There’s good news, middling news, and bad news in the final Harry Potter installment, a book that replicates in many ways the unevenness of the series as a whole. First the good news. The main character, which has always been the book’s strength, continues in that vein through most of the book. Harry’s oh-so-realistic ongoing grief at his parents’ deaths, his sometimes-bends-but-never-breaks bond with Hermione and Ron, his coming-of-age process through idol-worship then respect then disillusionment then adult understanding with Dumbledore, his sense of a greater good — all of these aspects that have made Harry Potter one of the more compelling figures in modern fiction are here in full force. Along with the character of Harry himself, the triangular relationship with Ron and Hermione has also been a consistent highlight in the series, and this too continues here, though here it has its rough moments that feel a bit forced, as if Rowling felt the need to show the relationship in danger of fraying so as to make us appreciate it all the more when it does not. Personally, I found the “bend” moment hard to believe and could have done without it. With or, better yet, without it, though, it’s hard not to be moved by Rowling’s presentation of the bond between these three.
The middling news involves the plot itself. The Potter books have always, I thought, been uneven in this area. The first two solid if not inspired, the third the strongest, the fourth too episodic, and the fifth and sixth with strong plots at the core but diluted by overwriting.
The good news on the plot is that there are, as there always have been, several very moving scenes. There are also a few good action scenes, though action scenes have never been Rowling’s strong point and they aren’t here as well with a few exceptions. The biggest problem with the plot is that it doesn’t actually start to take off, doesn’t become compelling, until one is already a third of the way through it. That’s a lot to slog through to get to the good parts, though of course nobody is going to put the book down at this point. The problems with the first few hundred pages are rife. First, there is a great sense of disconnect as the reader moves between a sense of urgency and violence. On the one hand, Voldemort and his death Eaters are infiltrating the Ministry and Hogwarts, killing muggles and muggle-borns right and left, torturing others while the Order of the Phoenix is marshaling its forces, going into all-out battle, and yes, dying. On the other hand, we’re treated to an oddly desultory wedding scene as days trundle by in preparation for domestic bliss. The two just don’t seem to make sense side-by-side. There are also several major plot holes which I won’t go into to avoid spoilers, but at which any discerning reader will find themselves saying “but what about…” or “but wouldn’t they…” again and again.
Coincidences also stack up too neatly to move the plot along. Even worse then the ongoing coincidences though, are the plot points that are necessary to the Deathly Hallows that seem to have been pulled from nowhere. We get lots of exposition and explanation, but for many of these it’s just too hard not to think that we should have heard a lot of this before. For instance, in all the many, many, many pages of quidditch detail we get (way too much) in earlier books, it turns out there is something we somehow haven’t learned that just happens to play an important role in this book. And it’s just one such example of too many such examples. It gives the book a sense of arbitrariness that spoils the reading somewhat, though again, mostly in the first third or so of the book.
There are a few other problem areas. Time moves on in awkward chunks in the first third. The final third, which is especially strong, has its pleasures diluted somewhat by some very clunky exposition, something that has unfortunately been a pattern of earlier books. Perhaps Rowling felt too tied to the formula she’s set for herself. Some of the characters were disappointing — Hermione seems to lack some of her strength we’ve seen growing in her, Ginny was too absent, and some characters (no names due to spoilers) have major changes in attitude that happen far, far too quickly and easily, literally in a matter of a few lines. The book, as all of them since book three have done, suffers from being overly long. One of the reasons book three was so strong was it was the tightest of the series. Hallows could easily lose 200 or 300 pages and be all the stronger for it.
Many have remarked on how the tone of the books has darkened as the series has continued, and this book certainly continues that trend, with more deaths in the first few chapters than perhaps all the others combined. While I thought we’ve been set up well for this trend, it seemed a huge leap in intensity and frequency. And the deaths, until toward the end, were jarring on the one hand due to the new frequency and nonchalance, but also seemed too abstract, as if they were mere props so we “know” what a bad guy Voldemort is. He’s always been a somewhat amorphous villain, one of the weaknesses of the series, and that continues here as well. He’s given newfound powers, and a newfound freedom to kill and torture, but he still never feels alive as a character. He’s there because he needs to be there, Harry needs an adversary and what’s a fantasy epic without a Dark Lord, but he’s more of a symbol of a dark lord than one that really makes you feel his evil. It’s hard to discuss much more of either strength or weakness without giving away too much of the plot.
So how does Hallows stack up as the finale? To be honest, the first near-300 pages were incredibly disappointing. I despaired of finding anything enjoyable, being too bothered by awkward plotting, bad plot holes, forced characterization, arbitrary revelation of knowledge, convenient coincidences, and poor writing. But the change at around 300 was pronounced. The book became much more focused in terms of plot, time narrowed and no longer moved along at a strikingly non-urgent pace, the bond between the three main characters came more into play, and we rediscovered the Harry Potter character that has carried so much of the series. From 300 to close to the end was the book we’d all been waiting for and it carried me along in its plot and moved me thanks to its characters. It redeemed the first few hundred pages and then some. Unfortunately, it didn’t maintain that level of quality all the way to the very end, as it stumbled somewhat to the close with, as mentioned, some very lengthy and awkward exposition (not once but twice) and then an epilogue that had its moments but felt too much like trying to wrap up lots of ends and that had as well some moments where things seemed like they hadn’t changed enough (and if that’s too vague, well, what do you expect — we’re talking about the epilogue after all).
In the end, there’s a great 300-page book in The Deathly Hallows. Unfortunately, you have to read a few hundred pages to get to it. The book’s strengths do in the end outweigh its weaknesses, or at the least, by the time you get to the latter third you’ve forgotten the weaknesses. It’s a fitting end to the series, and in its unevenness, a microcosm of the series as a whole. That said, it’s with a bittersweet sense of completion that one closes the book — a fitting and appropriate end, but an end all the same.
I was a little disappointed in the ending of this series. While I get that Rowling was trying to make a point about war, I felt there were too many deaths in this one, or at least that some of the deaths were treated too briefly in the text. And I think the story of Neville & Co. at Hogwarts might have made a better book than the story we did see. It’s telling that this is the only HP book I never get much urge to reread — it’s the first time I didn’t really wish I could go to the wizarding world. Nonetheless, it did wrap up the series’ central conflict, and I have to commend Rowling for giving me all those years of entertainment.