Ranking the Harry Potter Books
7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Of course, no Harry Potter book can ever be bad, but Chamber of Secrets is perhaps the least beloved. The book is just as slim in volume as its predecessor and it follows the same strict solve-the-mystery plotline, leaving little room for emotional layering or depth. And while this makes sense––Harry is still twelve, and through his eyes the world is still two-dimensional––readers are not yet set up to believe that Harry’s story will be the Bildungsroman journey that it is. With the exception of the introduction of the first Horcrux, Chamber also gives readers the least amount of plot information for later books, making it the least necessary volume for the greater plot arc––there are no new important character introductions, and the story of Slytherin’s monster ceases to become important at the end of the book. What is most promising about Chamber of Secrets is its glimpse into Ginny’s mental struggle with possession. Unfortunately, almost every character in the entire series is given a satisfactory arc except for Ginny. For a story so based on characters, it’s incredible to me that Ginny’s struggle wasn’t explored further. Oh well.
6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Goblet of Fire is the trickiest of the Harry Potter books. It bridges the gap between the concise, plot-driven mysteries of the first three books and the lengthy, character-based depth of the last three. The transition is successful, but it’s sticky. As Harry is now fourteen, it makes sense that the books are getting longer; but unlike Order of the Phoenix, where the long length is natural, Goblet attempts to mash an extra chapter wherever it can to prove that the age difference is significant. For example, is it really necessary to have an entire chapter in which Harry moans about his scar hurting and imagines Dumbledore at the beach rubbing sun-tan lotion onto his nose, as we see in “The Scar”? In addition to this struggle with length, there is a palpable conflict with focus. The book contains a rigid plot arc in the form of the Triwizard Tournament, a structure reminiscent of the last three books; but there is also some personal drama with friendship and romance, and increased scenes in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione hang around in the common room talking, like we see in later installments. The book feels as though J.K. Rowling is arguing with herself––plot or character depth? A lot of this stickiness is probably due to the deadline that Rowling had for writing it. I don’t envy attempting to write a 736-page novel in one year. In the end, though, the book succeeds in its mission. By the time Order of the Phoenix rolls around, we’re prepared from its preamble.
5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Who could ever dislike the first book? It’s the perfect opener, the one that started it all. What’s most wonderful about Sorcerer’s Stone is the sheer magic of the world, introduced to readers and to Harry for the first time. And with this adrenaline rush of wands, owls, moving staircases, spells, ghosts, goblins, baby dragons, pictures that talk, and invisibility cloaks come tender, introspective looks into Harry’s past, such as the iconic scene in front of the Mirror of Erised. What’s also lovely about Stone is that Harry is so young and so wide-eyed. He’s also so bratty, always sticking his nose into other people’s business with his small posse of best friends. The reason that Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t ranked higher on this list is because all of the other books are so good, and also because, as the opener, it feels untouchable and un-rankable. As a short mystery, it doesn’t compare to the later longer books, but it’s impossible to rank down the book that made every eleven-year-old yearn for a Hogwarts letter.
4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Prisoner of Azkaban acts as a signal––Greater Plot Arc Taking Shape Now. Rather than a traditional happy ending in which each plot is resolved, each mystery is answered, and Voldemort is thwarted yet again, Prisoner remains open, with Peter Pettigrew escaping at the end of the novel. It resolves differently as Harry discovers his first-ever parent figure in Sirius; and despite the uncertainty, this ending leaves readers with far bigger smiles on their faces. Prisoner takes the necessary step of trading safety and structure for heart and emotion. Its plot alone foreshadows the shift of focus in the next books. The book cements itself as the obvious best of the first three. Many critics have labelled the novel as J.K. Rowling’s finest achievement, but the book has never struck as perfect a chord with me. This might be because the Prisoner of Azkaban film is the only Harry Potter movie worth watching; Alfonso Cuaron’s direction nearly matches the original book in quality. While having an excellent movie adaptation would normally be considered a bonus, the film has always overshadowed my opinion of the book; it’s hard to think of the events of the novel without thinking of the cinematic version. Maybe we should count ourselves lucky that the rest of the Harry Potter movies are so bad.
