More magic in London: Ben Aaronovitch’s The Hanging Tree

rol-3The Hanging Tree is the sixth in the Peter Grant Rivers of London series – about a wizard’s apprentice in a special department of London’s Metropolitan Police, dedicated to sorting out the ‘weird bollocks’ that the regular Met don’t wish to have anything to do with. I think the best way to update other fans, and to introduce new readers, is to go through the characters. These novels are so attractive in their world building and their characters, it’s hard to detect which elements are driving the plot hardest, and which parts are given the serious development attention.

Peter Grant: not much development in his character, since he’s pretty fully realised as the police officer son of a ex-heroin addict jazz trumpeter and a fearsome mother from Sierra Leone. He’s improved his spell-casting (well up to Third Level now), and still drools over fast cars with more numbers than letters in their names. He’s got really good at spouting meaningless Met jargon to angry Inspectors as a defensive measure. Spends a lot of time with:

Beverly Brook: a south London river goddess who has other business during the duration of this novel, but she’s on hand to relay messages, and keep things calm back at Mama Thames’ headquarters, because there is Big Trouble with her big sister:

rol-1Lady Tyburn: she’s the leading river goddess in this novel, as arrogant and frightening as ever, but we find out about her children, her husband, the trouble they cause her, and the trouble she will cause Thames Water if Peter doesn’t repay the favour she did him by rescuing him from being buried underneath the city by malignant fae, by getting her girl out of police custody like she told him to. What Lady Ty tells Peter when she loosens up and stops glaring is truly fascinating. Whoever knew that islands took university sabbaticals?

Nightingale: Britain’s top wizard, still dapper, still mischievous, still devastatingly attractive, still into Jags. Possibly the only wizard who can control Lady Ty.

Varvara: the Russian night witch is not in this plot, but we hear some bad words being said about her past duplicity by:

Lady Helena: a new character, an earth- and nature-oriented witch / wizard / practitioner who thought she’d killed the first Faceless Man, but now finds that Varvara was lying. She has some loose ethical approaches when it comes to medical and biological experimentation, last seen in Moon Over Soho. Her arrival clears up some old loose ends, and frays more.

Caroline: Lady Helena’s daughter, trainee witch, desperate to learn to fly and getting pretty good at trying. Very interested in swopping spells with Peter, but not in that way.

rol-5Guleed: Peter’s new sidekick, a ninja-hijabi with zero magical powers and no wish to learn any either. Much the better police officer in interrogations and polite questionings. Unfazed by weird bollocks, currently appearing in series three of the Rivers of London comic, Black Mould.

Lesley May: OMG she’s back. Well, if you’ve been reading the Rivers of London comics you’ll know that she’s back properly, and The Hanging Tree brings us up to date with quite how dangerous, powerful and focused she is. And we learn a little bit more about her relationship with The Faceless Man Mk II.

Toby the dog: has a sugar and fat issue, because:

Molly the demon maid: stayed up all night to bake a Victorian-standard high tea for Lady Helena’s visit to the Folly. She gives all leftover food to homeless meals charities, which is why there is never anything left in the kitchen for midnight snacks.

rol-2What I really liked about The Hanging Tree are the background details of the world-building, that show that it isn’t static. Things are changing, in the demi-monde and in Peter’s mundane world, as the two universes come closer together. Zachary is helping the Quiet People acclimatise their children to daylight. The Folly is bringing in mundane specialists to work on thaumaturgical blowout with Dr Walid, and to do the time-consuming analysis. The Chestnut Tree (site of the original last pub before the hanging tree at Tyburn) is staffed by people who might or might not be partly fae. But how do you spot a partly-magical person in a crowd of goths? The Hanging Tree also delivers the expected amount of police procedural operations in crowded, built-up areas in central London. The joy of blowing up well-known and much-hated landmarks must be part of the joy of writing these novels.

