Harry Potter: The First Four Books, by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic, 1999/2000)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Scholastic, 1999)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Scholastic, 1999)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Scholastic, 1999)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Scholastic, 2000)

There exists a world of magic and adventure, monsters and myths, witches and wizards, coexisting in secret with our own world. Look out of the corner of your eye, and a man in an emerald green cloak will be rounding the side of the building and out of sight. Take a second look at that tabby cat: is it looking at the street signs, or is it -reading- them? Owls swoop by in broad daylight, cars take flight, and a mysterious train departs from an invisible gate in a London train station. Somewhere in the wilds of Scotland, there exists a castle hidden to all non-magical eyes. Not only do dragons exist with such breeds as the Welsh Green and Norwegian Black, but there’s an entire bureaucracy set up to make sure we never see them. This is a world where magic is real, where legends live, and where dreams come to life.

Welcome to the world of Harry Potter. Ever since the release of the first book in the phenomenally popular series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (its original title, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was changed for the American editions), this world has been capturing the interest and imaginations of people around the world. Like the Land of Oz, the kingdom of Narnia, and the realms of Middle-Earth, Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry has commanded our full attention.

Who hasn’t heard the story by now? Unbeknownst to us mere mortals (Muggles), there exist entire communities of wizards, warlocks, witches, sorcerers, hags, enchanters, trolls, goblins, and much more. Some live among us, but most live apart, hidden from prying eyes by spells and misdirection. Somewhere in London is an obscure pub, The Leaky Cauldron. Tap the right bricks in its back courtyard, and you’ll be transported to Diagon Alley, where you can buy anything at all related to the magical world, from spell ingredients to flying broomsticks to owls to schoolbooks. It’s also home to a branch of Gringotts, the goblin-run bank which is one of the safest places in the world for your wizard money. Locate the hidden platform 9 3/4, somewhere in King’s Cross Station, and you can board the Hogwarts Express. Or maybe you’ll find a portkey, and be magically transported to the International Quidditch Cup, which is -the- sport of choice for wizards.

But there’s darkness in this society, and that darkness has a name and a personification. Lord Voldemort, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Lord of the Death-Eaters. For years, he ruled the wizarding world in an iron grip of terror and treachery, killing those who stood against him, and making the world that much darker. Until the day when he attacked Lily and James Potter. Although he succeeded in killing them, something went far awry. Voldemort seemingly died, and all that was left was the infant Harry Potter, branded for life with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead. And so Harry, the Boy Who Lived, unknowing savior of the wizarding world, was left an orphan, and sent to live with his despicable aunt and uncle, and their piggish son.

And so the story begins, with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Fast-forward, and Harry’s a boy of eleven. Nothing’s changed. His aunt’s a harridan, his uncle a narrow-minded prig, his cousin an oafish bully, and Harry lives in a cupboard under the stairs and gets hand-me-downs to wear. And while strange things have happened all his life, everything from regrowing his hair overnight after a botched haircut to speaking with snakes at the zoo, nothing at all could prepare him for the letters that begin arriving as his birthday draws near.

With those letters comes revelation, in the form of a giant bearded man with a heart of gold and a fondness for fierce creatures. Hagrid, Gamekeeper for Hogwarts, comes to introduce Harry to the world of his parents, the world that’s his by birthright and innate ability, the world that the Dursleys would have kept from him forever.

Harry is an archetypical hero: Destined For Greatness, Raised In Unknowing Obscurity. And every journey has its start. As he’s initiated into the ways of Diagon Alley, Gringotts, and Hogwarts, he finds the mysteries unfolding at every step. There’s stern Professor McGonagall, who turns into a tabby cat with alarming regularity. There’s Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, the greatest wizard alive. There’s the oily, manipulative, sly Professor Snape, who hates Harry with a passion dating back to when Snape and Harry’s father were both students. Professor Binns, the ghost who never stopped teaching, but just left his body behind. Stuttering Professor Quirrel, who wears a turban filled with garlic to protect himself against vampires. And of course, Hagrid, who thinks nothing of naming giant three-headed dogs “Fluffy” or raising baby dragons in his cottage.