3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
After the angst and confusion of the fifth novel, Half-Blood Prince finds the cast of Harry Potter ready to reconnect. Prince is best characterized by finding heart in dark times: despite the now-obvious return of Voldemort, much of the book revolves around romance drama, as Harry and Ginny as well as Ron and Hermione develop relationships. At points, it’s hard to see the darker side of Prince: Harry’s determination to prove that Malfoy is a Death Eater looks less like a warning sign and more like a throwback to Sorcerer’s Stone-level nosiness. And yet, as readers watch Ron swallow love potion and Harry become teacher’s pet in Potions class, they are learning crucial information about the steps to Voldemort’s demise, necessary setup for the next installment. It’s a brilliantly funny book, a fan favorite that nevertheless induces sobs as Dumbledore dies and the beloved, mysterious friend Harry has treasured all year turns out to be his murderer.
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
It is incredible that Deathly Hallows is as short as it is. What with learning in the last book that, in order to be defeated, Voldemort would have to be thwarted five times (six, counting Harry as a Horcrux), that a pain-inducing attempt to count for one of those times ended up entirely in vain, and that the trusted leader who can help with this impossible task is now irretrievably dead, it would not have been surprising if Hallows were another seven-part series of its own, spanning several years in length. It’s a miracle of a book––not even the longest in the series, and yet nothing feels abbreviated or skipped over. It is the masterful finale that everyone was hoping it would be. Unlike the other books, which could more or less be described as “Life at Hogwarts: Volumes 1-6,” Hallows is an epic adventure force that takes readers all over the Wizarding World, while still maintaining humor and heart. The chapters “The Prince’s Tale,” “The Forest Again,” and “King’s Cross” remain some of the most masterful, tear-jerking moments in the saga. Deathly Hallows draws an excellent close to the greater arc, and to the arcs of all of the series’s characters. Even the controversial epilogue was satisfying, if you disregard the era of Pottermore to which it led.
1. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Order of the Phoenix is the richest, lengthiest, and darkest of the Harry Potter series. It’s divisive among fans, with some readers describing it as too long and boring, but I find the length enjoyable. The 900 pages chronicle life at Hogwarts and character-based drama, the elements that make Harry Potter feel so much like home. Order has so many layers––after having read parts of it every day for almost seven years, I can still find new things to think about. Order is also, without a doubt, the most pivotal moment in the series. It marks an all-time low for Harry and his world, and the conflict turns in on itself, shifting from the rigid Good vs. Evil theme of the first four books to Aware vs. Ignorant. The struggle with ignorant and unjust government in this book feels even more relevant than the themes of goodness. I realized the other day that living in a global pandemic which is being undermined and ignored by Donald Trump feels just like living in Harry’s world during the return of Voldemort which was being ignored by Cornelius Fudge. Order of the Phoenix is a dark, twisting brick of a novel, the richest and most complex point in the series, and for this reason, it is ranked first. It defines the Harry Potter Bildungsroman and asks important questions about the society we live in.
Ice Bear Combat
- The weather reports have been frustrating, because they advertise ninety-degree coolness when in reality it feels like a hundred and five, accounting for the cloudless skies and the sticky quality of the air. We have been eating outside on the deck to adjust ourselves. Every night my sister makes hot soup––hot soup––which on one occasion I douse all over my thumb. I text pictures of the large pink bubble beneath the nail to my friends, who have little sympathy. “Why the hell are you eating hot soup in this weather?” And that is a very good question.
- I eat mangoes two a day, which are somehow still being sold for twenty-five cents each at Costco in mid-July. Nobody else is allowed to eat my mangoes unless they ask permission and undergo a routine inspection, in which I stare at them hard in the eyes to gage how much a mango would really mean to them. I’ve gotten used to the itchy, irritating feeling that springs in one’s mouth after they’ve eaten two mangoes a day for weeks on end. I dread my doctor’s appointment next month––learning how even further out of whack the vitamins in my bloodstream have become.
- We keep a list of nicknames for the cats on the fridge on crumpled purple notepad paper. One of our cats is a thin black-and-white princess with rabbit fur, so of course we give the most ungraceful nicknames we can muster to Her Holiness––Cow Kitty, Mint Chip Moo, Squeaker, El Petite, and simply Cat. We also have a less-groomed, nearing-obese gray commoner cat who has a strange hobby for hanging around bathrooms, and we try to make her feel as important as we can––The Grey Lady, Miss Èclair, Daisy Dearest, The Gray Goddess of Middle Tennessee, Baby Belly, and Earth Bender Badger (the last a fitting title we adopted from watching Avatar: The Last Airbender reruns on Netflix).
