This summer, I reread the Harry Potter books for the first time in a decade. I’ve been a fan of Harry Potter since my elementary school days, though my journey through the whole series was slow, as I was too young for the later books when I first started reading them. I still have vivid memories of reading each book. As an adult rereading them, the books still sparked the same magic in me. I love J. K. Rowling’s immersive, well-built world and her characters, who easily come to life on the page. I would love to write like Rowling, mixed in with a bit more quirk and more literary prose, fitting my own authorial voice.
I’ve wanted to read Harry Potter again for a while now, with the more critical eye of a fellow fantasy writer, and I’ve learned a ton from the process. Overall, I think my rereading of the series was an interesting study in engaging storytelling, which I think Rowling is a master of (in terms of worldbuilding, characters, and plot). Curiously, while Harry Potter does have a linear, overarching plot in each book that leads up to the ultimate climax, it is also a series full of little plots and scenes that—at first—might seem unrelated to the book’s plot, but always relate. The series is as much a story about being a kid at a wizarding school as it is about the legendary Boy Who Lived going up against the Dark Lord and his followers. The series’ and books’ construction motivates me to think more deeply about how I intertwine subplots and multiple story threads into a cohesive, overarching plot. Harry Potter pulls that off very successfully.
Coming off of my Wingfeather Saga reread, I couldn’t help but make a few comparisons between the two fantasy series. Both series feature seemingly random adventures or “side quests” that all eventually coalesce into a coherent, climactic story. While I considered this a weaker point of the earlier Wingfeather Saga books, Rowling pulls it off successfully in Harry Potter. The difference is the introduction of the overarching conflict. As I mentioned in my post on the Wingfeather Saga, the first book only vaguely alludes to a bigger story and conflict, but doesn’t truly focus on it until close to the end of the third book. Harry Potter, though, sets the stage for the ongoing fight between Harry and Voldemort from the very first chapter. Even the first book is ultimately about that same conflict, though we aren’t told that until the final showdown.
Overall, the best part of Harry Potter for me is the increasing immersion of the world. Learning new aspects of the wizarding community in each new installment adds to the sense of wonder and magic. It’s consistent and well-built, and the richness of the story and characters only adds to the immersive feel. It also does well at balancing the storylines and subplots, and never fails to bore or seem irrelevant. There’s purpose in every scene.
Now, for some “criticism,” if you’ll allow it… I’ll admit, I went into the reread hoping to find some massive flaw or thing to nitpick, and honestly, I can’t. Some of my biggest complaints surround the book-to-movie transfers (for example, certain scenes or line additions in the movies that I liked better or missed), but that’s not fair to the books as a legitimate critique. I don’t really have any “negatives” for the series as a whole. If anything, I did find the themes simple and was surprised at the lack of theme-oriented character arcs. Don’t get me wrong, Harry Potter does have clear and obvious themes (the power of sacrificial love being the main one), but Rowling approaches characters and theme development differently than I do, and I’m still figuring out what to take away from that observation.
Now, let’s talk about individual books a bit, shall we?
Sorcerer’s Stone – This book has a timeless, nostalgic quality to it and always will for me, which means I don’t have much criticism about it. Overall, I think the first book is a fun introduction into the world of Harry Potter and lays a strong foundation (and longing) for the rest of the series.
Chamber of Secrets – The second book also has a timeless, nostalgic feel for me, as this one (and the first) were the only two of the movies I could watch for the longest time. This book still keeps the sense of childlike wonder from the first one, yet innocently starts to set up some important elements for the future. Again, not much more to say about this one.
Prisoner of Azkaban – I love the story of Sirius Black (as much as one can love a tragedy) and the glimpses into the backstory of the Marauders, which has long made this book one of my favorites. The time travel aspect is used cleverly in this one—I still remember being surprised by the Time Turner twists at the end. It also marks the start of the “gut punch” moments of the series (my term for a good thing being snatched away suddenly by something even worse): the possibility of Harry living with Sirius taken away by the fleeing of Peter Pettigrew. I still think this book is more aligned with the magical, younger tone of the first two books, but it starts to creep toward the darker tone of the later series.
