The Story: [from GoodReads:]
Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy. He lives with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley, who are mean to him and make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. (Dudley, however, has two bedrooms, one to sleep in and one for all his toys and games.) Then Harry starts receiving mysterious letters and his life is changed forever. He is whisked away by a beetle-eyed giant of a man and enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The reason: Harry Potter is a wizard!
My Take: Well, I’m doing it. I’m finally doing it. I am, after all of these years, going to review my favorite fantasy series of all time.
I don’t know why I tend to put off penning reviews for my much-loved books, but I suspect it’s because I fear I won’t come up with the right words to properly express my love. So I’m going to give it my best shot; but in order to do that, I’m going to relate a little bit about my journey into Potter fandom. So, yes, this is going to be a book review but, as these books are such deeply personal favorites for me, I don’t feel it’s fair to completely forget about that personal connection.
Please note – I will be using the word awesome a lot, so I apologize for the redundancy in advance. 🙂 Also, .gifs abound!
Unlike most sane readers, I didn’t discover the power of Potter until I was in college and the series was already on its sixth book. So I was a very late newbie, but better late than never, right?
The year was 2006. I was on a long road trip home (I wasn’t driving) with my family from visiting my grandparents. Over the years, I had heard and seen so much about the Boy Wizard that it was inescapable. The books were big. The films were big. And everyone seemed to be talking about it and rarely did I hear anything negative. Usually when something from the literary world blows up and starts crossing over into popular culture, there are critics on stand by to nitpick it apart. Yet Harry Potter seemed to have far more admirers than haters.
Yet there were those critics who said Harry Potter promoted the occult and, therefore, wasn’t good reading for Christians. I myself am a Christian and, while no one in my immediate circle of acquaintances ever made such observations and nor did my church actively teach that Christians shouldn’t read the Potter books, most people didn’t seem very eager to admit they actually read books about wizards and magic. However, being a speculative fiction connoisseur, I like to check things out for myself in order to give it a fair judgment. To me, you can’t judge a book by its cover or its back blurb as, like with most things, appearances often are deceiving. (Except Fifty Shades – I don’t need to read that to judge that it’s smut, poorly written, and pro-abuse. But let’s get back to good literature now!)
So in 2006, I finally purchased Books 1 through 5 all at one shot at my local Borders and took the first novel, Sorcerer’s Stone, along on the car ride. I started reading it in the morning and finished it nearly five hours later of almost non-stop reading. I literally could not put it down as I had to see how it would all wrap up. In my mind, Harry Potter is one of these pop culture phenomenons that rightfully deserves to be called a phenomenon. Not only does it showcase good writing and characters, its story and world-building are superb, and its underlying messages and values are solid. There have been a legion of imitators, but none (in my opinion) have ever come close.
Likewise, I concluded that these books (as I did eventually read them all) in no way teach about the occult. If anything, they’re actually more Christian in their underlying messages and symbolism than most Christian fiction. (As this is a book review and not a book analysis, I won’t dive too deeply into this arena; though if you are genuinely curious about the Christian connections in the Harry Potter books, I’d highly recommend exploring the works of Dr. John Granger [no relation to Hermione!], such as Looking for God in Harry Potter and related works, as he delivers a very intelligent, thorough, and thoughtful discussion and analysis of the novels in this regard as well as their literary merit.)
Story-wise, Sorcerer’s Stone works on three levels. First, it’s a classic hero’s quest story albeit Harry’s macro-quest (i.e. his over-arching story) isn’t wrapped up in this first novel though the micro-quest (i.e. this novel’s plot) does see closure by the end of the book so there is no cliffhanger ending. Harry emerges from obscurity and is trained to become a wizard though, all the while, the enemy who tried to destroy him as a child is still lurking in the shadows. Though the basic skeleton of this type of hero’s journey story has been used countless times (from other works of fiction to film, as Star Wars‘ own Luke Skywalker has some cool parallels to Harry), it veers away from cliches and tropes thanks to its intricate world-building.
