Compared to my marked indifference to the films, the Harry Potter books continue to charm me long after I move beyond YA fiction. The endless exposition does get to me at times, but there's a reason these books caught on: the relatable characters, the engaging plot and the element of surprise that remains in these works after numerous rereads and a general understanding of its wholesale ripoff of classical hero archetypes. I've cheered on Neville or been smitten by Hermione as much as I've been affected by any characters in fiction. So, to offset the light cynicism of my film post, allow me to take a more pleasant stroll down Memory Lane with Rowling's novels.
7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Rowling's second book has wild tonal inconsistencies between more gosh-gee whimsy and sudden dips into darkness without any kind of balance or transition. The added characters, such as Colin Creevy and Ginny, are largely pointless and suck ridiculous amounts of time from the rich cast of characters already introduced and interesting enough to warrant further analysis. Gilderoy Lockhart makes for a great buffoon, his fame-hungry attention seeking a key counterpoint to Harry's humility, something called into question by so many in the later books. Overfilled with exposition, lacking almost entirely in solid character growth and erratic in tone and thrust, Chamber of Secrets is by far the most frustrating of the novels.
6. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
It's a shame that the most thematically interesting novel of the series is also the most cumbersome and unfocused. The main plot, dealing with an arch-conservative, isolationist propaganda war designed to silence news of Voldemort's return, offers heady social commentary for youth fiction, and the couching of this plot in the loathsome toad Dolores Umbridge, who is terrifying for all the reasons one wouldn't expect, is genius. But Rowling burdens this story with wayward hormones, which she has to spruce up with magic and possession, an attempt to link these asides with the overarching importance of Voldemort's return that ultimately leads only to absurdly OTT and blithely selfish outbursts from a Harry who has never been more unlikable. Tack on the interminable sideplots and what might have been a vicious take on government's unending, counterproductive desperation to never let on that something has gone horribly wrong instead feels like a distended, scattershot rant on puberty.
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
I've read this book four times and I still don't remotely understand the arbitrary creation and subsequent all-importance of the rules of wand ownership. It's such a random way to handle the climactic duel that I just assume Rowling pointed a wand at her ass and yelled "Accio resolution!" Having only introduced the concept of Horcruxes in the previous book, Rowling leaves most of the object hunting to this entry, leading to awkward plot jerks between hiding out in the woods away from detection and constantly coming into conflict with enemies to destroy Voldemort's soul fragments. Like all concluding entries, Deathly Hallows has to tie up a lot of loose ends, but there is a perfunctory feel to many character returns and subplot payoffs, thrown in just to get a cheer rather than as a narratively justified insertion. Nevertheless, it's a thrilling read when elements fall into place, and the utter disappointment of the convoluted finale cannot undermine a overriding feeling of relief at this poor boy's ordeal finally ending. And it made me care about Dobby, which is kind of like making me mourn Jar-Jar Binks.
4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Granted, even by Rowling's standards, this trades mood for exposition, but then this is obviously the most child-oriented of the series. Besides, its giddiness is infectious; from the moment Hagrid arrives to remove Harry from his Dickensian trappings, Philosopher's Stone is whimsical, charming and wondrous. It manages to cordon off allies and enemies quickly while giving sufficient reasons why those lines will more or less maintain over the whole of the series. Even the climax, with its multi-stage progression to the final confrontation, is more exhilarating than dark. Not a "great" novel, per se, but certainly the most delightful of the books. It's no wonder this captured so many imaginations, and continues to do so.
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
It was obvious in Chamber that Rowling wished to go to less savory realms with this saga, but the pall that hangs over Prisoner of Azkaban is still surprisingly unsettling. The mystery of Sirius Black drives much of this atmosphere, but even in retrospect this book feels dirty and ominous. When the most helpful and gentle character is as rough-looking as Remus, you know you're not in for a sunny year at Hogwarts. Dementor attacks, disappearances, the feeling of always being watched and threatened, Prisoner of Azkaban markedly splits the series from children's lit into the more demanding levels of YA fiction, the rapidity of maturation reflected in the choices Harry himself must suddenly make. While the falling action of time travel and abetting criminals is thrilling, it is the climax in the Shrieking Shack that proves not only the most intense moment of the book but of the whole saga, forcing moral choices of not only Harry but Ron and Hermione that show how adult they really are.
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Where Azkaban went full-tilt into darkness, Goblet eased back and bit and offered the best balance between the light-hearted wonder of the early books and the darkness to come. The best-paced of Rowling's books, Goblet even manages to go off on its tangents—Rita Skeeter's tabloid hack, the unwelcome return of Dobby—without disrupting the flow, and in many cases she only enriches the book. For example, Krum is an extraneous character, but he serves to bring out the tension in Ron and Hermione's relationship for the first time, or at least to clarify the edge they always had as a show of mutual affection. Furthermore, this is the one book that shifts tones with smooth, natural transition, moving from glee to bombast to creeping menace to full-on horror without flagging. It doesn't get across as much character as the two books to either side of it in my rankings, but the exceptional plotting more than makes up for the relative lack of growth.
1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
With the exception of the random repositioning of Ginny, the least developed major character of the series, as Harry's sudden love interest, Half-Blood Prince is a nearly perfect character study, incredible given how late in the series it arrives. The dips into Voldemort's past not only elucidate his character but add more depth to Harry, Dumbledore and the relationship they have. Ron and Hermione dig into their tension so fully that its continuation into the final installment frankly feels a step too far because they have nowhere else to go as a will-they-won't-they couple. Though the final book flat-out dives into Nazi imagery, I find Half-Blood Prince, with its sinisterly scribbled textbook, uncomfortably humanizing and literally de-humanizing progression through Voldemort's life, and the horrific ordeal in the cave and ambush at Hogwarts, to be the darker work. And yet, it also weaves a thread of genuine wistfulness into the pages, taking stock of the home Harry and his friends will have to leave behind in the coming war, and it's remarkable how poignant such scenes feel. None of the books is perfect, but the combination of tonal sophistication and meaningful character insight makes this by some degree my favorite installment in the saga.