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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Guest Review: Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling (reviewed by Achala Upendran)

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OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: It’s hard to write a review for a book that means so much to so many readers. Harry Potter has seen an entire generation of children grow up alongside him, and certainly, the big-budget Warner Bros films have more than done their bit to cement his popularity and make him a byword in the cultural imagination. Nonetheless, I will do my best to deliver an objective assessment of the books purely on their literary merit, so here goes!

"Mr. And Mrs. Dursley of Number Four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."

Thus runs the unlikely opening of one of the most beloved books of the past hundred years. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The first of a seven-part series that follows the adventures of its eponymous hero, Harry Potter, Philosopher’s Stone does a great job laying the groundwork of Rowling’s magical world, a world that has ensnared children and adults across the globe for more than a decade.

Like many of its predecessors in the fantasy genre, Philosopher’s Stone opens with a world gone awry. Owls are swooping about in broad daylight, people dressed in strange clothes are standing about talking animatedly and, perhaps most disconcerting of all to Vernon Dursley, a cat is standing on a neat suburban road ‘reading’ a map.' The reason behind these strange happenings is revealed by the end of the first chapter, and sure enough, it’s something to do with a Dark Lord (You Know Who), tragedy and a hero who doesn’t know the import of his own destiny chiefly because, when he is introduced to us, he is a slumbering baby with a lightning-bolt shaped scar.

This, of course, is Harry Potter, the boy who will go on to steal our hearts and quite obviously, our sympathies. Raised by a cruel set of relatives (his aunt and uncle, the aforementioned Dursleys) and bullied by his cousin, Harry remains nonetheless a quiet, sweet boy. Though he does his best to keep his head down and stay out of trouble, trouble has a way of finding him, as well evidenced by his inexplicable act of vanishing an entire pane of glass at the zoo and unleashing an enormous boa constrictor.

The reasons behind Harry’s uniquely troublesome nature are revealed, finally, on his eleventh birthday when a stranger from another world arrives to spirit him away to his true calling. The stranger is Hagrid, Keeper of the Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the world he ushers Harry into is one where dragons hatch from eggs, goblins run banks and, most importantly, magic is real. Rowling does a fantastic job of blending the classic hero story with the boarding school narrative, complete with house rivalries, schoolyard bullies and friendships and the more common ailments of homework, despicable teachers and detention.

At Hogwarts, Harry not only makes his first and best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, but he also learns that he is special even in this environment. Harry is the only known survivor of an attack by Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard so feared that even now, years after his fall, people are terrified to speak his name. Voldemort’s onslaught felled both Harry’s parents, but when the wizard turned his wand on the baby, his curse rebounded and instead, destroyed him. Harry is known throughout the wizarding world as the Boy Who Lived, his name spoken in reverence and gratitude for his inexplicable defeat of the most feared wizard in a century.

Every good fantasy reader however, knows that apparently defeated Dark Lords seldom remain in such a state. There are dark things happening at Hogwarts, and Harry, now armed with a basic knowledge of spells and sharp instincts, has a bad feeling that Lord Voldemort might be behind it all. Again, true to fantasy form, he sets out to put a stop to it, his loyal friends by his side.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a hugely enjoyable read for everyone, both children and jaded adults. Rowling draws her characters with a sharp pen, managing, through this slim volume (it is the shortest in the series) to create memorable figures who readers feel as though they’ve known their entire lives: the bookish, fussy Hermione; charming, loyal Ron (Harry’s guide & man friday to the wizarding world); snobbish Draco Malfoy and not least, warm, curious Harry Potter.

Even the adult characters are strongly realized, Rowling imparting to the teachers and parents alike a vividness and depth that not many grown up characters in children’s books enjoy. Perhaps this goes a long way in explaining the books’ enduring popularity. Growing up alongside the series, I for one have found myself drawn more and more to the adult characters in this world, seeing facets to them that, previously wrapped up in Harry and his friends, I had never seen before.

CONCLUSION: I don’t know how many readers out there have not had the chance, or the inclination, to begin their journey to Hogwarts. I envy you this chance to step on board the Hogwarts Express for the first time, to discover a world that will certainly suck you in and leave you gasping at its vivid richness. There’s nothing quite like embarking on a new series, and Harry Potter is definitely not one you should miss. To those who are old hands at Hogwarts, I can only say there’s nothing wrong with a re-read. These books are like fine wine; they only get better with age.


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.


Unknown said...

A big task indeed, reviewing one of the most iconic and beloved books in the world.

An excellent review too - makes me one to dust off my copy of Philosopher's Stone (or, more likely, buy it again as I probably gave it to someone years ago) and have a re-read.

The Reader said...

Hi Jamie,

Thanks mate, and yes we are glad that Achala agreed to review such a beloved series for us.

Since reading this review, I'm also very inclined to re-read the series once again.



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