In summary, The Hanging Tree is not as heartbreaking as Broken Homes, nor as joyous as Foxglove Summer, but it’s as excellent as Peter’s first appearance, in Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot, as I believe it’s called in the USA).

 

Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes: An Interim Reading

Gilman 1I’ve struggled hard to get through Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman. I’ve already written about her seventeenth-century historical novellas starring Ben Jonson, which I consider completely brilliant. Cloud & Ashes is different, in that its setting is pre-industrial, magical and timeless, rather than in the English court of James I and VI. Its three constituent stories (one is short, one is middling, and the other is a novel) are not coherent narratives, but tell episodes from within a world that she first published in Moonwise, and assorted standalone short stories. They are fantastical, linguistically dazzling, and bloody hard to read. The cover blurbs compare Gilman to James Joyce, and I can see why: this volume is challenging, ignores the conventions, and forces the reader along a path that doesn’t so much lead to enlightenment as a cloud of unknowing and bewilderment.

Cloud & Ashes was joint winner of the 2009 James L Tiptree Award, which is high praise. I read the first story, ‘Jack Daw’s Pack’ (which was a Nebula finalist in 2001 for the best Novelette), and found myself in a dangerous and cruel landscape. I fought my way to the bitter end of ‘A Crowd of Bone’ (which won the World Fantasy Award for a Novella in 2004) and am very little the wiser. ‘Unleaving’, a new novel set in this world, published here for the first time, had me stumped on page 1. The stories are told in a faux seventeenth-century mode, convincingly handled by Gilman, who is a Shakespearian scholar. The vocabulary is unfamiliar, some of it probably invented, a lot of of it missed out, and the word order and arrangement is deliberately, paralysingly obscure. The mind freezes in confusion because sentence after sentence Does Not Make Sense. The way to read these stories is to skate over that thin ice of non-understanding and hope to fall in, be submerged and finally get it.

At plot level I can just about trace the story of ‘A Crowd of Bone’ – Kit Lightwode the fiddler is taken by a witch’s servant to become part of her household, and runs away into the wilds with the witch’s daughter Thea instead. They are in love and they roam the roads as beggars. But that is nearly all I can work out, since the narrative is almost completely dialogue, with snatches of truncated, shimmying description that shies away from actually saying what is happening. There are many speaking voices, often speaking from different moments in the story, from different perspectives. Untangling these is done by finding buried clues in the words used, a single name, possibly one instance of a verb in the past tense in a page of writing. As I said, it’s challenging.

Names move into and out of the narrative with damn’ all explanation. Whin, who seems to be a framing character with magical abilities and finds out Kit’s story after she rescues him from drowning, is completely unexplained, but has the responsibility of carrying a lot of story. Annis is the witch: good (actually not good at all, she does horrible things). Brock is a shepherd who looks like a badger and has pockets of useful things to hand out at will to the starving, freezing Kit and Thea. Cloud and Lune are countries (or are they states of being?). Ashes is – what? A condition? A transient personality? A life skill? A role of ritual significance? A metaphor for doom? Gilman knows, the readers of Moonwise may have an inkling, but I don’t. Ashes is referred to constantly as something that Whin, or others, used to be, or will become, but that’s something we have to find out, should we still have the patience. Margaret is – who? I think she will be explained in ‘Unleaving’, but, as I say, I haven’t the energy to tackle that one yet, and if I stop now, I will forget everything in the earlier stories and understand ‘Unleaving’ even less. It’s a reader’s bind: to fully appreciate Cloud & Ashes you have to read all of it, but ‘Unleaving’ constitutes more than half of this thick book, and I am exhausted. I want to read something less consciously tricksy, less dense, less wilfully unhelpful and less challenging. Sorry, Greer.

Greer Gilman, Cloud & Ashes (Small Beer Press 2015), ISBN: 978-1-9315-2055-3

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

deathly 3Reading for this last podcast script catch-up from Really Like this Book, I could not concentrate on anything else until I had reached the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I thought I had read it before, but I must have skim-read it so fast to reach the end before the next family member in the queue took it off me, that I simply didn’t read it properly. I vaguely remembered the Battle of Hogwarts, and – spoiler coming – George dying, but everything else had gone.

