Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Review of the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

The Harry Potter series wraps up at long last: After publishing the first three books in 3 years, it took another 8 years for J.K. Rowling to write the last four. Of course, each of the four is twice as long as any of the three, so there you go.

If you’ve surfed in here and haven’t yet read the book, be advised that there are spoilers after the Read More link below, although I’ve tried to keep the first half of the review free of them.

Deathly Hallows starts, as the other books do, at the end of the summer between school years, but this time the book promptly heads off into new territory: As Harry is enemy number one where the resurrected Lord Voldemort is concerned, and since his mystical protection will evaporate as soon as he turns 17 (which is the age of maturity for wizards), the Order of the Phoenix plans to hide Harry for his protection. Not everything goes as planned, but Harry finally ends up in a safe house.

While preparing for the marriage of Ron’s brother Bill to Fleur Delacoeur, our trio of heroes (Harry, Ron and Hermione) start planning how they can go about finding the remaining Horcruxes containing fragments of Voldemort’s soul, since if they can destroy them all, then they can bring about the dark wizard’s downfall. Unfortunately, the downfall of some powerful forces on the side of good in the wizarding world leave the three on the run from the ascendant dark lord’s forces, with precious little idea of how to proceed other than trying to stay one step ahead of their pursuers.

Their adventures on the road involve personal conflicts, a variety of traps, and learning some surprising facts about Harry’s family and Dumbledore’s history. They also learn of the existence of the Deathly Hallows, some powerful magical artifacts which could turn the tide against Voldemort, but which – like the Horcruxes – are well-hidden, if they even exist at all.

I freely admit that the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, sapped my enthusiasm for the Harry Potter series. It became clear to me that J.K. Rowling was no longer being edited, and she really needed a strong editor, because she too easily fell in love with her own typing. Phoenix badly needed to be cut at least in half, and Half-Blood Prince, though better, was also too long and had long stretches of boring in it. So I didn’t approach Deathly Hallows in a very forgiving frame of mind, since it was another giant tome.

That said, Hallows has some things to recommend it. It’s a very different book from its predecessors, having very little of the “kid’s stuff” feel of those books: It’s all deadly serious, and Harry and friends are mostly left to their own devices, as Rowling puts them in the role of the “last, best hope” for the good guys. The story has finality written all over it: The stakes have never been higher, and the story revolves around Harry’s and Dumbledore’s backgrounds (much as Prince revolved around Voldemort’s), bringing a strong feeling of coming full circle.

But, dammit, the book is still too darned long. It takes nearly a quarter of the book to finally get Harry and company on the road looking for Horcruxes; the pages before are a very, very gradual build-up of elements of the story, and once again I wished Rowling would just get on with it. Heck, the whole first chapter is completely superfluous and should have been cut. I’m still of the mind that Rowling simply fell in love with the sound of her typing, and had enough clout to keep her words from being edited, even though she really, really badly needed some serious editing.

The book takes some strange turns once Harry is on the road, and some of them don’t ring true. And then it still takes quite a while before the shape of the story becomes known. Eventually, the conflict becomes not just the one between the forces of good and evil, but the temptation of the Deathly Hallows for Harry: To follow the course Dumbledore set for him to destroy the horcruxes, or to go for the seemingly-certain victory by seeking the Hallows. This is actually a surprisingly sophisticated conflict for what is otherwise not a very subtle series, and I wish more time had been spent on it, rather than the noodling around which occupies the first half of the book. (The insight into Dumbledore is not uninteresting, but it’s not essential either. A lot of it is spun out of whole cloth just to increase the suspense in this volume, with little connection to earlier volumes.)

Deathly Hallows feels so divorced from the rest of the series that it makes several of the early books feel even less relevant: Goblet of Fire can be boiled down to Voldemort returning from the dead, Order is little more than giving Harry a reason to hate Voldemort because of what he does to Sirius Black, and Prince is partly Voldemort’s backstory and partly the set-up for this book. It feels like you could read the first three books, and then just skim the next three to get to the “good stuff” that’s in here.

And as usual I think the cover of the U.K. edition (pictured above) is much better than that of the U.S. edition. Mary GrandPré’s art is not at all to my taste, so I’m glad to have the British editions instead.

The bottom line in my opinion is that this book is more suspenseful than the two before it, and feels more necessary to the overall story, but Rowling still needed to be seriously edited to cut down the volume of extraneous material and make the story more streamlined and enjoyable. She could still surprise and delight, but not like she could in the first three, shorter books. My final feeling is that I’m glad the series is over because I don’t think I could have pushed through much more of her verbiage, and that’s not a good epitaph for any series. The core magic of Harry Potter was the feeling that Harry was a normal boy who found that he was really extraordinary, but that magic is far in the past. Deathly Hallows is just a straightforward adventure story.

Beyond this point are spoilers for the book, so don’t continue if you don’t want to be spoiled!

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