Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (the second one)

The second leg of the Harry Potter marathon is a well-made sequel, offering readers who enjoyed the first book more of the same while introducing enough variation and development so that it doesn’t feel like a total rehash. As in the first installment, I continue to greatly admire the seemingly effortless grace of J.K. Rowling’s writing at the sentence level, but to find her lack of any variation in emotional pitch a bit anesthetizing.

I also complained last time of the paper-thin main characters, and this continues to be a problem in the second book. Harry himself, it must be said, shows some modest improvement with his little impulse-control problem. He occasionally makes an effort this time around not to respond to provocations, and from time to time he physically restrains his buddy Ron, who continues to operate on an emotional hair-trigger. But more often they just egg each other on. Typical hijinx: having missed the train to school, these two lads do what any other sensible 13 year old would do – steal dad’s car for the eight-hour drive and crash it into a tree on the school grounds. For this, they are punished with a stern warning.

Meanwhile, there is a new character in the person of a craven media whore who becomes a professor at the Hogwarts school. He is a one-note character whose single personality trait is beaten entirely to death. I’m inclined to forgive this, though, in that the concept of “media whore” is probably a bit subtle for the younger Harry Potter readers.

The plot of Chamber of Secrets relies on the principal characters showing an almost pathological refusal to discuss obvious crises with the adults who have the power to make things better. At first blush, this comes off as kind of extreme and unbelievable, but in the light of the school-shooting horror of your choice, it is perhaps not so unrealistic. Hogwarts is unfortunately not the only school where the silence of students has led to catastrophe.

The Plot Thickens

With the basic setup already established, Chamber of Secrets has to live more on the strength of its plot than did Sorcerer’s Stone. And in many ways, it turns out, the plotting of Chamber is rather deft. It is a well-shaped whodunit that misleads you with a number of likely suspects before unveiling a solution that is genuinely surprising without being completely random. The plot is also technically elegant, in that every character, incident, and episode in the book is sooner or later tied back into it.

The plot is unfortunately also inelegant, in the sense that things too often happen merely because the plot requires them to. Rowland lets her magical milieu make her lazy about establishing a reasonable logic of cause and effect. At one point, Harry and Ron are saved from certain death by the unexpected reappearance of that car that they stole earlier in the book. Why? How? I dunno. It's Magic. At the book’s climax, all sorts of weird stuff happens to save Harry’s bacon, apparently because he is “loyal.” What? Why? How? I dunno. It's Magic.

I hope I didn't give away too much in that last paragraph by implying that Harry's bacon gets saved. You know this is a seven-part trilogy, right?

Next: The Reading List will continue with the Harry Potter series. Eventually. But not for a season or two. In the meantime, we’ll be taking on the prototype of the modern novel, Don Quixote! It’s the warm and enchanting tale of a minor Spanish aristocrat who discovers that he is actually a powerful wizard, and is whisked away to a school of magic to develop his talents! Or something like that.


Rebel said...

Gah no! You must keep reading. Or not. I'm afraid that constant pressure from the Pro-Potter camp is going to turn you off from the book, but really... keep going.

And seriously... I think it's a bit unrealistic to expect child/teenaged characters to show any kind of impulse control or emotional maturity.

Yankee in England said...

Some one must have mislead you. Don Quixote is not about a Spanish aristocrate who finds out he is a wizard.

It is actually about a spanish aristocrate who finds out that the ring that his uncle has left him after disappearing is actually evil and he must set off on a quest to destroy it. A little know fact about Don Quixote is that it is a trilogy

Don Quixote and the Fellowiship of the Mentally Insane.

Don Quixote The Two Windmills


Don Quixote Return of Sanity.

The third is quite dark if I remember right.

The Calico Cat said...

Don Quixote! It’s the warm and enchanting tale of a minor Spanish aristocrat who discovers that he is actually a powerful wizard, and is whisked away to a school of magic to develop his talents! Or something like that.

HA HA HA - thanks for the laugh.

Nichim said...

Don Quixote may not be a trilogy, but it is a duology or whatever you call a book in a set of two. The introduction to the second book is the best part. Don't read any fool abridged version.

Kritkrat said...

I cannot believe you don't like Harry Potter more. I am having a really hard time accepting this. I am trying very, very hard not to yell at you until you get into book 3, which is when they start getting really good.