The Deathly Hallows is the strongest of the seven Harry Potter novels, which really impressed me. Maintaining and improving the standard is so rarely the case in a long series that’s taken years to build. This novel is a spectacular multi-episode ending for the series, and ties up loose ends in beautiful, logical bows. Rowling shows her stupendous management of writing the strong emotions of inarticulate teenagers, and gives the reader respite breaks between the moments of danger, terror, chasing, and stunning spells, but the tension doesn’t let up.

deathly 1Lee Jordan’s samizdat radio broadcasts on Potterwatch do more than just give us, and Harry, a laugh. They remind us of secret communications between resistance groups, from the Second World War Yugoslav partisans and the Résistance onwards, which indicates what the opposition is like. They give exposition – passing on information to the reader – in a new way, varying the narrative. They are updates on characters and events, which we sorely need, since the plot won’t allow Harry, Hermione and Ron any other way of communicating with the wizarding world.  Potterwatch reinforces the resistance to Voldemort by raising spirits, strengthening resolve and sparking new ways of working together. And it makes Harry feel that he isn’t alone, that there are people on his side, even if they don’t know where he is. It’s a tonic, a real boost for everyone’s morale, including the reader, since things have gone very dark and gloomy at this point in the story.

deathly 8The plot is extraordinarily complex – what I struggled with over Horcruxes in the Half-Blood Prince is nothing to the density of story and implication that we wade through in The Deathly Hallows. There is the main plot, and several secret subplots underneath that, plus complications caused by communications from beyond the grave – thank you, Pensieve, and the magical portraits. Themes begin to re-emerge from the deeps, all joining up in the climactic ending episodes. Reading this novel is to mutter ‘oh, so THAT’s what it was about’ on repeat.

We have a new father figure for Harry: Snape, of all people. So much has been said about James Potter’s friends, and his ghost, and his influence on Harry, that we have forgotten that Lily Potter had friends who would want to help Harry too. Snape stopped being her friend a long time ago, so I am not sure I accept the likelihood of – a really big spoiler  – Snape having loved her so much all his life that he will undergo all kinds of torture and take so many risks to keep Harry safe for her sake. Yet, it makes sense in the plot, it makes sense for character motivation, and it is supported with enough extra things in Snape’s personality to make it pass. He’s a brilliant Occlumens, so no-one will ever know what he’s really up to.

deathly 2There are new adult advisors, because Bill and Fleur’s house is the new place of refuge. Bill Weasley is such a hero, anything he does or says must be reliable, whereas the slight air of foolishness that Mr Weasley was first created with makes his heroism seem almost a surprise, rather like Neville cutting off Nagini’s head with Godric Gryffindor’s sword. Whoops, spoiler. Harry’s furious rejection of Lupin, sending him back to his family in disgrace, is very unexpected, but it also makes perfect sense for the characters and for the plot. At first, despite Lupin’s elaborate proof of who he was when he arrived at Grimmauld Place, his announcement that he was abandoning the pregnant Tonks to stay with Harry seemed almost to be a suggestion that here was a Death-Eater in disguise, it seemed so out of character. But this was Lupin’s last chance to be an adventurer, to bring the remaining member of James Potter’s old gang together with Harry’s gang. Being the last member of the gang means that no-one really understands. Hermione sees through Lupin’s sad yearnings, of course, while Harry is simply furious that another baby might lose its parent. This is a recurring theme in the series that we might not have noticed, but so many children in the novels without one or both parents – Tom Riddle, Dumbledore, Snape, Harry, obviously, Neville, Seamus (or is it Dean?), Luna, and (spoiler) Teddy Lupin – make a superbly logical connection with what happens to the Malfoy family at the end of the saga.

