Review written by Clark Valentine.
(This gleefully spoiler-filled review focuses on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (PoA), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (GoF). I also assume you’re read my review of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. If you haven’t, go do that. It’s OK, I’ll wait. Go on. Shoo. Read it. We’ll be here when you get back.)
Like all reviews on Reads4Tweens, here be spoilers. Big ‘uns, too. Be ye warned. Arr.
Harry Potter is back at Hogwarts for years 3 and 4 of the 7 year curriculum, and the plot is thickening. In these two books the larger plot starts to kick into gear. We learn more about the wizarding world beyond the hallowed halls of Hogwarts, which is the main thrust of these books. We meet students from other magical schools. We learn that those in charge—the Ministry of Magic, Hogwarts teachers, etc.—are not all-powerful and unquestionably good. Some can’t entirely protect Harry and the other students, others choose not to for their own selfish, corrupt reasons. The world is not as it ought to be, and Harry, Dumbledore, and friends can’t easily solve it. The powers of darkness are gathering strength, and the rest of the world doesn’t appear to be able to resist. The books wrap up immediate questions, but the Big Things are starting to build.
All that said, Hogwarts is still fundamentally a safe place, a refuge for Harry. That will change in subsequent books, which is why I consider these two together.
(Seriously, there are spoilers ahead. Turn back now, abandon all hope, last chance for gas, and all that. Okay? Okay.)
I really like these two books, especially PoA. It’s not just a good kids’ adventure story, it’s a pretty good adventure story period. It’s a lot of fun to see Rowling improve over the course of the books. Yes, there are a couple of small plot holes in GoF, but… Okay, fine, a plot hole big enough to drive a hippogriff through. (Why did they have wait for the Triwizard Cup for a portkey to… GRAR Never mind not the point bite tongue hrm hrm)
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Much like the first two books of the series, the story contains elements of British culture and language that some non-British readers might not pick up right away. Ultimately none are so impenetrable that a kid couldn’t figure it out; the few things they can’t aren’t that vital anyway.
Also like the previous books, magic and spellcasting play a big role. If that’s a problem for you… well, you probably should have stopped reading a few books ago.
“Isms” and Slurs
PoA introduces us to a nasty wizarding world slur—“mudblood,” which refers to a muggle-born witch or wizard, as opposed to a half-blood (one witch/wizard and one muggle parent) and a pureblood (two wizarding parents). Malfoy throws this one around pretty freely, as if he’d just learned it over the summer; he frequently aims it at muggle-born Hermione. It enrages Ron, but it takes Harry a little while to catch on to just how vile it’s supposed to be—an experience that readers will share. It’s a great conversation starter with pre-teens, talking about how a word that might not seem all that bad to you can be incredibly hurtful to someone else, because you don’t have the same context and experiences they do. Tip of the hat to Rowling—this was very well done.
Turns out that werewolves and giants are reviled by many in the wizarding world. Harry has befriended both, and is outraged but powerless when one teacher is fired (the werewolf, Lupin—folks who know a little Latin will probably figure that one out from the name alone) and another almost is (Hagrid). It’s interesting to see the kids raised in the wizarding world, but who know better, struggle against the prejudices their culture imposes on them. Ron provides a great example to show that even good people are affected by the prejudices and bigotry around them.
Death and Loss
In PoA, nobody dies onscreen, but people talk about the muggles that Sirius Black supposedly murdered.
In GoF, named characters die. The major one in GoF is Cedric Diggory, a support character who appears in PoA and is an important part of GoF. Cedric is murdered by a servant of Voldemort, Wormtail, a character we meet in PoA (well, we met him earlier, but didn’t know we’d met him. If that makes any sense. Just read it, for Pete’s sake.) The scene where Harry returns Cedric’s body to Hogwarts, where Cedric’s family and friends see him, is heartbreaking.
A minor character, Mr. Crouch, also dies in GoF but it’s offscreen and, as deaths go in the Potterverse, rather dull. (Am I really that jaded? Don’t answer that.)
Scariness and Cruelty
Dementors, the guards of the wizard prison Azkaban, are seriously scary critters. They’re wraiths that suck the happiness out of you, and can ultimately destroy your soul. Literally. And they seem to have it in for Harry. Definitely some nightmare fuel here. Also, it might bring up some existential questions for some kids—what does it mean to have your soul destroyed? Is that worse than being killed, if the afterlife exists and is no longer available to you?