I also think you aren't being entirely fair to the series. I realize you consider the Earthsea books a 'more dignified' trilogy for adolescents, but I just don't get it. At all. Just like I don't think Lord of the Rings is for most kids. The Hobbit, sure. But the rest are just a little too mature for the kids I know.

I think J.K. does a fantastic job portraying children in a pretty realistic manner. Maybe it's because I grew up in an inner-city urban area, but most of the kids I knew didn't have much self control or faith in adults.

I refuse to believe that a fantasy junkie doesn't like HP.

And PS - I still think that Guy Gavriel Kay should have been included in your fantasy list of must reads. What's up with that?

Kritkrat said...


If you don't like him, then I can just write it off as us having entirely different tastes when it comes to authors...

Chance said...

How dar u say harry potter is lame u r probly the kind 2 h8 whateva is popular just bcuz it is popular. i bet u only like books that no one has heard of by some like philosopher lol. just becuz its popular dose not make it bad lol. harry potter 4eva and u r probly just jealous rowling is the greatest writer who eva lived shes like shaekspere. & bsides u spelled her name rowland in the last part wich shows what u know about harry potter wich is NOTHING lol.

Michael5000 said...

@Reb: I think I'll be fairer to subsequent books if I come at 'em fresh.

@Yank: I've been screwed. My stupid translation only includes the first two books!

"The third is quite dark if I remember right" = : D

@Calico: Any time, amiga.

@Nichim: "Abridged version"?!? Nichim! You wound me!

Mrs.5000 didn't expect me to start liking it until Book 2, but I've been digging it right out of the gates.

@Kadonk: You cannot believe I don't like Harry Potter more? Believe it, baby! But that's not to say I don't like it at all. I've called it "engaging," praised the plotting, and GUSHED about aspects of the writing style. But I see flaws in there too, and I calls 'em as I sees 'em.

I'd be surprised to hear an argument that the Earthsea books aren't more dignified than HP. It's an open question, though, whether that makes them "better." It's been too long since I read them to really weigh in with my opinion on that just now.

As for Tolkein, there are lots of junior high kids who are MAD for him, and plenty who aren't. As for the Hobbit, I've already weighed in on that -- I consider it an important but very flawed book, with a beginning that's not much good for adults and an ending that's not much good for kids. I suppose it would be best to start it at age 10 and read about seven pages a month.

Are the kids in HP realistic? Well, I conceded that their distrust of adults is at least not completely unrealistic. Their daring-do is, I think, pretty over-the-top, but hell, it's a fantasy series. You might be right.

Finally -- I actually feel kind of bad about not adding your writer to my list. But dude -- the list is HUGE. If I starting adding to it, it would turn into an infinite loop. But I promise that if I find myself jonesing for some non-list fantasy, I'll come back here and try him out. K? K. And thanks for the nice long comment!

@Chance: Here's something you probably haven't been told in a while: you are a brat.

I like that.

Michael5000 said...

Oh, and I do sometimes wonder if i m probly the kind 2 h8 whateva is popular. I wouldn't like to think so, but I imagine I have some tendencies in that direction.

MJ said...

I'm not a Harry Potter fan (haven't read all yet), but i found the third book better than the second. The second was, i don't know, simpler. No pressure, you must not read it if you don't want.
Now, dork comment: You may joke all you want about Don Quixote's trilogy but there are actually 3 books (at least, maybe there are more, i don't know). Apparently the first book was such a best-seller that a guy called Avellaneda wrote and published a fake 2nd part before Cervantes published his 2nd part. And people think the publishing world nowadays is a battlefield.

Elaine said...

Hey, get locked up in prison for a good chunk of time, I'll bet we can write The Great American Novel.

To be honest: Don Quixote is comprehensible only with good notes, and then......meh. I did the Spanish translation--rather a lot like emptying Lake Erie with a teaspoon--and then thought, "Oh, I am sure I'll see its genius if I read a good English translation," and... I think it's like _Moby Dick._ You read it so you'll have been there, but it does not add anything to your life, does not lead to deeper reflection, and just plain ...is a missed connection for a host of reasons. _Look Homeward, Angel_ now, is another matter. (In other words, not every novel touches the human condition in terms that work for us, mired in Time and Place as we are.)
But I digress.

d said...

chance's comment was the best thing i've seen in quite some time. well done, sir.