deathly 5Our heroes’ infiltration of the Ministry of Magic is a muddle, almost a farce, with all the doubled identities and bluffing of experienced wizards through Confundus jinxes and the Polyjuice potion. But because we’re being shown the work of the Ministry in the wake of our heroes’ rampage of desperation, we also see, properly, that the Ministry’s persecution of half-bloods and its encouragement of anti-Muggle attitudes is horribly serious, and horribly, cleverly, reminiscent of totalitarian rule that starts its repressions small. Getting a few victims out of the Ministry is a great thing to have done, but the fact that the victims also need to leave the country to be safe, just as Hermione has sent her parents to Australia under heavy enchantment, is an abrupt reminder that wizarding has gone very bad indeed in Britain. I’ve read a lot of fantasy and science fiction novels in which Britain is isolated because of a plague, or because of nuclear holocaust, or a supernatural affliction of the mind, all functioning as a commentary about the arms race. This is the first time I’ve read magic being used as a commentary on Nazi persecution, Stalinist terror and even the medieval English persecution of the Jews in the thirteenth century. It is quite clear that where half-bloods are being persecuted now, Muggles will be next. As a weak form of comforting amusement in this grim scenario, I do like the idea very much that each new British Prime minister receives a visit at the start of his, or her, term of office from the Minister for Magic, and is suitably terrified and appalled. It’s a clever way of joining up the thinking in these novels, that the bad things that happen can happen in a different form without magic in our own world. In the words of Mad-Dog Moody, constant vigilance.

deathly 7When Harry, Ron and Hermione go to ground, they Disapparate daily with the Weasley tent to a different location, trying to think of ways to identify and find the Horcruxes. It’s a terrible task, because there is no leadership any more, and these children are struggling to throw off their fear, worries and confusion. Having to take turns wearing the Slytherin locket from the underground lake is not helpful. It gets to Ron worst of all, so he abandons Hermione and Harry in a fury of miserable unself-confidence, and Hermione cries for a week. One of the small supportive subplots in this novel is seeing Hermione and Ron gradually stop needling each other, but it takes so LONG: they are very unforgiving to each other, and Ron is the most obtuse teenage boy I’ve ever encountered. The cold weather doesn’t help at all, since being miserable becomes worse if you’re cold and tired, and without anyone competent to cook for them, they’re not eating properly either. Ron finding a way to come back is the turning point, when things start to go well again, even if ‘things going well’ begins with getting caught by the Dark forces. Clues start popping out all over the place at the Malfoys’ mansion, and the period of information-gathering and planning at Bill and Fleur’s house is a very necessary rest, on pillows and for the emotions. The raid on Gringotts is a terrific set-piece adventure, though rather rushed. Escaping on a dragon is hardly a small thing to do, but somehow its wild excitement gets lost in all the other extraordinary things in this novel. With the return to Hogsmeade, and the Battle of Hogwarts, the novel surges ahead on a roll that just doesn’t stop. Everything has been leading towards these climactic moments and it all works perfectly.

I have one quibble. During thdeathly 9e Battle of Hogwarts I was reminded too strongly of another scene of battle chaos in which centaurs, giants and wand-magic were flashing in a melée of magical creatures and the forces of Christlike sacrificial good (wearing red lion livery) battling a dark leader. C S Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has almost the same scene, though rather less populated with witches and wizards. I thought that although Rowling kept control of this epic scene, she let her language turn medieval for one uncharacteristic moment, as if she couldn’t stop herself writing an epic fantasy battle without sounding like Lewis, and Tolkien, in a passage of sweeping chivalric hyperbole. But that’s the only time I noticed her losing her otherwise impeccable control of her writing. This is a marvellous novel.

