Monday, August 10, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading the first Harry Potter book, I was not compelled to continue with the series. However, after many assertions from various friends that "things get good in the 3rd one!" I decided to give Potter another try. Needless to say, my initial perception of the books did not change much. They are cute, fun, fast reads. They are very imaginative, and clearly in a way that is appreciated by a majority of readers. However, the quality of Rowling's writing is just . . . not good.

As a writer, reader, English major, and pseudo-linguist, I cannot help but criticize several essential aspects of J.K. Rowling's writing style. For one thing, for all the imagination she displays, Rowling does not trust her own readers' imaginations. If she did, she would not need to have two modifiers for every noun and verb she writes. Harry always has to look curiously. Hermione has to ask thoughtfully. Every physical attribute and emotion has to be described in the most elaborate terms, and yet with plain, simple, easily understood language. (Still, to be fair, these books would make fabulous vocabulary builders for gradeschool children.)

My second gripe, beyond Rowling's overuse of modifiers, is the flatness of her characters. Truly, not one of them changes. Perhaps hidden information is revealed about some of them (e.g. Sirus Black), but not one of them undergoes any sort of personal learning or transformative experience. Additionally, all of them are drawn from such stock, cliche character types, I cannot even suspend my disbelief far enough to care about or relate to any of them on a personal level. The closest I may ever come is to Hermione's perfectionism and goody-two-shoes nature, but she is so true to that very stereotype, and the instances when she breaks from her stereotype are so predictable, that I do not even relate to her. It makes for a slightly more boring, much less compelling book.

Oddly enough, I may end up reading the remaining books in the series, merely in order to have a common ground with so many other readers. Also, in part, I may read them for the same reason I read the Twilight series: to see what the hype was all about. But based on my sample size of (now) two books, I stick to my original assertion: in terms of style and quality, these books are no more advanced than Stephanie Myers' creations.

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Mike S. said...

As a guy, I'm tempted to read the Twilight series myself just to see, again, what the "hype" is all about. So I can't compare the two series. However a couple of quick points:

1. The Harry Potter series starts to heat up from book 4 on. POA is really the worst in the series, since nothing really HAPPENS (not to mention, it contains a certain plot device that DESTROYS the rest of the series, but that's for another conversation...)

2. Yes, Rowling writing is very simple, so it makes an easy read. I think there's a reason for that though. It's tough to have really complex, deep literary thoughts without running the risk of taking yourself too seriously (considering the subject matter). So, the writing in my opinion fits the storyline.

3. Again to your point, the heavier character development begins with book 4. What's great about the HP series is that as a reader, you can sense Rowling's writing mature with each edition of the series. It's really nothing like I've ever seen. But the kids from Hogwarts age and grow along with the author.

4. Books 3 and 4 were the ones that really created this huge mass following for the Harry Potter series. Rowling wasn't under as much pressure to create completely coherent, mature, suspenseful novels. I think once she realized that this huge fan base would age faster than the characters in the novels, Rowling had to change to adapt to that. And it worked. Books 4-7 are in a completely different league than books 1-3.

4. Half Blood Prince is the best book of the series. Period.

5. They're really great fun. The Harry Potter series, to me, was like a vacation. It's something you look forward to for the longest time, then are really sad about when it's over. I was sucked in. I love every character Rowling created.

Whew. Sorry. I'll get off the soapbox. But I'm a HUGE HP defender. So Allison, do yourself a favor, finish the series! You'll notice how different the last 3 or 4 books are from the rest of the series. Then judge the entire saga as a group and you'll realize how great it is. The fact that a woman can write a story on napkins at a coffee shop and created the most lucrative franchise in HISTORY is just remarkable!!

agoldste said...

I knew I would incite someone!

Everyone takes their love of books so personally (even me!). All I'm saying is that I don't LOVE the Harry Potter series and that I don't think it's "good" literature, and everyone gets so offended. I'm not saying it's not likeable (because heaven knows I certainly enjoy some books that are filled with horrible-quality writing), nor am I saying that it's the worst writing out there. However, I am amused that as soon as I ever mention not liking it, everyone--and I do mean everyone--jumps down my throat.

Also, I have to make one additional point that plays off of many of your points, Mike: I don't think that I should have to read 4,000 pages in order to find a little character development. That is just the sign of poor authorship, not the sign of "good napkin planning" or whatever nonsense everyone seems to claim. I don't think that trudging through 3 or 4 thick books just to get to the "good stuff" is worth my while when there are so many other wonderful books out there I could be reading.

Nonetheless, I WILL read the rest of the series at your suggestion, because I do respect your opinion and also so I can form a complete opinion of the books and return with a thorough critique (or a raving review, if Rowlings manages to change my mind).

Thanks for your comments!

Ryan said...

You really do need to read the rest of them, regardless of what you think about the ones you have read :)

My favorites personally are Prizoner of Azkaban (3), Half Blood Prince (6), and Deathly Hallows (7). I'm interested to see what you think about the 5th one though, Order of the Phoenix. The characters' personalities are much stronger in that one, as I recall.

I liked the 3rd book since I found it a fresh break from the tired story of Voldemort coming back some way or another and becoming vanquished all in the same book. Also it was the one that compelled me to keep reading them.

Even though Rowling's writing is simplistic and very easy to read, themes do emerge throughout the series. And as for character development, I'm not sure that what she did in the first few books is that unrealistic. How much would you have them change within a single year when they're 11 or 12 or 13? (I made the assumption you're talking about the character development of the kids, not any of the adult characters).

As for one dimensionality, I haven't read any of the first three books in quite some time, so I can't argue that. Have fun reading the rest though, I imagine you'll enjoy them :)