- My dad and sister are the intellectuals of the family––they engage in such activities as reading The New Yorker for fun and debating about the geography of Zimbabwe. One day my sister laughed obnoxiously loud at “Lexicon for a Pandemic,” which was an article in one of those magazines, and the entire family was left grinning at such plays on words as “Someday, Noneday, Whoseday?, Whensday?, Blursday, Whyday?, Doesn’tmatterday." The other day my sister showed me “The Unexpected Solace in Learning to Play the Piano”––another one of those magazine articles––and I laughed tears and put a page of it up on my wall. After which I thought, “Maybe I should become one of those intellectual people things."
- It’s too bad that classical music is so boring. I would love to use a worldly knowledge of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, and Liszt in quiz bowl and to impress my friends. But it’s all so dull, and my seven-second attention span can’t possibly be expected to stand the tests of little violin ditties. Instead I listen to useless things. I think a need for fun, a need to listen to things I actually like, is my downfall. But sue me––I’m more of a movie soundtrack kind of person. And “Ice Bear Combat” is so much more fun than “Minute Waltz.”
i started writing this short story in november, and it’s taken me until now to get it finished and (somewhat) edited. as i am with most of my short stories, i really have no idea how to feel about it. it feels dated - it’s pretentious and stylized in a way that i wouldn’t start a story now. i’m really just insecure about writing in the first person in general; it always feels artificial and weirdly angsty. this is also one of those stories where it’s so much more fun to be the author than to not be the author, because it doesn’t really make sense and it feels superior to know something that the readers don’t. so it’s “art.” i’m very reluctant to publish this at all, actually, but it’s so much easier to not share things than to actually succumb to the public’s opinion. but here i am. i would appreciate all of the feedback you could muster. thanks.
I was sixteen one afternoon, and being taught to sew by the caretaker; and it was a wondrous day, the first true sunshine since last autumn or before. The lawn was golden with glare, and I knew that there would be chutes there in months’ time, and blossoms blooming after that. My mother came home from work on this afternoon and said, with Ina and me just feet away with needles in hand, “I’m never going back there.” It was in a most idle voice, and I was startled; but before any salutations were made, Mother marched straight to her bedroom.
“Mistress doesn’t like the spring,” was all that Ina said, attention back on her fabric. I leaned toward her and absorbed myself with the thread again. Who didn’t love the springtime? But she was my mother and there was always something indescribable to me about her preferences and her doings. And then Ina taught me to do double-stitches and patterns and I quite forgot about it all.
And I did not see Mother for the next few days; although, as Ina had rightly observed, the weather warmed considerably. I spent little time wondering where she was until confronted by the gardener Jeorge, whose story was brief and financial.
“She won’t pay me none, Miss Meriel. All idle ’n bed––you’d think her the queen. And I need money.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I got a family!” said Jeorge, outraged.
“No––why doesn’t she pay you? Mother doesn’t leave things till late.”
“I dunno. She was in bed when I talked to her, but she didn’t seem too sick. Hard to know ’n all, o’course. Maybe the pollen’s made her ill.”
“She doesn’t really take ill,” said I, who could never remember Mother sick as long as I’d known her.
But the days dragged into weeks, and I didn’t see Mother, not even to fleetingly cross through the door or to order the servants around. It was unusual, all of it. Jeorge was furious. Ina was worried. She told me to worry too, but I didn’t.
“Her work must not be going well,” I said refusingly, when the weather was so warm that the grass was drenched in dew.
“She hasn’t paid me,” said Ina. “Why wouldn’t your mother pay me? I’ll lose my job if this continues.”
I couldn’t respond to that. We were always well off––refusing to pay the servants simply wasn’t Mother. And after a while I did grow exceedingly curious about where she was, despite my insistence that nothing could be made of her absence. I did not want to believe Jeorge about Mother’s stay in her bedroom, but her bedroom did feel the natural first place to look.
I entered her room in the morning, and at first I thought the space vacated, for it was damp and dark. The lights had been extinguished, but a single window stood open, and by its bright light I could see a figure lying on the bed, wrapped in a quilt like a mummy. The place was dead silent. Mother did not stir. I wondered if she was dead.
“Mother, is that you?” I asked, fighting to keep an incredulous note out of my voice. Mother did not need my bad manners now––she was clearly ill.
The quilt moved, and it cracked open minisculely. In a wild fantasy, I imagined myself gazing upon a twisted form, ghost-like in pallor and with sweat streaming down a wan, skeletal face. In real life, however, Mother looked just like herself. Her features were expressive and colorful. As soon as the light fell on her face, her eyes shut tightly. From her covers, her hand grew and groped in the air, as though feeling for my face.
“Meriel,” she muttered.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said, reassured. “Why haven’t you paid Ina and Jeorge?”