For my earlier blogs on the other six Harry Potter novels, search in the box at top right.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

half 1Onward with the script catch-up on Harry Potter from the Really Like This Book podcasts! Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, begins with Dumbledore coming to fetch Harry from the Dursleys, and seeing for himself how awful Harry’s life is there. We see that Dumbledore’s opinions are the standard for normal human relations: he remarks on the Dursleys’ failure in normal social courtesies, and his influence on Dudley – the last time Harry sees his cousin – is remarkable. It opens the door for the what-might-have-been of their relationship, so I’m now wondering what happened afterwards, when the series ended. Did Dudley and Harry ever have to have anything to do with each other again?

So, off Dumbledore and Harry go, to visit the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Horace Slughorn. Slughorn represents networking oneupmanship and namedropping. His little parties and gatherings for favoured students are a rather sad imitation of the brief meetings that Lupin used to have with Harry, or with Hermione and Ron at Hagrid’s hut. They show the students learning to negotiate adult entrapments of flattery – rather like what Rita Skeeter tried on Harry – by being encouraged to use their less admirable characteristics. And we also see that not being selected by Slughorn breeds jealousy, which makes sense coming from a Slytherin teacher. Slughorn’s parties are an excellent lesson in how deviousness can manipulate human nature. I do like it that Slughorn is not a bad person, he’s just … Slytherin, a beautifully nuanced character that shows what proper straightforward Slytherin should be, unlike Snape.

half 2The teenage hormones are still going strong at Hogwarts, and this is the novel in which Harry finally, FINALLY realises that Ginny is The One. She’s a tremendous character in this novel, all fire and accurate determination, and not a drip, like Cho. I was very happy that Tonks finally made Lupin see sense about him not being too old and too much of a werewolf to marry her. He’s far too noble, and far too crushed by being an outcast, so he really needed to be told to snap out of it.  Heaven knows we need some cheerfulness in this novel, so much dark stuff is coming up. The tensions around Bill and Fleur’s impending wedding are very enjoyable, and made me wonder – as did the funeral at the end – how Rowling managed to do away with the human need for religion in these novels. There is no god of any kind, since magic is not a religion. There is no paganism, no nature-worship, no sense that a supernatural being or beings are interfering with human affairs. In The Half-Blood Prince Hermione and Ron occasionally say ‘oh my God’, but these outbursts are very rare. They make sense coming from Hermione, but not from thoroughly wizarding Ron, unless he’s borrowing Dean Thomas’s vocabulary. So without religion, what does the wizarding world have as a deity replacement? When we visit Godric’s Hollow in the Deathly Hallows we see that wizards live in a Muggle village that has a church, and Christmas carols are known to wizards as much as they are to Muggles: Sirius was singing them in the Order of the Phoenix, and Christmas happens to wizards all the way through the series. So are wizards Christian? Or Muslim? Was Viktor Krum, a Bulgarian, Russian Orthodox? There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be, in the novels, but very wisely Rowling doesn’t even go there, because the answer doesn’t affect the story.

half 3The elephant in the room for this novel is – and please do stop reading now if you really don’t want a spoiler – that Dumbledore is killed by Snape. We don’t see it coming, although in hindsight of course we do, but when it happens, it is, oddly reassuringly, a planned operation: Dumbledore wants Snape to do it. And of course we are all going ‘WHAT? Why did Dumbledore want him to do it?’ This need to understand takes away the grief some readers might feel, since Dumbledore, though a bit less perfect by now than he was at the beginning of the series, is a much-loved character. The suggestion that his killing was a plan, it was meant, also suggests that it might not be real, that he might come back. And of course he does, in the way that all Headmasters don’t ever go away. But the effect of Dumbledore’s death on Harry is to set him free from being told what to do, and to force him to think for himself and work out the torturous clues that have been planted throughout this novel, and in some of the earlier ones. The Half-Blood Prince is the first time we begin to see the results of the colossal planning that Rowling did to structure her series, an immense job of joined-up plotting.

half 4However, there are some wobbly bits. The business with the cave and the locket and the zombie-Inferi in the water, all that seems rather pointless. The importance of this episode is pointed out several times in this novel and in the Deathly Hallows, so obviously it’s a crucial moment, but somehow its positioning in this novel, or the way it’s told, does not produce a bang. It feels like a distraction.

