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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Guest Review: Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (Reviewed by Achala Upendran)

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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The first three of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books follow a detective-story pattern: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry faces a problem of some sort, and the plucky young hero and his friends are determined, despite their junior standing and almost complete lack of expertise, to get to the bottom of the matter. The second in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, sticks most faithfully to this tried and tested mystery formula, and it is for this reason, I think, that it is one of my favourites.

Even before he begins his second year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter is warned by a strange visitor that ‘terrible things’ are to take place at the school. Despite his best efforts to find out more, however, he is unsuccessful and it is with nothing more than a cryptic warning that he arrives (dramatically) at Hogwarts, having flown there with Ron in the Weasley family’s Ford Anglia. Unfortunately, this seems to set the tone for the rest of the year, with nothing being quite as it should be in Harry’s considerably more-than-normal school.

Legend tells of a secret chamber built within the castle by one of the school’s four founders, Salazar Slytherin. Within this Chamber of Secrets resides a monster that can be controlled only by the wizard’s heir, who will unleash it in order to purge the school of those that Salazar Slytherin deemed unworthy of a magical education. Namely, Muggleborns (witches or wizards born to non-magical parents). Someone appears to have opened the Chamber this year, and no one, not animal, witch, wizard or even ghost is safe. Harry, Ron and Hermione will once again have to do their best to get to the bottom of this mystery.

I loved Chamber of Secrets. For a very long time, I told people it was my favourite of all the Potter books. This is for many reasons, one of which is that it gives me a thoroughly enjoyable scare every time I read it. I found some sections of the book terrifying (you might know which when you read it); it’s amazing how Rowling manages to evoke that sense of fear with the merest whisper of a suggestion. What is most amazing is that, despite the fact that I know what’s coming, I get frightened anew every time I read the book. Rowling is just that good at what she does.

We meet a host of new characters in this book, some of whom will later turn out to be very important. For instance, readers make the acquaintance of Ginny Weasley, youngest member of the Weasleys and, on the other side of the spectrum, Lucius Malfoy, Draco Malfoy’s sinister, smooth-talking father. We’re also treated to our first extended stay in a wizarding home when Harry spends a good part of his summer holiday with Ron and his family at ‘the Burrow’. Rowling further widens the borders of her world when she takes Harry on an impromptu (and rather shady) trip through the seedier parts of the shopping district called Knockturn Alley; she further illuminates the castle of Hogwarts a little more when our heroes view the Slytherin common room and Harry is summoned (on a separate occasion) to Headmaster Dumbledore’s office.

Besides the chance to explore a little more of the ‘Potterverse’ as fans dub it, Chamber of Secrets offers a slightly darker take on the wizarding world. For the first time, issues of race and equality, which will come to be central themes in the books, are explicitly introduced. Through the categories of ‘Squib’, ‘Muggleborn’, ‘halfblood’ and ‘purebloodRowling highlights the very real differences of treatment and opportunity meted out to people in the ‘real world’. While the purebloods have the inestimable wealth of familiarity with magic and a certain sense of entitlement (at least, the rather extremist ones like the Malfoys do), Muggleborns must make up for their late-coming into this world through hard work and a constant need to prove themselves, most well-evidenced by Hermione Granger, one of Harry’s best friends and the most academically brilliant witch in her year.

Rowling rather simplifies the notions of blood-purity and racial tension by splitting combatants along house lines (Slytherin, as the house founded by the pureblood-crazed wizard, becomes the haven of all those who support his ideas, while the others are more tolerant, seemingly), which leads to vilification of a quarter of the school later in the series. I understand that this is done in order to present a stark good versus evil picture to supposedly less nuanced childish understanding, but as an adult reader, it troubles me.

Whatever her weaknesses be as a moralist, though, there is no denying Rowling’s superb ability to accomplish entertaining things with her characters. Chamber of Secrets harbours one of the most (literally) colourful professors to ever grace Hogwarts’ halls in the form of Gilderoy Lockhart, the charmingly inept Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Lockhart’s absurd vanity, his blinding smile and his paparazzi-prone hi-jinks are a welcome respite after the stuttering non-entity that formed the bulk of his predecessor Quirrell’s screen-time. Lockhart not only provides much of the humor of the book, but he also illustrates an interesting moral dilemma near its climax. What that is, we can pick apart once you’ve read the book.

CONCLUSION: To sum it up, Chamber of Secrets is a darker book than its predecessor. The halls of Hogwarts seem more dangerous, the characters are considerably more devious and even Harry goes through much more soul-searing trials. At one point, most of the school turns its back on him, a glaring contrast to the instant fame and approval he had enjoyed for much of Philosopher’s Stone. For the first time, we see Harry dealing with this kind of widespread societal disapproval, and something tells us that it’s not going to be the last time he’ll face it. It’s clear that Harry’s time in Hogwarts is not going to get any easier as he ages, and we can only hope that he grows enough emotionally, magically, to cope with it.


GUEST REVIEWER INFO: Achala Upendran is a freelance editor and writer based in India. She blogs about fantasy literature, with a special focus on the Harry Potter series, at Where the Dog Star rages. You can also follow her on Twitter at @AchalaUpendran

Achala will be reviewing all of the seven Harry Potter books, so enjoy her thoughts as she brings a special focus on the series, characters and world that have enchanted so many of us.


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