“Meriel,” she said again, ignoring my question. Her voice had regained its usual harsh, businesslike tone, but she still didn’t open her eyes. The light from the window looked painful to her.
“Yes, it’s Meriel.” I stooped over her bed, and, with an admiral amount of nerve, I poked her hard on the forehead with an outstretched finger. The skin was warm, but not burning. “It’s me. I’m sorry that you feel ill, but can’t you take care of Ina and Jeorge? They need paying.”
Mother opened her eyes blearily. She looked rather bored. “I’m not ill,” she said restfully.
I looked at her, this time not bothering to conceal my incredulity. “Get out of bed, then. There are things to be done.” I felt vaguely angry. Perhaps that was why I was acting so out of turn.
The lips of her mouth upturned in a slight grin. She raised her head a moment, then flopped back onto the pillow. “Meriel,” she said, instructively, “leave me be.”
And an order was an order, so I left her be.
A stony silence was now present in the house, for it had been the whereabouts of three weeks since I had last seen Mother awake and upright. The servants growled in fierce, angry whispers, but Ina said no more related to payment. The weather remained mild and sunny.
I wondered about Mother, about the coolness of her forehead and the expressiveness of her face. She was not sick. Was she hiding? Had we, perhaps, run out of money after all? Had something dreadful happened?
Jeorge left his work in a grumbling fashion, muttering about family and how Mother was taking advantage of him. I watched him go. I would miss him; he had been a grouchy but stable presence in my life. He was one of the many people whose job it was to care for me, and he had done it well––he was a sort of paternal figure. He very nearly didn’t say goodbye as he strode down the hallway and stopped before the front door. He had unlatched it and was stepping into the sun-streaked lawn when Ina called after him, “Won’t you say goodbye to your mistress, Jeorge?” I thought she meant Mother, but Jeorge lumbered back and bowed and I shook his hand. It wasn’t much of a farewell; I was too dumbstruck at being regarded as a mistress to say anything of importance to him.
Ina reported, a few days later, that a few of our gardeners had left too, and some of the cooks.
“Why?” she repeated, surprised. “They’re not being paid, Miss Meriel, same as Jeorge. Same as me.” She paused, and then she said, “I feel inclined to tell you, Miss Meriel, that I don’t much blame them. They’ll run out of food if they stay here. Your mother is––well, if I’m permitted to speak ill of her, your mother does seem to be taking awful advantage of her workers.” Another pause, and then she said, “I would leave myself, if I didn’t have to stay to look after you.”
And it happened very suddenly, that the bustling house became deserted. People trickled out one at a time until they all left at once, in huge congregations, marching fumingly to the front door, always the same. The majority of them did not make their leaving known to me, and I would only discover someone’s absence when I called for them and they did not come to me.
I was bewildered before I was upset. My life had been so normal until it was not. Yet it took me such a very long time to fully pinpoint the source of the trouble, to be awakened to the horror that Mother had left me. What was wrong with her? I asked Ina over and over again what had happened to Mother, and Ina never knew the answer, and I raged until I became so upset that I cried.
The house rang with a terrible silence that I had never known before. When I walked outside on a blazing spring afternoon, I found the gardens vicious and overgrown; and the heat had come at last, so that the sleeves of my sweater stuck to my skin. The wild growth was somber to watch, so I remained instead in the huge house with its ringingly silent halls. After a while, I gained the impression that the only two people living between its vast walls were Ina and me. I told her this one afternoon, as the hot air wafted through the open windows of the parlor. And then I asked her, for the last time I ever would, what had happened to my mother.
“I don’t know that, Miss Meriel,” she said gently.
“But where did she go?”
“As far as I know she’s still sleeping soundly in her bedroom.” The voice was gentle.
“But there’s no food.”
“Then… she’s starved to death in there.”
“Mother wouldn’t starve,” I told her, with the air of one stating the obvious.
“No, of course she wouldn’t.” Ina stared out of the window for a long time, and then she said, “Meriel, your mother still lives in this house, just like she lives in you. You can take comfort in the fact that she’ll always be present. People who leave don’t really leave, you know.”
Her words were impressively vague, and she spoke them with such importance. I had no idea what she was talking about.
“If you want to know what happened to your mother, you know where she’ll be.”
Images flashed in my mind––Mother splayed in bed, soulless and fleshless, her face a gaping skull, the skin wound too tight around her bones.
“I won’t,” I said aloud, though there was nothing I had been instructed to do.