Similarly, the Draco Malfoy subplot, and his mission from Voldemort, is under-handled. Rowling’s purpose in making Malfoy a Death-Eater is important for what he and his family do and are at the end of the Deathly Hallows, so it’s necessary to lay the trail heavily here. Malfoy, who may be good at magic but is otherwise a cowardly and unimpressive individual, is taken on by Voldemort, not as one of his seriously powerful dark wizard henchpersons, but as the kind of expendable victim that he gets through so fast. Malfoy was his disposable tool, since he is worthless in most other ways, and is needed to keep Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy more closely bound to Voldemort’s cause. That would make sense for Rowling’s plot purposes, but not for Voldemort’s plan for world domination. At the end of the Deathly Hallows, the next and last novel, the Malfoys represent the power of love being present even in the most horrible of personalities, so, in The Half-Blood Prince, we need to have the situation established that will prove their love. It must also show how vile Voldemort is that he will manipulate them and exploit them for that love. Draco is a tool to be corrupted, but the problem at this point in the series is that we simply don’t understand how he could have been accepted by Voldemort, and so his mission seems implausible, in terms of how people behave.

half 5The episode in which Snape agrees to make the Unbreakable Vow for Narcissa, on the other hand, is a genius bit of plotting, which we only understand at the very end of the Deathly Hallows. Here is the logic: (1) making the Vow to Narcissa, that he will take over Draco’s task if Draco can’t do it, doesn’t put Snape in any danger, since he has already agreed with Dumbledore that he will kill him before the cursed ring has its effect. So he doesn’t lose anything by making the Vow. (2) The act of making the Vow reinforces his commitment to the Death-Eaters as far as Bellatrix is concerned, and possibly also for Voldemort. (3) It puts Narcissa and Lucius in his debt – always a useful thing. (4) I think the most important thing about the Vow is that it shows the reader that Narcissa, although not at all a sympathetic character heretofore, is a mother who loves her son, and I mean really loves him. She doesn’t love him for the chances she will gain through him, or for the glory he will achieve, which you might expect from a Slytherin. She love Draco for himself and for his safety, and that is a remarkable bit of character writing.

half 7I was horribly confused by the Horcruxes. Rowling’s plotting went into overdrive here, because – again – she really needed the whole principle of the Horcruxes to be understood by the readers in this novel, in preparation for the Deathly Hallows. Harry works so hard at these puzzles, but, I have to say, he is not the wizarding world’s most deep thinker. He is superb on intuition, and good at making connections out of nowhere, but he is rubbish at deduction, perseverance, logic, and avoiding distraction. I do like Harry very much, he’s a very engaging character and a pleasure to follow through these adventures, but he doesn’t THINK as much as FEEL. He is a brilliant empath, and so we all love him, but my goodness he is irritating when he doesn’t understand how to work out complicated puzzles set up by the most brilliant wizards of the century. Watching his struggles makes us feel for him even more: another fine piece of readerly manipulation by J K Rowling.

Next time, book 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

 

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Potter 1 1
The UK version

This is a lightly edited version of the first Really Like This Book podcast script about the very well-known Harry Potter novels. I’ve been observing the rise of Harry Potter studies in my professional life, having graded research papers by students, and sometimes these novels inspire excellent essays. There is a lot to say about these books, so I’m not talking about the films, which are a different set of kettles of fish.

