The rest of the world may have been following his progress since owls began flying by day in the first Harry Potter novel in 1997, but at least one person in the book-buying world resisted the bespectacled little wizard. Me.
Granted, even here in L.A., 6,000 miles from its original setting on Privet Lane, the hype generated by the books, and then movies of the books, tapes of the books, books about the books, was unavoidable. For the last eight years, TV networks have insisted on showing us footage of books from Britain being unloaded from planes onto trucks, from trucks into shops, then from shops being stuffed into the hot little hands of children.
Yes, the hype is a bit much, concede the fans, who then invariably proceed to mount an earnest lecture about how the Potter books and their author, J.K. Rowling, introduced a generation of children to the joy of reading. One of our book editors even gave it a historical wash. Isn’t it remarkable, he noted, that when Harry Potter books are released, American children still line up at midnight outside bookstores for first copies, much like the followers of Alexandre Dumas thronged squares in France for the latest installments of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” more than a century ago?
“Let them watch TV,” I thought.
As if in a cosmic gesture to slay the last living skeptic, I was asked to review the sixth and supposedly penultimate book, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”
“Whatever,” I said.
Colleagues whose children were reverently reading volumes one through five to prepare for the new book made jokes that I might be an agent of someone called Lord Voldemort. From their tone, one could surmise that he was not the hero. I was given primers about the moral codes of Harry Potter. If memory serves, there were two books, one written by Professor Too Much Time on His Hands and a second by Professor Way Too Much Time on His Hands.
A neighbor decided that a cold start on volume six wouldn’t do. Her 10-year-old son could lend me his collection: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Each book was thicker than the last.
I managed only enough of the first story to become pixilated by Rowling’s magical scene-setting: cats who read maps and showers of shooting stars from London to Dundee. Then the e-mails from the mothers of Potter devotees started:
“Are you reading any H. Potter? Do you know what you’re in for?
When the highly coveted (and tightly guarded) review copy for volume six arrived a mere 24 hours before deadline, I started smugly enough. Oh, yes, here was a witty little hybrid of a parliamentary farce and Arthurian legend, I thought.
By Chapter 2, however, fireside goblin play gave way to chill foreboding and a scene in which pale women rush by night through an industrial wasteland in order to forge a deadly pact. By the end of the 652 pages, I was exhausted. Were children up to this kind of high drama? Could all those millions of copies be put back in those boxes, back on those trucks, back on those planes?
No. No, they can’t. As the sun rises this very morning, our children have this book already, and they will have to be brave.
This much can be said about “Half-Blood Prince” without spoiling the plot. Once Harry was 10 and stars rained down on England to augur his arrival. Now he is 16, and as the book opens, bridges are collapsing. Wizards from the Ministry of Magic are popping out of the prime minister’s fireplace to explain that the cause is not bad construction. It’s evil. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is back.
In what even a newcomer can detect as an alarming cabinet reshuffle, the charming Cornelius Fudge has been replaced as minister of magic by the shrewd Rufus Scrimgeour. Harder times demand harder characters.
Relief comes in the form of well-observed personality quirks and some first-class toilet humor. Bored figures in paintings are not above picking their ears. Amid the potions in Fred and George’s magic store, there is a sign that reads “Why are you worrying about You-Know-Who? You should be worrying about U-No-Poo -- the constipation sensation that’s gripping the nation.”
Then there’s the romance. Yes, yuck, love -- which turns out to be a liability when fighting evil. The days are too dangerous to become bogged down by sentiment. There is simply too much treachery afoot at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, unsecured portals, secret enemies. As Harry accompanies Professor Dumbledore into the heart of darkness, tolls are not money but blood. Corpses line lake bottoms, not kelp. His ability to obey his mentor is pushed to the limit.
The good news is that Harry is courageous and true. The bad news is that Voldemort’s agents have more than Peruvian Vanishing Powder on their side. This is a book for children of mettle. It will reward them richly, but they must not whine, they must be sunny and true and brave. The ending is almost too much to bear. I haven’t cried so hard since Charlotte the Spider died.