How long had it been since I had last seen Mother? Individual days didn’t seem to exist now; rather, they were like hazy ideas of things which seeped ever-closer together, like one long, limitless chain. It occurred to me that the sweltering air drifting from the windows was the air of summer, not spring. I felt weak with exhaustion.
The terrible day came when Ina left me. She told me that she herself would starve if she did not find more work.
“There’s food in this house!” I yelled at her. “Look!” There was a gaping pantry stocked with a fortune’s worth in food. I dragged her down the steps.
“No, Meriel… no, I can’t eat that.”
Belligerently, disbelievingly, aggrievedly, I asked her why she couldn’t.
“My mistress has taken advantage of me, but I won’t take advantage of her,” said Ina maddeningly, and then she wished me the best I could have in life and walked into the blinding lights of the outdoors.
And then I was alone in the manor, with the phantom that might be my mother, might be her starved body. I felt ill of mind. I was terrified of walking into Mother’s room and seeing the limp, fleshless figure that haunted me, terrified by the thought of witnessing the bed that had become her grave. I had nightmares of the pale, blank eyes that would loom from her corpse, and I woke up on many nights blurting words into the air, my body in a sweat.
The day came when I felt so insane from the silence and the emptiness and the vastness and the darkness that I walked down the hallway and towards my mother’s room. The large wooden double doors that gated the bedroom stood imposingly before me. My heart thrashed madly in my chest. I wondered, stupidly, whether I should knock, and I stood frozen with this question permeating my mind until at last, on a reckless urge, I flung the doors open.
The room looked exactly the same as it had upon my last entry into it. The room was dark but for a single window, which was ajar. Beyond it I could see the snarled disarray of the once-beautiful garden. The bed was illuminated by the window, and on the bed lay Mother. Her eyes were open and blinking, her chest rose and fell in gentle cadence with her breathing, her gaze jumped to me as the doors swung open. She looked just as alive and full as she had before. There were no signs of a gruelling death by starvation. I was so startled by this living, healthy Mother that I remained silent.
“Hello, Meriel.” She smiled a little, though it looked difficult, and sat up against the headboard.
I gaped at her.
We remained silent for several seconds, me with my mouth slightly open and Mother with eyes fixed on the window opposite the bed.
“Will you do something for me, Meriel?” asked Mother, from the silence. Without waiting for an answer, she said, “Of course you will.”
I found my voice, and all I could think to say was, “Yes.”
“Tend the garden. I look at it every day and it makes me so sad. Dig up the weeds and the pests, and bring the flowers and bushes water, and spread the flora evenly like it used to be.” She paused, her eyes still on the wild snare outside. “It would be such a relief.”
I disregarded these instructions, at last ready to speak what I thought. “Mother, where have you been? You’ve left me alone in this house––this den––with a ghost, without any servants, and if the food runs out I’ll starve to death, and you’ve been here this whole time alive and well and looking out of the window––”
“Hush,” said Mother at once––“it’s not polite to speak to your mother in such a way. I’m telling you to tend the garden. That is an order. You, as my daughter, obey my order.”
Of course, I would obey her order––what had I been thinking?
I left the room without further comment, with a strange sense of unreality. The conversation could not have taken place––I had expected a starved skeleton to lie in that bed, with blank eyes and cold, unused skin, and instead I found Mother, unchanged and intact and acting as though everything was normal in the world. I doubted what I had seen, began to convince myself it hadn’t happened.
The fear was really there now, because the phantom wasn’t in the house, it was in my memory, and it had controlled me and warped my perception of everything. I wondered what I had really seen in that bedroom, and again I pictured a grotesque, lived-out corpse, with flies crawling in its skin. Mother’s skull found me in dreams. When I would wake up, I would call for Ina to come and console me, and I was always greeted with silence.
But I had been told to tend the garden. And what did it matter really, what was real? So there was nothing for it: I had followed Mother’s orders since the beginning of time, was always right where she needed me, had done what she asked of me.
The air was blazing when I walked outside, the groping sun fiery hot on every inch of me it touched. Sweat infested the insides of my clothing like maggot clouds, but I would not take off my sweater. I grabbed bunches of my skirt to avoid tripping and trudged to the garden. The weeds had expanded themselves onto the house, so that the mossy walls crept with winding, spindly stems.
I sat down gingerly on the long grasses, with my skirt tucked over my knees and shins to avoid staining my legs. I held the knobbly stem of an unfamiliar-looking plant in my fingers and pulled it carefully out of the ground. The roots gave in easily. Other weeds were less willing, and I found myself positively yanking them upwards. Several split from their stalks, and I was reduced to digging the roots up with my hands. The entire affair was so sweaty, sweatier than anything had been in my life, that I stripped from my wool sweater and rolled up the sleeves of my shirt.