So, the first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, first appeared in 1997, and not many people noticed. It took three years for my family to discover Harry Potter, through the CD version of the Chamber of Secrets given as a child’s birthday present, which we listened to obsessively as we drove around France in the summer of 2000. I bought the first of our copies of the books on the ferry on the way back to Britain, and after that we were hooked until the last film came out, eleven years later. When I read the novels aloud to my children when they were very young, as they ate their tea, they ate food they would normally refuse to touch, and they would also eat everything on their plate, such were the superb distraction powers of Harry Potter. I wrote to J K Rowling to thank her. When the later novels came out, we bought them in hardback on the day of publication like millions of others. We had a family agreement that I could read each book in parallel with the children because I was the fastest reader and could read the book while the children were at school. So my reading experience of Harry Potter has been both very slow and careful while reading aloud, noticing every word and how it works on the page and in the voice and mind’s eye, and also reading in a gobbling rush to find out what happens before the book was taken away from me.

The US version
The US version

Re-reading Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (in the USA and in several other countries it’s called The Sorcerer’s Stone, of course), I was laughing out loud, and found, once again, that I really wanted to read this book rather than do the things I ought to have been doing. The plot of an orphan bullied by his bad family and rescued by entry into a wonderful magical world works on me every time. The early sufferings of Harry with the Dursleys were very attractive to read because we know he escapes, and because he is cushioned from the real world, and real suffering. The Dursleys are not of our time today because there is no internet in their world – it was only just beginning to be used in British homes when Rowling began to write these books – so the outside world is hardly present, and there is no contact with other families, or with school life, or any of the normal suburban life of English families (cub scouts, tennis, babysitting groups, coffee mornings, all that stuff). They exist in a bubble, and so we have nothing to compare them with. This has the happy side-effect of making the stories effectively undateable, despite Dudley’s passion for videos and cine-cameras. We know what the Dursleys think is normal, because they enforce normality so vigorously, and because JK Rowling creates a very careful stage set for their normality that we hardly think to question it. However, Harry’s loneliness is strong enough for us to feel sad at the looming prospect of teenage bullying, and at the inexplicability of his bizarre miserable life. The episode of the disappearing glass, and the snake that wants to go to Brazil, comes as a joyful release. It’s a suddenly-opening door out of the misery, a revelation of glorious possibilities.

Clever reversed Japanese version
Clever reversed-out version for the Chinese market

Rowling makes us wait for the next instalment of gloriousness, but now we know it’s out there, we are happy to wait. The outbreak of Hogwarts letters is certainly a lot of fun, but it’s more interesting  to realise that there is a plot: Mr and Mrs Dursley know what’s going on. For a brief moment Harry and Dudley are allies, or at least on the same side, trying to find out what is going on by jostling and shoving to listen at the door. Mr Dursley’s frantic attempt to evade the owls and the letters by taking his family to a rock in the middle of the sea is straight out of Roald Dahl, and that’s absolutely fine. Rowling has been criticised a lot for cherry-picking events from the great children’s novels of the twentieth century, but since children’s fiction is largely the retelling of myth, she’s got as much right as anyone to tell these stories in whatever patchwork she wants. It all makes good, warm, readable cloth.

Potter 1 3The arrival of Hagrid is THE moment. This is when we remember the puzzling episode at the very beginning of the novel, where Hagrid hands over Harry to Dumbledore, and we read the three-way conversation about what had just happened to You Know Who. None of that is recalled while we’re reading about Harry and the Dursleys, because the tone in this part of the novel is different, and we didn’t understand what they were talking about in any case. But now Hagrid will explain, in words and actions, all the way to Diagon Alley, and we are enthralled. The revelation of the magical world’s existence is almost as much delight as we can take. The shopping for magical school supplies and all that it tells us about the depth and detail of this world, how magic replaces Muggle arrangements and practical inventions, the explosion of wonder that is the existence of Hogwarts itself – all this is what makes The Philosopher’s Stone a winner. Rowling doesn’t skimp on her writing style either: she shows what she means, she doesn’t just tell, so her storytelling is economical, and efficient, underneath the marvellous invention. Most cleverly of all, every time a concept or a word or an action appears in the narrative that a child won’t understand, she explains it in the next sentence. Time and again I noticed this when reading the early novels aloud: just when my children twitched an eyebrow or said, ‘but what does that mean …?’, the explanation was in the next line.

