Tuesday, July 31, 2007

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I was fortunate this month to enjoy two excellent reads: first, Stephen King's The Stand ... and now, the latest and last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And what a great piece of fiction this one is!

Set in Harry's seventh and final year at Hogwarts, surprisingly little actually takes place at the renowned School of Wizardry as Harry, Ron, and Hermione engage in a series of adventures to fulfill Dumbledore's final directive: locate each remaining Horcrux hidden by Voldemort in his attempts to scatter his power and, in so doing, defeat him. Although the school itself becomes the setting for a final showdown, the reader is gratefully spared the boring class projects and Quiddich matches that encumber the previous six books; instead, the reader is here treated to adventure after edge-of-your-seat adventure ... the magic is darker, death is a realistic threat (as several characters we've come to know and enjoy actually perish), and the stakes are at their highest!

Among Pott-heads, however, I'm going to guess that this book is the most fulfilling of the series. For me, I especially enjoy the ways in which Rowling alters her style with each successive book, and Deathly Hallows is simply a piece of expert storytelling, bringing the reader through each adventure with superb pacing. For my money, "The Muggle-Born Registration Commission" and "Gringotts" are two chapters that best exemplify the way in which Rowling has developed as a writer of suspense.

And in addition to the subtlety of the humor, I also enjoy the social commentary that Rowling has made a staple of the series, addressing such topics as racism, sexism, education (both in terms of effective teaching strategies and the perils of politicized educational systems), war propaganda, the media, and (most directly in this book) the functions of fear within a society. As a good author of fantasy or sci-fi must, Rowling avoids becoming didactic and merely leaves the characters themselves to work thru the issues, permitting the reader to form judgments within the comfort of the "wizardry" context.

And like Stephen King's The Stand, Rowling likewise gives us a mammoth narrative that in so many ways is indebted to both Tolkien and Dickens. Like the best of Dickensian fiction, Deathly Hallows brings together many different characters and components of the earlier novels (e.g., the various spells, the Sorting Hat, the Chamber of Secrets, the Whomping Tree, Dobby and Grawp, etc.) to make its resolution all the more satifying. And anyone who has ever read The Lord of the Rings will detect elements of the Lady Galadriel's "gifts," the Grey Havens, the siege of Gondor, and any number of other Tolkien influences.

But ... when everything is said and done ... this was a fun and thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the Potter series, and (in my opinion) it solidifies the entire saga within our literary canon. A great, great book!

* For the record, I am one of the few readers I know who chose to not read the whole darned thing in the 24-hours immediately following its release. I wanted to savor this last drop of Potter vintage. ; )

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Stephen King, The Stand

Back in high school and my early college years, Stephen King was one of my favorite authors. I read Carrie, Cujo, Firestarter, The Shining, and (my personal fave) Misery in two- or three-day marathon sessions, savoring all those wonderful pop culture references and page-turner suspense sequences, not to mention the occasional literary allusion or two (he was, after all, a former English teacher!). But The Stand -- most likely due to its length -- didn't interest me.

For this month's Biblioholics Anonymous group read, we chose The Stand ... and I must admit, I should have read this book years ago. One of the best pieces of fiction I've read so far this year, the novel is gargantuan in length and scope, yet based on a simple premise: the end of the world.

Set in the United States in 1990, the novel recounts the effects of an accidental outbreak of a man-made plague -- later called the superflu -- which essentially wipes out 99.8 percent of the world's population. Those who are mysteriously immune to the superflu find themselves first wandering to make sense of the desolation, then later inspired by strange dreams to journey west, eventually gathering in Boulder, Colorado (those who dream of the saintly Mother Abagail) or Las Vegas (those who dream of and are drawn to the villainous Randall Flagg). The novel focuses on several characters from different parts of the country as they make their way to their respective locations.

Once gathered in Boulder, this group comes to realize that Flagg's evil forces are gathering in Las Vegas and are planning to wipe them out. Mother Abagail instructs four of the main characters to travel to Flagg and engage in what will ostensibly become the final cosmic stand between Good and Evil!

This is a fun and engaging piece of post-apocalyptic literature that has its roots in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but is likewise Dickensian in its ability to begin with several narrative trajectories that are seemingly disconnected and, as the story progresses, those storylines merge brilliantly and bring perfect resolution to the narrative. It's a long book (the "complete and uncut" edition is 1,141 pages), and some of the pop culture references may strike you as antiquated, but the story is phenomenal!

It took me almost three weeks to read this (begun in Mexico, finished in Kentucky), but it's well worth it. Enjoy!

And now ... on to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows! : )