There’s the singing Sorting Hat, which divides all Hogwarts students into one of four Houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin. Joining Harry in Gryffindor are his new friends, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Opposing Harry is the odious Draco Malfoy, a Slytherin if ever there was one, and his henchmen, Crabb and Goyle.

There’s Quidditch, the game played with fourteen players on broomsticks, several hoops, and four different balls. When Harry shows talent at this sport, he quickly becomes something of a hot commodity for the Gryffindor house team, which has its good points, and its bad. It’s all fun and games as long as no one’s trying to kill you.

Not all is copasetic at Hogwarts. Why is one particular corridor off limits?

What secrets does the Mirror of Erised hold? And what is the mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone, and how does it tie into the potential return of the long-vanished Lord Voldemort? As the school year progresses, Harry and his friends will be tested to their absolute limits, mentally and magically. For time is running out, and even if they succeed, it may be too late.

As an introduction to the world of Harry Potter, this book is top-notch. It introduces all the major players, firmly lays down their defining personalities and motivations, establishes Hogwarts and the rest of the significant scenery, and begins to drop hints and clues for plotlines yet to come. The seeds for later stories are woven so deftly into this book that when they come due somewhere down the road, it’s easy to look back and see just where and how they came into play. Harry is likable, the sort of protagonist you can’t help but root for, and his sidekicks, Ron and Hermione, never quite manage to steal the spotlight, but neither do they ever truly go off-stage. These are strong characters, as are the vast majority of those found in the Harry Potter books. Draco Malfoy is slimy, Professor Snape is unctuous, Dumbledore is pleasantly batty, and Hagrid is well … Hagrid. Rowling succeeds in infusing everyone with enough energy to keep the ball rolling, and no one is entirely one-dimensional, which is a too-real possibility when working with such a large cast.

It’s well-told, easy and friendly like a good storyteller, drawing the reader in with a conversational tone that becomes more riveting when the stakes grow higher, and best of all, it’s suitable for children and adults alike, with a plot that’ll appeal to everyone, a simplicity of style that won’t daunt the average reader, and enough complexity and sly wit and clever wordplay to entertain those with more discerning tastes. Is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone recommended? Oh yes.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets picks up after the summer holidays, as Harry and his friends all prepare to go back for their second year at Hogwarts. Just about everyone’s back for this second go-around, with the exception of Professor Quirrel, the former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Replacing him is Gilderoy Lockhart, an egotistical, vain, self-centered, publicity-hungry gloryhound … sort of a cross between Fabio and a mirror-addicted snake oil salesman.

The year starts off with a bang, with threats against Harry’s safety, a masochistic house elf named Dobby, a flying car that loses control, and a willow tree that hits back. It soon escalates, as something seems to be stalking the halls of Hogwarts, petrifying innocent victims without warning. As more people fall victim, it’s soon clear that no one is safe, not even animals or ghosts. How is this connected to the legend of the Chamber of Secrets, and the rumor that only the Heir of Slytherin can be behind this? How is Harry involved, and why is his ability to speak with snakes such a bad thing? Who is Tom Riddle, and what secrets does his diary hold?

Once again, it’s up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione to puzzle out the mystery before it’s too late. Something deadly is awake and free, and Hogwarts is its hunting grounds. No Mudbloods (wizards from mortal families) are safe. And when one of Harry’s closest friends falls victim, and another goes missing, he’ll be forced to confront the evil alone, and in the process, discover long-lost truths about Lord Voldemort….