I wondered, clawing and ripping at the beds of wildlife, whether Mother might be watching me from her window. The thought sent a shudder through me, and I glanced quickly round at the windows of the house, but each was dim from the reflection of the sun, so I could not see inside. I resumed my work, but the thought nagged at me and chilled me until I couldn’t bear it. Mother’s window was the tall, decorated one. I pressed my face against the glass and waited for Mother to blink back at me from the other side of the pane. But I couldn’t see anything at all. The room appeared very dark but for a faint silvery line in the corner that might be the beam of the bed frame.
I trudged inside when the sun began to set and slept, dirty and stinking, sideways on my unmade bed. I dreamt of a sick patient in a hospital whose skin had been eaten away.
The next morning, I did not pause to wash or change but stepped right outside. The weather was, if possible, hotter than the previous day’s. I found a small trowel in the abandoned shed and dug up the unwanted plants. A large, snaring bush had tangled itself together one of the garden beds, and I spent considerable time hacking off each one of its limbs with the sharp side of the spade, until only a small green stump remained. I barely had the energy to move indoors at sunset. I slept on the parlor couch, which was nearest, and watched as the girl in the hospital who had no skin twisted and turned. There were inlets and caves in her red flesh that were filled with maggots.
I woke to day three of gardening and immediately moved outside once more. The bright sun prickled on my neck, but I had developed a tolerance, now––I would do the work, now, a hundred times faster, a hundred times more powerful, for a hundred more years if I had to. The gardens were neater now, marked by separate clumps of plants as opposed to a single writhing mass, and I would make these beds perfect, flawless. I combed the soil with my hands and found roots, nothing but roots, a million underground networks threading into and from one another like intricate spiderwebs. I licked my lips, which tasted of tang and salt, and unraveled the roots like fabric between my fingers, as the sharp earth bit at my skin––like the sewing lessons where I had, on so many occasions, pricked my fingers with the needle. My skin developed cuts and bled, as it had then. My head was very heavy, my shoulders slumped, every inch of my body burning hot. I was coming down, fast, upon the scorching dirt, maggots billowing around me.
A cocoon of humid air held me somewhere damp and dark. Dimly I was aware of a breeze, of wearing several layers less clothing. My throat was very dry. A persistent need for water drove me to wake myself.
The voice startled me deeply, and I felt something cold drop to the pit of my stomach. I thought wildly of Mother, and then of the starving ghost that had haunted my dreams.
I spun round, waiting for the bloody, skinless face to surface in the real world at last.
Somebody laughed. “It’s me. It’s not that mother you keep mentioning.”
It wasn’t Mother, only a boy. He was maybe younger than I was and his face and overgrown hair were coated in grime. We were sat beneath the shade of a large oak. Beyond the fields I could see the house, and the garden beds––canals now ripped through the carefully tended dirt.
I sat up, a question burning at me. “What do you know about my mother?”
“You talk in your sleep.”
“Oh.” I slumped back down. “Do you have any water?” I asked, blatantly. All manners, it seemed, had been left in that scrupulously tended house with its many walls and rooms and servants. I was different now.
“Yeah.” He handed me a flask, and I drank without comment.
“What are you doing here?” I asked when finished.
“I noticed you passed out so I brought you to some shade. Thought you might need some water. You’re going to have to find a way to get some, if you want to work in this weather.”
“I have water.”
“Are you that lady’s kid, then?”
“What are you doing laboring in the gardens?”
I stared at him accusingly. “What are you doing here? The servants all left. The property’s not supposed to welcome strangers.”
“My grandfather told me to stay here.”
“Where is he?”
There was a bit of silence.
“Well, I have to go,” I said. “I have something to do.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me who I am? I don’t know who you are––for all I know I’ve just let a criminal drink my water.”
“I told you––I’m Hilda’s daughter.”
“Well,” said the boy. “I’m Duncan’s grandson.”
“Fine.” I turned and walked into the sun-drenched fields towards the house. I noticed as I did so that my sweater was missing, and my shoes and socks. I must have kicked them off while I was unconscious, and I didn’t miss them; the ground was cooler under my toes, the air freer around me.
I labored until I fell asleep, exhausted, in the garden beds. The girl with the maggots in her skin was at last turning her raw, infested face towards me. I looked into her eyes, which were dark and wide.
