Friday, September 3, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Book Review

If you haven’t read my review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone yet, take a look before reading on!  Just to warn you: the Harry Potter books have been out for anywhere from 3-13 years and have been made into movies, games, fanfiction, et cetera, as well as being a hot topic in the news and just about everywhere else; therefore I will be making absolutely no effort to avoid spoilers in these reviews discussions of the books so for the uninitiated, read at your own risk.

No, this is not yet another Harry Potter mug…
just the other side of the first.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has always been my least-loved volume of the series.  It’s not so much that I dislike it as I think that the others are much better.  This extreme stance possibly comes from only having watched the awful film adaptation for years until last week, so it is perhaps better to say that Chamber of Secrets is my seventh favorite.  There are parts I love but overall it’s not the one volume of the series that I would take to a deserted island with me (but which one would that be…?).

Before jumping into what I don’t like about Chamber of Secrets, I think I’d rather talk about what I do like.  There’s Dobby the bumbling house elf, whose efforts to help Harry tend to turn out worse than the danger Harry would have otherwise faced.  Dobby’s slobbering devotion and omnipresent sense of guilt are unexpectedly endearing despite his constant self-degradation.  In keeping with the theme of miniature magical humanoids, the singing dwarves on Valentine’s Day are a nice little touch – very Rowlingesque (does Rowling have her own eponym yet?).  This is a detail that’s easy to forget since the movies came out, as the writer preferred to extend the escape from Aragon rather than include bits of whimsy like singing dwarves (“His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad…”).  There’s Arthur Weasley, whose fascination with rubber ducks is just adorable.  And of course there’s Gilderoy Lockhart, a nice little reminder of how normal wizards are.  Like us Muggles, they value money, fame, and excellent hair products and are, above all else, flawed.  Not flawed in the evil Hitler-like murderer way that Voldemort is, but flawed in the I’m not perfect but I certainly won’t stop pretending way.  Lockhart is far from admirable but very human, which is a trait of wizards that is easy to forget when you’ve got an eleven-year-old running around saving the world.

Perhaps the problem is that Chamber of Secrets seems to be stuck in a bit of a rut.  Rowling’s writing hasn’t really matured since Sorcerer’s Stone and she hasn’t yet seemed to have moved on.  The beginning is very exposition heavy – we learn again that Harry is a mistreated orphan wizard, that Hagrid is gamekeeper, et cetera.  Yeah, we knew that.  This is the second book in a series for a reason.  The exposition in Sorcerer’s Stone was helpful and whimsical; in Chamber of Secrets it is merely a space-filler that you have to read through to get to the good stuff.  Perhaps younger readers need those reminders, but I doubt it.  Kids are a lot smarter than they often get credit for – just look at Harry (I wanted to say Hermione but she’s a little too smart to prove my point and Ron’s just a bit of a dunderhead).

The middle of the novel improves: Lockhart, Dobby, creepy creature killing people that only Harry can hear, gigantic spiders that aren’t so bad but oh wait they’ll eat any human who isn’t Hagrid – all fun.  There’s an excellent sense of fear and danger which is well-matched by Harry’s first taste of not being idolized.  And then there’s the adventure.

I think that Rowling’s editors should have reminded her that she already wrote an adventure for Harry that involves a novel’s worth of investigation that is beyond the means of a character his age, takes place miles under the school, involves travelling a straight line to reach a final point, and culminates in meeting some terrifying form of the Dark Lord.  Been there, done that.  We’d like something new.

The hint to the quest for the Horcruxes in Deathly Hallows is nice, though I’m not sure I believe that Lucius Malfoy would have been quite so free and easy with a bit of his former master’s soul.  The moment when Harry frees Dobby through a bit of unforeseen cleverness is quite gratifying.  But cancelling exams?  Really?  Maybe for Harry and those who were petrified but for everyone else, this is just a bit of a stretch.  I don’t believe it and the kids who Rowling is obviously playing up to probably wouldn’t either.  Saving Dobby is the perfect happy ending – we don’t have to take it too far.

Ultimately, the novel just doesn’t go anywhere.  We learn that Voldemort was once a man, but we already knew that, and that a bit of him is in a diary but the significance of that isn’t at all clear.  Nothing new happens, there are no clues to the future; the novel is stagnant.  After the great introduction to this world and situation that Rowling gives in Sorcerer’s Stone, she just kind of stands still in Chamber of Secrets.  We need more.

I think the terrible quality of this post tells you better than anything I actually said about how I feel about Chamber of Secrets.  There are parts I like but in the end, it doesn’t inspire any eloquence on my part, other than endless synonyms for “stuck in a rut”.  Perhaps my discussion of Prisoner of Azkaban will be better as I love, love, love the third volume.  We shall see.

4 comments:

  1. So did you watch the movies before reading the books? I'm a bit confused. ;-)

    A lot of people didn't like Chamber of Secrets when it first came out. I didn't like it either, but when I found out in Book 6 about the horcrux, I suddenly really liked it a lot. I think because Harry did something important in the battle without even realizing it, and that happens a lot in real life. Plus it's a nice set-up for the romance with Ginny (which I guess is only a plus if you like Harry with Ginny, which I do). But I don't think I'd feel that way if I'd watched the movies before reading the series, which is why I asked if you had.

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  2. I read the books before seeing the movies, but it's been years since I've read through them and since then I've seen the movies a bunch of times so I had forgotten a lot of what "actually" happens. I do like Harry with Ginny and like I said, there are some great parts but overall, in all my rereadings, I've always come away with a sense of MEH.

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  3. Since I've been listening to "Half Blood Prince" and "Deathly Hallows" a lot lately, I can point out that Dumbledore at some point says to Harry that Lucius Malfoy probably didn't know exactly what the diary was - just that it was something super evil and powerful and somehow could open the Chamber of Secrets - and that if he'd realized it was a Horcrux he probably would have taken better care of it.

    And yeah, apparently exams don't mean shit in Harry Potter world. I think there are other times that exams are simply canceled due to something crazy happening, though I can't be sure of that.

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  4. I have to say that Chamber is perhaps my least favorite entry of the series as well. I like all the things you say you liked, but the overall sense for me is of groundwork-laying rather than world-building. Much of this does come back into play later on (Riddle's diary, Ginny's actions around Harry, even Dobby's devotion to Harry), of course, so it needed to be established. And I still love to hate Gilderoy.

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