Today I decided to review JK Rowling’s second book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Harry Potter faces all the school things a muggle-born boy might only, of course, Of course, Harry is anything but normal. As an infant, his head is scarred by Voldemort’s death curse, which nearly destroyed the Dark Lord. Now the boy is a twelve-year-0ld wizard in his second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Rowling introduces us to a division in the wizarding world, between those who believe wizards should come from wizard-only (“pureblood”) families, and people who accept the wizards from muggle-born parents. This concept forms the foundation for much of the plot for the next 6 novels. Lord Voldemort and his followers have done much over the years to impede muggle-borns (who they derisively call “mudbloods”) in every way possible. The followers and descendants of Salazar Slytherin are noted for their hatred of muggle-borns wizards.
The crux of the matter is this: where does Harry belong? He was almost placed in Slytherin house. He is a Parselmouth, a wizard who can communicate with snakes, a rare gift possessed by Slytherin. Somewhere beneath halls of Hogwarts is the fabled Chamber of Secrets, guarded and unseen by Slytherin’s monster. Harry, who knows little of of his own family, is terrified he is Slytherin’s heir, and is suspected of initiating the attacks on muggle-born students throughout the school.
Harry struggles with who he is, much as we do. Are we beings who are controlled by nature, or by the choices we make? At the height of Harry’s self-doubt Dumbledore insists that “only a true Griffindor could have pulled [Griffindor’s sword] out of the hat.” Despite this, the story doesn’t read as a morality tale. It is filled with action and, truth be told, reads more as a school whodunnit. The reader is constantly asking, “Who is the Heir of Slytherin?” and “Who or what is petrifying the students?” This in itself isn’t a surprise. Plenty of other novels make the reader ask those questions. The difference is this: JK Rowling makes us care about the answers.
The book is punctuated with humorous anecdotes of the eccentric Defense against the Dark Arts instructor, a few wild and gripping quidditch matches, and of course the grudge between Harry and his Slytherin-house nemesis, Draco Malfoy.
Rowling’s writing is, once again, taut. She seldom uses frivolous words and phrases. I particularly appreciate this of her. Nothing is discarded or throwaway in her writing. Forgotten characters from the series’s first book resurface a half dozen novels later. A seemingly innocuous mention of a potion or spell at the beginning of a book proves to be extremely important later in the same story. It is appealing to me, both as a writer and a reader, to see how she is not frivolous with words, characters, and most especially, the Magical World she’s created.
That said, Her characters are pitch perfect. We remember what it’s like to be twelve, and despise someone in school. We remember what it’s like to have a best friend who’s a girl, to whom we have no romantic consideration. We remember loving, and hating, and thinking too severe, any number of teachers. At that age, we notice girls with frizzy hair and large front teeth. We think puking up slugs is the height of comedy. Not only can Rowling write, but she has complete mastery over every situation in her novels.
The only downside I can think of is the Scholastic (American) edition of the novels: I despise Mary Grandpré’s art, and can hardly stomach these covers. As appealing as the novels are, I have to be honest: it’s one time when the cover nearly made me judge the book. The Chamber of Secrets is not just for children. It’s exemplary in every way. However, the cover made me think it was written for eight-year-olds. After seeing Grandpré’s covers, I expected a novel that read in couplets like “Humbledy bumbledy diggledy pum / Draco the Malfoy is silly and dumb.” Gods be thanked, I was wrong, and thrilled to admit how wrong I was…
Kudos to her for an exemplary second novel. Of course, I’ve read the other five, and will review each in turn.
Five stars of five.