wanted to do it as a serial, but to be honest I'm not sure that I can create a first draft I'll be happy with, and anything I release as a serial would by necessity be a first draft.  I'll tackle this as my next novel after The Lightless Labyrinth, so probably some time next year.

Marvel Guidebooks: I'm getting there, at least with volume 1.  That said, volume 1 only covers the year 1961, and is more of a test for myself than a genuine book.  It's only going to cover three comics (or perhaps just two, I haven't decided yet) but for such a complex project I want to get the format down before I embark on the guidebook for 1962.  Volume 1 should almost certainly be out before the year's end.

Ug and the Giant's Backyard: This was the children's book that I had published through a small press about a decade ago.  I want to make it available via print and digital again, but before I do that I want to add colour to the interior illustrations, and create a new front cover.  This is another one I think I can get done by the end of 2014.

The  Lightless Labyrinth: 1,627 words (39,598 total)


What I'm Reading:
Harry Potter books 5-7
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

What I'm Watching:
Loads of WWE

What I'm Playing:
The Game of Dungeons (aka dnd)