Potter 1 5So we’ve had the revelation that Harry is not Cinderella, he is a person with a past and a family, and a community who love him and want to welcome him back. This is filling our hearts with warm fuzziness. But we cannot relax, because there is also darkness. Much nastier than Cruelty, Ignorance and Snobbery, as represented by the Dursleys, Harry encounters Bigotry and Arrogance, in Draco Malfoy. There is also Weirdness, with the effusiveness of the witches’ and wizards’ welcome in the Leaky Cauldron, and Deep Strangeness in Gringotts. Hagrid won’t explain or Harry doesn’t ask, which is maddening because there is so much that we want to understand about this world. We can see plot possibilities stretching ahead, quite apart from the question of whether Voldemort is dead or not (we don’t care too much about Voldemort at this point, not having met him personally). Harry’s first act alone in his new world, after being dumped at King’s Cross and abandoned by Uncle Vernon – a real act of cruelty – is to make friends, and so the joyous warm fuzziness returns with Mrs Weasley and a family of surrogate Weasley brothers, and sister. The train is another deep pleasure: I love long train journeys up and down the length of Britain, because of the romance of running through so much different countryside. I’ve always wanted to do it in one go, London to Inverness without any stops, just like the Hogwarts Express. I’ve always assumed that Hogwarts is somewhere near Inverness, which would make it a very long journey indeed, especially beginning at 11 in the morning.

Potter 1 6I’ll skip over the joys of the Sorting Hat, the moving staircases and paintings in Hogwarts, the lessons and the teachers, and the daily use of a magic wand – all that is delightful and we know it. I’m interested in the plotting around the mystery, which we do need. It reveals how Harry, Ron and Hermione measure up to their peers and their teachers in skills and moral courage, and opens up the first stage in understanding the greater plot of the series to rational, adult scrutiny. First, the hiding of a world-class deadly secret in a school to be guarded by a giant three-headed dog and a wandering troll, seems downright irresponsible, unless the close proximity of so many Magical Arts teachers was a guarantee of safety.

I have other questions. Was the status of teaching among the magical community particularly high? We don’t hear anything about a magical university, for example, at this very early stage in the Potterverse, and I’ve only just come across a reference to it in the last few months, so do the intellectuals and research-active witches and wizards gravitate naturally to the schools to teach? I also have a problem with the Forest, from which all students are banned (quite rightly, as it is full of seriously deep magic), but why are first-years are taken to patrol it, practically alone, at night, as a detention punishment? That makes no sense at all. Is Hermione really the only swot at Hogwarts? She’s a terrific caricature of the most irritating keen student ever, so perhaps her example warned anyone else in her league to play it cool.

This was the cover that revolutionised publishing to let them print multiple copies of the same book in different covers, and reach new uadiences: in this case, adults with the excuse of reading HP to children.
This was the cover that revolutionised publishing to let them print multiple copies of the same book in different covers, and reach a new market of adults lacking the excuse of reading HP to children.

And finally, the feasts, and the food that can be conjured up: it is an axiom of fantasy writing, and also the laws of physics, that nothing can be created from nothing. All matter must come from somewhere to appear somewhere else: Ben Aaronovitch explores this particularly well in his Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, as a direct riposte to Rowling, I think. Similarly, magical food is by definition dangerous: think of all the stories where a character eats something magical and falls asleep for a hundred years, or turns into something odd and strange. Why is the Hogwarts magical food wholesome, delicious and safe? Where do the ingredients for the Hogwarts meals and other feasts and snacks come from, delivered to the house elves in the kitchens, whom we haven’t met yet?

That is probably the best thing about this really excellent novel, that there is so much more to discover about the world and its workings. The films focus on Harry and the Voldemort plot: I’d rather stay in the school and explore that. Which I will do, next week, with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.