Kids might find it frightening in GoF when the second task in the Triwizard Tournament appears to be have deadly results for “hostages”—we learn later that they were never in any danger, but for a while that’s unclear. I was scared, anyway. … What? They’re tied up underwater! It’s terrifying! Leave me alone.
The climactic scenes in both books are pretty intense. PoA ends up with a little Tarantino thing going on, a bunch of wizards hopped up on adrenaline and testosterone pointing wands at each other, nobody knowing who to stupefy first.
GoF ends with freaking Dark Lord Voldemort himself showing up in person in a graveyard. (Of course it’s a graveyard. Of course it is.) Remember, last time anyone saw him was as a disembodied spirit renting space on the back of Professor Quirrel’s noggin back in the first book—and ol’ Voldy wasn’t exactly aiming to preserve the security deposit. The body he’s managed to procure for himself this time was some sort of a horrid babylike thing being cradled by his pitiful servant Wormtail (who we last saw being pitiful in PoA). As nightmare fuel goes, the dementors got nothin’ on this. The text plays this great—Harry couldn’t see what Wormtail was cradling, but he somehow knew that he did NOT want to see it. Good call, Harry, ten points for Gryffindor on that.
So Wormtail kills Cedric and, with Harry captured and tied to a tombstone (!!!), brews up a fresh, hot batch of Voldemort Potion, the required components of which include a substantial quantity of Harry’s blood and Wormtail’s own severed hand. You may squirm, there is no shame.
So, yeah, make sure your kids are prepared for this.
Injustice & Betrayal
Harry’s uncle Sirius is on the run for a crime he did not commit, and his punishment will be to have his immortal soul destroyed by the dementors. We learn this at the end of PoA; after a few pages of hope that things will get getter and Sirius will be exonerated, things are somewhat cruelly turned on their ear. Snape plays no small part in that. Jerk.
Harry is required to participate in potentially deadly competitions against his will. That a “binding magical contract” can be created and enforced against someone’s will is one of the many reasons that the wizarding world is profoundly messed up. (Yes, “messed up” is a technical political science term. No, YOU shut up.)
Reporter Rita Skeeter writes terrible things about Harry and his friends, things that the wizarding world—even people Harry loves and trusts, like Mrs. Weasley—believe, at least to some degree. Minister of Magic Fudge refuses to believe Harry that Voldemort has returned. Death Eaters that Harry knows to be parents of Hogwarts students stand by Voldemort’s side, and nobody believes him. If your kid has a well developed sense of righteous indignation, expect them to get pretty ticked about this sort of thing.
Violence & Abuse
The Dursleys continue their pursuit of Foster Parents of the Year, driving Harry out of the house in a rage. Quidditch is more or less a full contact sport, with predictable results. A werewolf and a big dog brawl.
Mad-Eye Moody demonstrates the use of unforgivable curses on animals—mind control, pain/torture, and a death curse (Avada Kedavra). It’s creepy, and many of the students who witness it don’t like it.
Cedric is murdered. Harry is tortured with magic, and duels Voldemort; in fact, in GoF, we get our first taste of for-keeps wizard combat, and it’s kind of scary. (Holy crow, these Hogwarts kids have been running around fully armed since age 11! Even given that I live in the US, that seems pretty nuts.)
Discrimination and bigotry hit home hard in these books. Some characters are really concerned about bloodline purity, calling children of muggle parents “mudbloods,” which is clearly a vile slur in the eyes of more progressive characters. Some muggle-raised kids, like Harry, don’t quite get how bad that is right away. As I mentioned above, this is a great chance to talk to kids about how words can hurt, even words that don’t seem all that bad to YOU.
And now we come to the biggest problem I had with these books. House elves. House elves are small elves (not Tolkien elves, think little gobliny critters) who are usually put to work as domestic servants in the homes of wealthy wizards and in places like Hogwarts. House elves aren’t paid employees, they’re enslaved. Again, the profound messed-up-ed-ness is clear. It gets all sorts of complicated when you realize that most house elves have no desire to be free; they know their lot and their station and they have no desire to exceed it. Most characters raised in the wizarding world seem to accept this and don’t see any injustice.
Which raises the question of whether it’s ethical to take advantage of someone who wants to be taken advantage of. Our society, in the real world, has answered that with a resounding no.