Goblet of Fire – Book Four flips the switch from the magical youth of the first few books into the dark epic of the final few, though in a way that makes it feel like a transition between the two tones of the series. This book also expands the world immensely and hits its stride in terms of bringing side characters to life. The Weasleys are delightful and the details about the Ministry are fascinating. It’s also in this book where the details left out of the movie adaptation start to hurt for me; those extra plots and explanations left on the movie cutting room floor make the overall Goblet story more gripping and interesting in the book. This book probably lands in my top three Harry Potter books, just edging out Prisoner of Azkaban’s old spot.
Order of the Phoenix – I wanted to love this book most, as I love the movie adaptation second best (only behind Pt. II of Deathly Hallows), but… I find myself instead reluctantly agreeing with the criticism that this book is a bit too long and drawn out, and the movie’s condensed version is a smidge better. There are lots of good aspects about this book, though: the tense underlying plot of the Ministry vs. Dumbledore, the growing-up pains of Harry and his friends, including Harry grappling with the death of Cedric, and learning that his dad was actually not that great when he was younger. Umbridge is the worst, too, and I think it does make a book more engaging if you despise the antagonists. On the critical side, Harry’s anger, particularly in the beginning, is a major turn-off for me, and almost made getting into the story harder. While his anger does make sense in the end, it does seem very out of character, which adds to my slight annoyance with this book. Its ending is solid, though it does have one of the worst gut-punch moments of the whole series: Harry’s rash actions made in attempt to save Sirius actually leading to his godfather’s death. Ouch. That one might be the worst death of the series for me (though tied with Fred, for sure).
Half-Blood Prince – Let me start by saying that the movie does not do this book justice. This book is definitely in my top three favorites and really helps draw the series towards its ultimate climax in a really effective way, both in how it treats Harry as a growing teenager and as a growing hero. I like the much-less angsty Harry and how he continues to navigate growing pains; this is an older, maturing Harry that works well and feels consistent in character. Also, the glimpse into Voldemort’s mind, motivation, and backstory works so well. Snape and Malfoy are very compelling gray characters in this book, too. Without the context to come about Snape’s allegiance, the end of this book also classifies as a solid gut punch, perhaps even worse than Sirius’s death.
Deathly Hallows – I am amazed by this book and how it works as a finale. Though it breaks from the exact formula of all the previous books, it still manages to satisfy the known tropes of the series in meaningful ways that don’t feel forced (for example, time at the Burrow, going to Diagon Alley, the sendoff on the Hogwarts Express, etc.). It also pulls elements from all previous installments in such a fantastic way, and thus makes each prior book extremely relevant to the overall conclusion. It also had a few nostalgic nods to the character’s memories from earlier books, which was a nice touch that allows us as the reader to reminisce as well. Ending at Hogwarts was the perfect choice for the final battle, and it made sense. Ultimately, it accomplishes everything I would expect from a well-executed conclusion, and provides an extremely satisfying ending, complete with the fulfillment of Harry’s rise into an extremely likeable and effective hero. Well done, Rowling, well done.
My time rereading the Harry Potter series wasn’t just beneficial for me as a reader, but also for me as a writer. I’ve already started adapting my takeaway that unique worlds are effective draw-ins in fantasy stories. As I’ve read the series, I’ve also written new world-building snippets here and there for one of the fantasy series I’m working on. Harry Potter also provided me with good examples on character choices leading to negative consequences, progressive revelations that are well setup but still surprise the reader, and setting a real-life tone without being boring. Despite being fantasy, Harry Potter feels real. That’s incredible. Like I mentioned before, I’m also chewing on the implications of what I consider a lack of complex or structured themes throughout the series/in each book. I certainly don’t think it’s a bad thing, just interesting and different from what I’ve come to expect of the books I like and gravitate towards.
This would perhaps be the one series I’d love to forget so I could rediscover it all over again. I enjoyed my time back at Hogwarts, and appreciate what I learned as a fantasy writer from Rowling’s series.
What’s your favorite Harry Potter book? What have you learned from the series (writing-related or otherwise)?