Monday, March 24, 2008

Review - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
by J. K. Rowling
2001 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Here it is, the single most controversial Hugo winner. Every other award left some people happy and others disappointed; this time it left a lot of people angry. I've seen it cited as why the Hugos aren't relevant and why the voting procedure needs to change. Many people seem upset because "It's not science fiction!" (the Hugos never were just for science fiction but this is the first novel winner with no science fiction elements) and "Rowling doesn't care about the award!" (another requirement I was unaware of). I've read some seriously told conspiracy theories for how it managed to wind up on top. In short, a lot of people didn't like that the most popular book of that year overall was also selected as the most popular science fiction or fantasy book by the Worldcon voters.

I'm standing apart from that; my feeling is that the voters select what the voters want. 2001 had the real boom in Potter-mania and the other nominees that year were not very strong. So the fact that an extremely popular children's fantasy book won the award doesn't bother me. What bothers me is that it is a terrible extremely popular children's fantasy book.

If I had encountered the Harry Potter series when I was ten I'm sure I would have loved it. Rowling has built the kind of sense of wonder that always catches the eye. I suspect that if I had read it as a child I would have similarly grown out of it as my tastes changed as they have with Star Wars. Even considering that my tastes in mind candy lean toward the pulpish. I'm not ten so I found Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire to be a poorly conceived, misshapen, overgrown tumor of a novel.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire our titular young wizard returns to the Hogwarts School of Wizardry for a fourth year of learning and mayhem. This time around his plot which coincidently has events falling neatly into the school year involve him being entered into a deadly wizardry tournament.

Let me step back a bit to Harry Potter and the (Your Edition Title Here) Stone. When I read it I thought it was a fine juvenile novel with some flaws but nothing that really got under my skin. Chamber of Secrets had those flaws again but a bit larger, and Prisoner of Azkaban has them even larger still. By that point it was clear that Rowling had some problems with her writing that needed to be addressed or the series would keep slumping downhill until the end. Needless to say they were not addressed in Goblet of Fire. Instead they were magnified by the scale of book.

The first major problem is that Rowling is terrible at world building. "There's a society of magic users hiding among us," is a good place to start but all the details that support that premise are half-constructed messes that leave more questions than answers. Hogwarts teaches young wizards magic but not basic skills like English or math. Even though the real reason why is that those subjects are too mundane to include in Rowling's fantasy it still leaves a big hole in the world.

Magic has completely arbitrary limits and uses in Rowling's world; it appears to run mainly on author fiat. This would be annoying enough but it builds with a bloated mass of excuses as Rowling feels it necessary to justify why every random thing she's ever thrown onto the page won't work to overcome the new obstacle.

On top of that Harry Potter appears to be incredibly dense about the workings of the world. During the first year he could be bewildered and lost, during the second he might still be stumbling, but at this point after living three full years plus the time in the novel he still has to ask questions about basic things that he should have encountered at least some mention of off page such as when he was reading the wizard newspapers. Instead he has to ask his exposition spouting friend about everything for the benefit of the readers.

That's just a quick sampling of the problems, really taking them apart would require digging into the details but it comes down to that nothing fits together quite right leaving a critical reader bewildered.

Beyond that there are my problems with Rowling's writing. The most common problem in the series is with Harry himself. He quite literally has everything handed to him in this novel. Every single challenge he faces is fixed by deus ex machina, someone comes along and hands Harry the answer to his problem. Rowling attempts to explain some of this away at the end of the Goblet of Fire but fails to notice that this still left Harry as completely and totally ineffective in the book and doesn't handle any of the other deus ex machinas she regularly throws in.

And then there is the bloat.

Here's a fun experiment for you. Locate all the works of a very popular author. This works better if its an author who isn't particularly good but is still popular. Now set them so the spines face outward like they're on a bookshelf (if you have them on a shelf already even better) and arrange the books in the order of their publication. Note how the books get fatter and fatter and if you were to read them you would find those fat books didn't really contain a lot more story than the thins ones, they were just bloated up with pointless rambling. I call this "Too Big For an Editor" syndrome, a disease that strikes popular writers and the symptoms include believing that every word they put down on the page is priceless and must be included. Attempting have the author streamline things for the sake of improving the storytelling would cause more problems for the editor than the author. J. K. Rowling is not the first sufferer of this disease which attacks dozens of writers and millions of readers annually but she could be its poster child.

Goblet of Fire starts with a hundred and fifty pages of a pointless trip that could have been completely cut with barely anything lost. The few plot elements that actually matter (as opposed to the ones that get hit on over and over again as the book continues) could have been worked into the story another way with hardly any effort. It's poor story telling that is especially noticeable in Goblet of Fire because this inflamed appendix of writing is so large and appears immediately.

I know this review is looking bloated but I'm still not done with my problems with Harry Potter because I haven't even touched on the simplistic morality and characters Rowling has populated the novel with. Anything that Harry does and is not immediately admonished for is "right" and "justified", if you belong to the wrong group of people (somewhat arbitrarily selected by a talking hat) then you are evil and always wrong. While kind of narrow morality is acceptable in a children's book I have to judge it as an adult reader.

I could go on for a bit longer but there's no need to. The Harry Potter series were never great works but Goblet of Fire is the point where the series completely breaks down in my view. The weight of Rowling's flaws crush the book like an elephant and an ant. I wouldn't recommend it, but then you've probably read it already.