I woke up having vomited on the earth beside me. When I sat up, the boy––Duncan’s grandson––was watching me from a distance. I wondered how long he had been there, lurking just out of my sight. He was meant to be there, after all––his grandfather had told him to be.
I stood, hesitated, and yelled to him across the steaming fields.
“Is this real?”
He turned around and laughed.
some favorite quotes from books, and one from a song.
“i’m being ironic. don’t interrupt a man in the midst of being ironic, it’s not polite.” - ray bradbury
“how dreary it is to be somebody.” - emily dickinson
“the mind is the only thing about human beings that’s worth anything. why does it have to be tied to a bag of skin, blood, hair, meat, bones, and tubes? no wonder people can’t get anything done, stuck for life with a parasite that has to be stuffed with food and protected from weather and germs all the time. and the fool thing wears out anyway - no matter how much you stuff and protect it.” - kurt vonnegut
“ah, well, people can be a bit stupid about their pets.” - hagrid, wisely
“so monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. there is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent god who created the entire universe - and he’s evil. but nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.” - yuval noah harari (on theology)
“well, guy in a skeleton costumes runs up to the guy in the superman suit. RUNS THROUGH HIM WITH A BROADSWORD.” - john darnielle
“the argument goes something like this:
‘i refuse to prove i exist,’ says god, ‘for proof denies faith and without faith i am nothing.’
‘but,’ says man, ‘the babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? it could not have evolved by chance. it proves you exist, so therefore, by your own logic, you don’t.’
‘oh dear,’ says god, ‘i hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanishes into a puff of logic.
‘oh, that was easy,’ says man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next pedestrian crossing.” - douglas adams
“i was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma. in the afternoon - well, i put it back again.” - oscar wilde
“for the present is the point at which time meets infinity.” - screwtape
“it is computed, that eleven thousand persons have, at several times, suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end.” - gulliver (as in the one from travels)
“i hated sports, and i hated people who played them, and i hated people who watched them, and i hated people who didn’t hate people who watched or played them.” - john green
been collecting good quotes as i read for over a year. the following are from the martian chronicles, “260,” “unready to wear,” harry potter and the prisoner of azkaban, sapiens: a brief history of humankind, “oceanographer’s choice,” the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, the screwtape letters, gulliver’s travels, and looking for alaska. i don’t own any of these works.
The Ups and Downs of J.K. Rowling’s Lethal White
Enter post-2007 J.K. Rowling, most notable for inventions such as Pottermore and the nightmarish Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Broadway play. She has been noted too for the uninspired, un-fantastic Fantastic Beasts screenplays, as well as her ever-raging, ever-controversial Twitter account. Suffice it to say, it has been a downhill road since our beloved Potter books were first published in 1997.
Few fans, however, have traversed the largely uncharted territories of Rowling’s post-Potter novels. There are five, in total––The Casual Vacancy, a long novel detailing the happenings of a small English town; and, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, the Cormoran Strike crime fiction series, consisting of four books as of yet and concerning the title detective and his assistant Robin Ellacott. This week, I finished the Cormoran Strike series’s lengthy latest installment, Lethal White, which means that I can celebrate the not-very-celebratable milestone of having read every book J.K. Rowling has ever written. Before I discuss this week’s read, I should provide background on the other works of this non-Potter phase of Rowling’s career. She kicked off her exploration of the larger writing world with 2012’s realistic fiction The Casual Vacancy. In one word, the book is unpleasant––it reeks with bitter, bickering conflicts and horribly unlikable characters. The book feels as though Rowling had felt liberated from the constraints of children’s fiction and delved deep into the nastiest renditions of adult life. Gone mad with the power of her new adult fiction abilities, Rowling confided all of her worst fears about the darkness of the adult soul to readers with raised eyebrows, and sought to strip every character she imagined to the very worst of their person. She managed to mellow her tone in the following years with the Cormoran Strike whodunit books––The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, published in 2013 and 2014 respectively, contained their own multitudes of glimpses into adult life (this time alongside the lurid corpses of crime victims) but the characters here had much more heart than the characters in The Casual Vacancy––they felt like actual people, as opposed to Vacancy’s cruel, callous machines. Rowling quested for darker plots again in 2015’s Career of Evil, which was much grislier than either of its predecessors, featuring Jack the Ripper-like antics, the worst of which included gorey glimpses into the murderer’s collection of women’s body parts and a severed rotting toe taped to a wedding card. But again, the characters were lovable and the relationships were endearing, and so the few Potter fans who had dared to venture this far into the darker recesses of Rowling’s troubled mind forgave her for the nightmares that Career of Evil caused.