But the way this situation is addressed in the books, especially GoF, bothers me in two ways.
1. When a house elf speaks (I’m thinking specifically of Winky here, for those of you who’ve read this before), it’s in a sort of almost-English that someone who didn’t know a whole lot about the dialects and accents of African Americans from the southern US might ascribe to a slave character in an antebellum novel. Even the name—house elves. Think about that. Go watch Gone With the Wind, and think about it again. Am I being oversensitive? Or is there approximately twenty seven tons of U.S.-centric cultural baggage that’s being inadvertently trivialized? Or is it intentionally being used to make a comparison—the wizarding world as antebellum US? I don’t know, and I think I might be sitting atop too much privilege to really say one way or the other.
Just be aware, parents/guardians out there. This is all worth a discussion with the kiddo. (Or maybe I’m seeing stuff where there isn’t anything.)
2. Hermione decides this is an abomination that must be stopped. She tries to convince others she’s right, engaging in activism that’s best described as… humorously ineffective. I have no idea what Rowling is playing at here, but casting an abolitionist as the comic relief because of her abolitionist politics seems more than a bit tone deaf to me. I mean, there are real people (maybe starring on reality shows whose names rhyme with Puck Shynasty) who seem to think that African Americans were happier in a bygone age, and people should have left well enough alone. So… why play this for laughs?
Sex & Romance
First, no, there’s no sex. For Pete’s sake, these kids are 13 and 14.
Love triangles start to appear. Harry is seriously crushing on a girl, who winds up going to the big dance with another boy. Hermione goes with Viktor Krum, in spite of Harry and Ron assuming she couldn’t get a date. He and Ron go to that dance with two other girls (Padma and Parvati Patil), but they more or less ignore them. I kind of feel bad for the Patil sisters, who deserved much better dates.
Fleur Delacour, with her Veela heritage, has many of the boys in the story tripping over themselves and stammering monosyllabically. Bill Weasly has clearly caught her eye, though.
There’s no hint of any romantic relationships that aren’t hetero, no hint of any characters that aren’t cisgendered. I don’t recall any disabled characters, although you could assume that magical healing would prevent a lot of physical disability we muggles see and deal with on a regular basis. There are a few characters that are called out as black. Harry has a crush on an Asian girl (Cho Chang), and he and Ron attend the Yule Ball with South Asian girls (the Patil sisters). That said, it’s still a very white cast, including all the teachers. (Although Hagrid is part Giant. Uh. Yeah, so. There’s that.)
Two major women characters, Hermione and Fleur Delacour (one of the visiting students, a competitor in the Triwizard Tournament), are portrayed as annoying and/or incompetent. Hermione’s relentless activism for house elves is played as a joke, and Fleur performs miserably in two of the three Triwizard events, far worse than the other three (male) competitors. Made me wonder what she was doing there, if she couldn’t hex a few grindylows and got so early and easily sniped in the maze. (I’m not including Rita Skeeter in this, who’s clearly a villain, but I could understand arguments that her portrayal was miserable.) I mean, Hermione was stone cold in PoA, courageous and competent. Malfoy totally had it coming. Where was she in GoF? Am I being too sensitive to this? Not sensitive enough? If this had been written by a male author I’d be a lot quicker to call shenanigans, I admit.
Rudeness & Swearing
Pretty much what was in the first two books, just a bit more frequently. A few “hell”s and “damn”s sprinkled into dialogue as intensifiers. Mad-Eye Moody is somewhat free-swearing in front of students; I think it serves as a subtle signal that certain teachers are treating the kids as more grown-up than they had before.
Cards on the table: I wasn’t as thrilled with my re-read of GoF as I was the first time through, but PoA is a rip-roaring good story. You can even set aside the problems of GoF and enjoy it thoroughly, which speaks to Rowling’s growing skill as a writer. They’re wonderful read-alouds.
I can’t give you an age. I read these to my kids at ages 8 and 9, if memory serves correctly. I guess that’s recommendation enough, but I know some parents who went earlier and saw no ill effects. But things are getting darker and scarier; the stakes are rising. Remember that these books were originally released in a way that their readers could grow with them; plan accordingly. My youngest stopped reading the series after the next book because things were getting way too scary.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
Published in 2000 by Scholastic
Fourth book in a series
Read family hardback copy