It’s been about a year and half since I reviewed the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but I was feeling the need to revisit some fun, well worn, homey territory. Does this book still hold up??? Is it worth reading through all 433 pages??? Let’s dive into this monstrous, ghost-filled tale and see! (It's at least seasonally appropriate, if you ask me!)
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999/2002)
As I mentioned in my review of the first book in this series, I’ve been down this road before. This is probably my third time reading Chamber of Secrets, and I’ve seen the film adaptation dozens of times. (My wife and I will frequently get the itch and binge watch all the Harry Potter films over the course of a week or two… We do the same thing with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, about once a year!) However, it’s probably been about three years since I’ve READ this particular book, and it’s surprising to me how many things I can forget in just a few years, even with a book I’ve already read multiple times.
For people who have never bothered to pick up this novel OR seen the films, (are those people still out there???), here’s a quick recap of what we're talking about: In the first book in the series, Harry Potter, who was raised by his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, but is treated rather poorly by them, discovers on his eleventh birthday that he is a wizard and that his parents were both magic users, too, but were killed when he was just a baby by an evil wizard. Despite his aunt and uncle’s protests, Harry is invited to Hogwarts, a school for witches and wizards---and he goes off on an adventure to this magic castle, where he makes friends, learns to control his magical powers, and does battle with the same evil wizard who murdered his parents.
This second book opens with Harry, back at his aunt and uncle's house for the summer and disappointed that his friends from the magic school haven’t written to him during the break. Surprisingly, Harry is visited by an ELF, (named Dobby), who tells him that he shouldn’t go back to Hogwarts because someone is planning to unleash some evil scheme, and the elf doesn’t want Harry to be hurt of killed if he returns to the school. In fact, Dobby has even been keeping all the letters that Harry's friends have written to him over the summer, hoping that if Harry thought nobody at the school cared about him, he wouldn't want to return, but Harry, who hates living with the Dursleys, tells Dobby that he feels more at home at Hogwarts and in the magical world---and he ignores the elf’s warning and returns to the school, only to discover that someone has unleashed a horrible monster that begins petrifying students (turning them into living statues). Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, learn that this same creature was let loose at the school fifty years before, as well, and that the last time, someone was even killed.
It’s a fairly simple premise, a monster that no one seems to be able to see or stop is running around the school causing chaos and threatening to kill the students, but what Rowling does to make the book interesting is combine a mystery / detective element to the plot, in which Harry and his friends try to discover WHAT is attacking students and WHO set it loose. And this mystery element is combined (quite deftly) with humor, monsters, and whimsical magic, and it's built around solid characters. There are a number of well defined, memorable folks in this book, besides the big three (Harry, Ron, and Hermione.) There’s the wise, knowledgeable wizard, Dumbledore; the strict but fair Professor McGonagall; the grouchy, cantankerous school janitor, Filch; the slimy and sinister Lucius Malfoy; and a new character introduced in this book, the pompous, self-aggrandizing buffoon, Professor Lockhart, who clearly has no idea what he’s doing and provides some much needed humor in this fairly dark tale (until his true colors are exposed!)
For people who have seen the movie but never read the novel, I do recommend reading this book. Rowling does a great job of creating atmosphere, her dialog is quite entertaining, and (being 400+ pages long) there are a LOT of details in this book that didn’t make it into the film. Some of the most entertaining “missing” scenes that can only be found in the novel include a fist fight between Ron Weasley’s father and Mr. Malfoy in Flourish and Blotts book shop; all of the wacky antics of the poltergeist character, Peeves (who is in all of the books, but for reasons I will never understand, never appeared in the films); and the Death Day party that the ghost, Nearly-Headless Nick, invites Harry to! There are a great many differences between the book and the movie, particularly in the amount of time the reader gets to spend getting to know some of the minor characters---but I do still enjoy the movies, and I understand why they took most of the extra bits out. HOWEVER!!! If you want the FULL STORY, it really is worthwhile going back to the source material. Rowling’s writing style is easy to read and JAMMED FULL of little quirks and details, most of which I quite enjoy. (I do have to say, though, that the giant spider sequence is MUCH more exciting in the film. Sometimes, it helps to SEE the monster!)
All that being said, this is a quick read and entertaining. At this point in the series, I think Rowling was still probably aiming at a middle school audience, but the novel doesn't feel dumbed down or (I hate to say it) stupid, like a lot of books for younger readers are. I appreciate how difficult it is for an author to write for a younger audience, but not sound like they're being patronizing or talking down to their readers. It takes a master, like Maurice Sendak, to write a kids book that adults can also enjoy. I think, and my wife and brother will back me up, Rowling did a good job of making a book for younger readers that can fly just as well with "grown-ups."
Chamber of Secrets doesn’t really have any bad language or explicit sexual content, although the scarier scenes might be a teeny bit intense for youngsters or people who don’t read a lot of scary stories. (Anyone who can handle a Stephen King story shouldn’t be bothered at all.) In some of the later Harry Potter novels, the violence gets a bit more graphic, but this one isn’t really bloody at all, even though you do get a bit of “death talk,” particularly from the ghostly characters, like Nearly-Headless Nick and Moaning Myrtle, who like to describe how the met their fates. I suppose I should say that some folks, who think all tales of MAGIC are evil, are going to be bothered by this book, but I honestly don’t see anything in this text that you could say was Satanic… (At all. And I've read the Satanic Bible, so I know from whence I speak.) The primary theme that seems to be most explicitly hammered home in this book is that those WITH power have a moral obligation to PROTECT those who do NOT have power. To ME that doesn’t sound particularly EVIL, but maybe I’m not the right person to ask…
Final words: This book is fun and funny, includes a suspenseful “who-done-it” plot, has a couple of great monsters in it, and the story is built around solidly developed, entertaining characters, who I really enjoy coming back to every few years and visiting again. Hopefully, it won’t take me quite as long to get to The Goblet of Fire, but who knows!?!?! Alrighty folks, “FINITE INCANTATUM!!!”
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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