Fantasy writers, take note – this is how you execute world-building! Though this is the first novel, so obligatory info-dumps and character and setting set ups do appear, it never feels heavy-handed or phoned in. Everything unfolds gracefully and naturally as the story’s world opens before you just as Harry experiences it firsthand. The Wizarding world Rowling has created is simply staggering as it operates like it really could exist. (Hey, maybe it does! Or at least we can always hope. :() There are various creatures, peoples, places, magical devices, and even a government, Wizard media, and sports! (Quidditch, anyone?) Again, these elements feel more organic as the series progresses, but for a first novel you really get a sense of the type of world Harry dwells in as well as how it works, which is what a
good great first novel does.
The second story tier is that this novel (as well as the series save for the final book) follows the tradition of the schooldays novel. This genre was essentially conceptualized by Thomas Hughes in his 1857 work, Tom Brown’s School Days, and it involves a basic underlying plot focused almost exclusively on an academic institution and the events therein that befall a rather expansive cast of characters who attend or work at the school. In the case of Sorcerer’s Stone, 97% of the book’s events occur at or around Hogwarts, the Wizarding school Harry attends, and said events involve Harry, his fellow students, and the various professors and other denizens who populate the school and its grounds.
Normally, there is always at least one character I can’t stand in most books I read, regardless of author or genre. But in the Harry Potter series, I can’t think of a single character I hate or even find mildly annoying. Harry’s immediate supporting cast, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, are just pure awesome sauce and act as great parallel characters with Hermione as the brains, Ron as the brawn (kind of), and Harry right in between. Honestly, I can’t think of another fictional friendship that even comes close to reaching this level of genuine love and loyalty save for Frodo and Sam from The Lord of the Rings.
The staff and faculty at Hogwarts are all equally awesome, too, and I love how they become characters you can honestly care about and get to know as opposed to just being stereotypical teacher figures, which would have been very tempting to do. Even the characters who are supposed to be annoying because they annoy the characters in the story (I’m lookin’ at you, Mr. Filch!) I still like because of their quirks. It would undoubtedly take me pages upon pages to isolate each character and dish on how and why I love them, but I’m going to keep it brief for the sake of space.
But the character who really made a huge first impression on me was everyone’s favorite (I hope!) Potions professor, Severus Snape.
Wow. Just wow.
When I first read this novel, I wasn’t aware of Snape’s later importance, so I had formed my own early opinions of him. And it was a great mental tug-of-war! First, I figured Snape had simply singled Harry out as the student he wasn’t going to like for some reason. Then I started to suspect he was up to something, especially regarding the sorcerer’s stone. Then Snape tries to save Harry’s life. So I figured, “Well, maybe he’s a good guy.” Then Snape starts acting horrible to Harry and sneaking around again. Thus, I was like, “Oh, it’s Snape – it has to be Snape” when it comes to who was clearly plotting to steal the Stone. So when I got to the first page of the last chapter, I was like…
And that’s all I’ll say because to mention anything further unleashes a major spoiler – one too major to reveal here. But it’s quite the jaw-drop moment, at least it was for me.
The third story tier at work is the mystery element. Very much to its credit, Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t just a book about kids attending a school that teaches magic…and that’s it. No, it’s central plot hinges on a rather classic whodunit-esque plot involving the mysterious sorcerer’s stone and who is clearly out to steal it. Harry, Hermione, and Ron all get the chance to play detective and look for clues to try to determine the would-be thief’s identity. It’s obvious Rowling did her homework when it came to crafting a good mystery as this really cements your attention. Not to mention it throws curve balls left and right, forcing you to never be correct about your own assumptions, even after the final reveal.
Content: Content-wise, Sorcerer’s Stone is perfect for the middle grade readers it’s marketed to (though really it’s a bit like Monopoly – fun for ages Alive to Dead). So all in all, this is a very clean read though probably only the very youngest of readers might find it too lengthy:
Language – There are minimal, PG-level profanities (along with some British profanities) though they’re sporadically dropped.
Violence – There are scenes of fantasy violence and peril but nothing ever becomes graphic or gory (save for a few references to a unicorn’s silver blood).
Sexual Content – None.
Overall, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone serves as a (last time I use this word in this review – I swear!) awesome introductory novel that welcomes readers into Harry’s Wizarding world. It’s nicely paced, well-structured, possesses an inner warmth that makes you feel right at home, and is filled with a plethora of fun and exciting characters combined with a compelling mystery plot steeped in magic.