What can I say? Boarding school was never this exciting for me. Secret chambers, ghosts, monsters, flying broomsticks, hidden passageways and talking paintings, and so much more abound within the pages of this book. More of Harry and his family’s backstory is revealed, and characters continue to grow and evolve. This is clearly a sequel to The Sorcerer’s Stone but can nonetheless be read on its own without any trouble at all. Rowling manages to keep a sense of introductory level in the story while pushing it to the next level of complexity. The dangers are a little more real, the stakes more personal, and the triumphs harder-won. Harry learns and grows in pace with the events, becoming a little bit wiser, and a little bit more resourceful. Whether he’s seeing the events of decades past, or sneaking into another House’s private areas, or using his Invisibility Cloak to gather information, he’s exhibiting an unrelenting heroic streak with enough curiosity to kill a herd of cats. Snape remains as nasty as ever, but he never acts without a reason. Hermione’s thirst for knowledge leads her to the brink of success, and the edge of abject failure. And Ron’s steadfast loyalty continues to bolster Harry when things get tough.

It’s clear that Rowling knows where she’s going. Now that she has the basics of her world laid out, she’s able to spend more time on plot and complexity and circumstances, as well as filling in the gaps bit by bit. While we see a few new characters this time out, the majority of the focus remains on the ones already in play, which is a good thing, as they’re all so much fun to watch. This book’s a bit more complex than the first, both in style and plot, and that too is a good thing, since it wouldn’t be so enjoyable if things remained stagnant. Recommended? Again, a resounding yes.

Harry’s third year promises to be just as exciting and dangerous as the first two were, if not more so. For now, a menace from the past has resurfaced to threaten the present. Sirius Black, notorious wizard, former agent of Lord Voldemort and convicted murderer, has escaped from the dreaded wizard prison known as Azkaban. And foremost on his mind, so far as anyone knows, is the overwhelming desire to serve his master once more … and kill Harry Potter. As if that wasn’t enough, Harry’s having visions of a great black dog, the mythical Grim, a creature which appears only as an omen of death. Only the possibility of visiting the local wizarding town, Hogsmeade, during this year can cheer Harry up.

Trouble abounds after a curse goes awry, and Harry finds himself on his own in the world, with the Grim haunting his trail and Sirius Black still out there looking for him, and the certain knowledge that the Ministry of Magic will punish Harry for his unauthorized use of magic. Only the Knight Bus can save him, and help him to get somewhere safe.

Once he’s back at Hogwarts for the year proper, Harry realizes the immensity of the problems at hand. His old enemy Draco Malfoy is back and worse than ever. Sirius Black is rumored to actually be on the Hogwarts grounds, impossibly. The only bright spot is Remus Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, an altogether sane and knowledgeable wizard who actually knew Harry’s parents. With his training, Harry might actually be able to withstand the dire powers of the dreaded Dementors, creatures of pure depression, emotional vampires who act both as guards for Azkaban and ruthless enforcers of wizarding law. They may be at Hogwarts to find Sirius Black, but Harry may suffer the consequences of their presence nonetheless.

Once again, questions abound. What deadly secret is Remus Lupin hiding? Where is Sirius Black, and what’s his role in the death of Harry’s parents? How’s Hermione managing to be in two classes at the same time? What is the mysterious Marauder’s Map? Who was Peter Pettigrew? And what is the connection between Sirius, Lupin, Pettigrew, Harry’s father, and the ever-popular, ever-baleful Professor Snape?

With murderers on the loose, malevolent energy-drainers haunting the grounds, and long-buried secrets coming to light, it’s sure to be an exciting, if hazardous, year for Harry in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The world he inhabits is fleshed out all the more, with some very dark shadows added to the mix. As the main character and series mature in tandem, a further level of complexity is added. The twists and turns — some of which have been building since the first pages of the first book — are bound to surprise and even enlighten. Building on what’s gone before, this is an immensely enjoyable, gripping story. As always, it can be read on its own, but reading the rest of the series will greatly enhance the enjoyment overall.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire takes us into Harry’s fourth year as a Hogwarts student. And if you thought things were exciting previously, well … in the immortal words of a great man, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

It all starts off with the International Quidditch Cup, which is -the- sporting event of the wizarding world. It’s Ireland versus Bulgaria for the Cup, and everyone’s eager to see what’ll happen. The money’s on Ireland, but Bulgaria has the infamous Viktor Krum to even the odds. Everyone’s turned out for the occasion: Harry, Hermione, Ron and the rest of the Weasleys, Draco, Dumbledore, assorted Ministry of Magic officials, and some extraordinarily unwelcome guests known as the Death-Eaters … the former servants of Lord Voldemort. That’s right, not only is the Dark Lord himself still struggling to return to power, but his servants are likewise on the rise.