By the time Lethal White rolled around in 2018, the whodunit narrative felt a little old, particularly as this book’s question of “Was it a murder or was it suicide?” felt like a direct copy of The Cuckoo’s Calling’s case. At this point, I would enjoy the novels much more if the entire mystery were cut out and was instead replaced with a soap opera-like view of Strike and Robin’s forbidden attraction to one another. They’ve had their closest call yet to admitting their feelings for one another when Strike, to quote the final pages of the novel, “pulled [Robin] clumsily into a one-armed hug.” Who knows, what with Troubled Blood coming out later this year, maybe more hopeful fans could expect a hug with two arms next time. I’m certainly getting my hopes up that the upcoming novel will feature more character drama than plot drama, because I cannot for the life of me follow and enjoy the actual mystery, and I’m sick to death of elongated scenes in which Strike stumps around the London streets, brooding about the case and complaining about how much his amputated leg hurts.
Here is a quick run-down of Lethal White’s plot:
Jasper Chiswell, a wealthy government minister, hires Cormoran Strike to investigate Jimmy Knight, a young activist, and Geraint Winn, husband of another government minister, who were blackmailing Chiswell for a cause unknown to Strike. Strike agrees and places Robin Ellacott, his assistant, in Chiswell’s Parliament office undercover to keep tabs on Winn. Robin meets Chiswell’s employees, including many of his children from various marriages to younger women. Chiswell is then found dead in his office from overdose and then suffocation. The death is believed to be suicide, but Chiswell’s daughter Izzy hires Strike to investigate further, hoping that Chiswell was instead murdered by his current wife Kinvara. Strike discovers that Chiswell was being blackmailed because he built gallows for export, one of which was stolen by rebels in Zimbabwe and used to murder a British teenager. Strike identifies Kinvara and Chiswell’s illegitimate son Raphael as accomplices in the murder, and Robin’s detective work reveals that Raphael’s motive was to steal a painting of Chiswell’s valued at twenty-two million dollars that he recognized as a work of George Stubbs. After Strike and the police agree that the murder was the combined work of Kinvara and Raphael, Robin is captured by Raphael and held at gunpoint. She survives long enough to be saved by Strike and the police.
The case is interspersed with scenes from Strike’s and Robin’s personal lives. For Robin, this means a rapidly deteriorating marriage that climaxes when she discovers that her husband is cheating on her, continued suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being attacked by a murderer in the previous novel, and fending off her attraction for Strike. For Strike, this means dealing with his nephew’s appendix bursting, breaking up with his girlfriend Lorelei, fending off his attraction to Robin, and––of course!––the endless complaints about how much the prosthesis attached to his amputated leg hurts him. And there are many, many case-related plot details that I neglected to mention in my summary, because I think if I tried to mention everything of importance in the novel, my summary would be longer than the actual book. I’m still not sure what the significance of some of those details were.
I have read four of these Cormoran Strike books now, and each time I read one I start out by adequately understanding what is being talked about. I get into such high spirits about understanding one of the mysteries that I completely miss the next wave of information being thrown at me, so that by the time the case concludes I’m drowning hopelessly in a sea of plot details that were lost on me. When I was two-thirds through with Lethal White, I confessed to my sister, who has read the Strike books as well, that the ocean of plot had me drowned again, worried aloud that I might never truly enjoy detective fiction, and then added desperately, “But I understood Agatha Christie!” To which my sister told me that she never really had a grasp on Rowling’s plots either, and then she said that I could follow Christie’s stories better because Christie was simply better at detective fiction. To which the indignant Harry Potter fan in me rushed to defend the hero that we all know J.K. Rowling is, despite her lack of showing it over the last thirteen years.
Despite my naivety at the details of the Strike cases, I would easily recommend Cormoran Strike to a friend. All of the books in the series are more or less the same––confusing plot, intense and interesting looks into the lives and personalities of the characters, lovely prose, fairly satisfying conclusion. They’re not perfect books, but they’re solidly dependable and easily readable. The language and style of prose is heavily reminiscent of Harry Potter, and an astute reader will notice little exchanges between Strike and Robin that are worded exactly the same as exchanges between, for example, Harry and Hermione. Therefore I enjoyed Lethal White. And more importantly, I was so glad J.K. Rowling was filling up her time writing detective fiction: it means that the next Fantastic Beasts screenplay just might be slightly delayed.