I have changed my mind; this is the best of the Harry Potter books (and of course also won the Hugo in 2001). I could forgive it a lot of flaws for the single chapter about the Yule Ball, which is full of nicely observed adolescent angst; but in fact the rest of it is pretty good as well; the testing of our hero in a series of mystical quests is an old theme, but here it is transplanted rather successfully into the context of a magical boarding school. I had also completely forgotten the excellent twist at the end as we discover who among the teaching staff is really on the side of the baddies. I must have read it too quickly first time round; the denouement made more sense than I remembered it doing.
My pet peeve of the first three books, that we don’t get much sense of what is going on behind the scenes in the Ministry of Magic, is well answered here as we get a lot of insight into the past and present bureaucratic infighting. One other point of irritation when I first read it – that it is much longer than any of the first three books in the series – has been undermined by the last three books being of similar or greater length. And by bringing Voldemort back to physical life, and in various other ways, the scene is established for the conflicts of the second half of the series. I think I would recommend the two people in the English-speaking world who haven’t tried Rowling and aren’t sure if they would like Harry Potter to start here.
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