After such a dramatic event, Hogwarts looks to be positively boring by comparison. But then comes the news. Hogwarts is to be the host for the TriWizard Tournament, a competition held between Hogwarts and rival wizarding schools Beauxbaton and Durmstrang, a competition that hasn’t been held for nearly a century because of its dangers. The whole school is abuzz with the news. And once delegations from the rival schools come, it’s bound to get interesting. Maybe too interesting. Add to the mix the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, “Mad Eye” Mooney, once a reputed hunter of Death-Eaters and other evil wizards and creatures, now a paranoid man thought insane by everyone but Dumbledore. (Why is there a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher every year? Don’t ask.

Harry’s too young to compete in the Tournament, so he resigns himself to spectator status like all of his friends. The honor for competing as Hogwarts’ champion goes to Cedric Diggory of Hufflepuff. So it’s to the complete bafflement of everyone when Harry is announced as a fourth contestant. And once chosen, there’s no backing out. Younger and less experienced than the other three, he’ll be tested to the absolute limit in a series of three trials, trials that could kill him if he’s not lucky.

Just another year at Hogwarts, naturally. If one discounts budding romance, dragons, the ever-growing threat of Lord Voldemort and his servants, classes, merfolk, the Winter Dance, a scandal-raking tabloid reporter of a witch, omens of doom and destruction, and all the other joys of being Harry Potter, that is. The plot twists, turns, bends and loops in an effort to raise the stakes and keep the tension high. Whether we’re worrying about whether Harry will survive a test by dragon, or survive asking a girl to the Winter Dance, we’re kept on the edge of our seats. Because in the astonishing climax, someone will die, and the Dark Lord will profit in a way none could ever expect. Harry will need every iota of knowledge, magic, cunning, resourcefulness, and friendship to endure his assorted ordeals.

By far the longest (weighing in at 700+ pages) and most complex (weaving multiple plots and subplots deftly), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is both ambitious and pivotal, clearly setting the stage for the last half of the series. With a cast now numbering over a hundred, it’s impressive that anyone can keep them all straight, but Rowling never seems to lose track of where she’s going, and what she’s doing. Some characters may only have a little screen time, but all are memorable. Whether it’s the officious Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, the conniving Ludo Bagman, the seductive Beauxbaton champion, Fleur Delacour, the brooding Durmstrang champion, Viktor Krum, the intense Mad-Eye Mooney, or even the endearing house elf Winky, they all get their screen time and their chance to shine, contributing to the story in their own fashion. While some might accuse this book of meandering, or trying to bite off more than it can chew, it’s simply giving everyone what they want: more Harry Potter, and a more intense, sophisticated plot. This book doesn’t suffer from “middle child syndrome” at all, even though it’s the halfway mark for the projected series as a whole. While it ends with certain unanswered questions and cliffhangers, it’s a sure thing that they’ll all be answered in due time, even if not always in the way we expected.

There’s a lot of dismissal of the Harry Potter books as ‘just for kids.’ That’s most definitely not true. While written for children, they’ve proven to be just as popular and endearing with people of all ages, and for good reason. These are books that stand up against Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, and the Oz books in terms of appeal, accessibility, and overall fun. If you love fantasy in the least, these aren’t to be missed. Quit avoiding them just because they’re ‘for kids’ or because they’re so popular. Open your mind and give them a fair chance. Because these books have captured the moment, and they’re not going anywhere.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to reread my copies. I just picked up a copy of the English paperback edition of the Goblet of Fire with the cover they use so adults can read it on the subway and not feel embarrassed by reading a so-called children’s book, and I want to see how it compares.

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