Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

by J.K. Rowling

Cover image

Series: Harry Potter #1
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Copyright: October 1998
ISBN: 0-590-35340-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 309

Buy at Powell's Books

I should warn up front that when Harry Potter first became popular, I was deluged with so much talk about the books that I got thoroughly sick of the very mention of them. I might, therefore, have a bit of a negative bias, although one of the reasons for waiting this long to read them was to let that die down.

That being said, no matter what sort of expectations I went into this book with, I don't think anything would have prepared me for how much I hated the beginning.

Let me set the context for you, with information that's all covered in the first few chapters of the book. Harry Potter is the only son of a famous wizard family who survives the attack of an evil wizard who kills his parents when he's only a baby. Initially in the custody of some of the staff of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he is sent to live with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, who hate him and abuse him.

Okay, so as unappealing as it is, particularly from a modern author, this is basically the cliched fairy tale over-the-top abused child opening. Harry's guardians lock him in a closet, punish him if he ever asks questions, and treat him as a domestic slave. He's tortured by his evil cousin and yet perseveres nobly through the whole affair, remaining a likeable lad of honest character who will doubtless do well once he's rescued from this place and show no lasting or realistic scars. Except Rowling managed to push it over the top, past cliche into something that made me actively disgusted.

She does this in a couple of ways. One, the narrator doesn't seem to consider this all particularly important. Sure, it's described, but in a fashion that would leave one to believe that this is merely the bad side of normal, the sort of thing one can unhappily expect, and of course Harry can just buck up and bear it. Second, Harry's true guardians, the wizards, are not prevented by some magical curse, tragic misunderstanding, or regrettable ignorance from knowing of his plight. They are apparently worthwhile, trustworthy, and respected people from the rest of the book. They just apparently... can't be bothered.

And when they finally do come to get him, on his birthday, to deliver his invitation to attend Hogwarts, do they see this abuse and do anything about it? Express at least some degree of remorse? No, not at all; the only thing they're upset about is that Harry wasn't taught about magic. They leave him, with this abusive family, for a month afterwards — we're getting well away from fairy tale territory here. And then, to top it all off, they send him back there at the end of the term in school.

This disgusted me so much that the first pass at this review was a vitriolic diatribe. After lots of discussion and thought, I've come back at it feeling like Rowling didn't really grasp what she was doing. She aimed at a stock fairy tale opening and missed, leaving the story with not only the baggage of the cliched fairy tale hero start, but a serious black mark against the teachers at Hogwarts right at the start and a badly dissonant feeling when these teachers are later described as having Harry's best interests at heart. Then, at the end of the book, she hits the episodic reset button to maintain her rescue fantasy structure for the second book, apparently missing completely the sort of cast this puts on the fairy tale opening.

There was a lot of missing in this book for me. I have been told (and have no reason to doubt) that Rowling isn't actually trying to write fantasy novels, but is instead writing novels in a genre I'm not very familiar with (British boarding school stories) and is just throwing in magic to make it more interesting. Perhaps the book reads better if one brings to it the expectations of that genre, but as a fantasy, it's a disaster.

There is no coherent structure or logical sense to the background. Ideas, plot elements, and settings exist only to drive a superficial rescue fantasy and cliched children's plot, and need make no sense whatsoever outside of that role. The world of wizards is a hodge-podge of cute ideas that have nothing to do with each other and have no unifying theme. Common-sense implications are ignored or shoved under the rug unless Rowling finds them interesting. There is no unifying set of natural laws here, no concept of cause and effect beyond the superficial, and no underlying honesty to the world. In short, there is no world-building here at all, just self-indulgent spewing of pet images.

I hated this book. It doesn't challenge the reader to think outside their experience, the slapdash application of some magic nonwithstanding. It doesn't pose any interesting moral challenges or questions. It frankly never rises above the intellectual level of a typical Hardy Boys book, despite Rowling's clearly superior writing ability.

I suppose I can see some of the appeal to people who don't care about world building or universe consistency, and who come to it expecting a much different quality of storytelling. Rowling has some talent at the mechanics of writing. The story moves right along, the prose is clear and establishes an ambience, there's a plot twist at the end, and the book never drags. I was never bored reading it — angry, disgusted, and contemptuous, but never bored. I think she does have the capability to write a better book. I hope she writes it in one of the later books of this series, since I'm wading through the first four to get to the one that won a Hugo.

Followed by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-11-24

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