(SPOILER ALERT: This review doesn’t give away any major plot points but does refer to some of the earlier books. Exceptionally devout Harry Potter readers may wish to look the other way.)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a fit end to the seven-book series. The final volume is J.K. Rowling’s ultimate battle of Good vs. Evil, with the good guys suffering terrible sacrifices as they strive to survive.
If you haven’t read all six of the previous books, though, don’t bother with this one. If you aren’t familiar with quidditch, horcruxes, Muggles or Imperius Curses, you won’t have a clue what’s going on. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to re-read the end of book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, before starting the final volume. (If you are a Potterhead, you might like to know that the version of the book famously leaked online as a series of photos was the Real Deal.)
The same strengths and weakness you’ll find in Ms. Rowling’s earlier books are in this one.
Her writing reminds me of an old-time wooden-frame roller coaster: Sometimes it’s slow, creaky and rough. But when Ms. Rowling gets rolling, it’s a thrill ride.
On the other hand, when she has her characters sitting around and explaining stuff to each other, it reminds me of some of the least-readable exposition passages of The Da Vinci Code.
For example, in one scene, our magically hidden heroes listen to a couple of wizards and a goblin natter on about life for seven full pages. That had me figuratively checking my watch. Yeah, the conversation reveals some crucial information. But I predict this scene will not make it into the movie.
The books have gotten progressively darker and less fun since the first volume, and this is the darkest and least fun yet. The first deaths of familiar characters happen before a reader fairly settles in. And all of the characters that Potter fans love best will suffer wounds, pain and despair—if not death—at least once before the final battle ends.
But there are also feats of heroism from characters you probably won’t expect and some wonderful battle scenes that will look great on the big screen.
Rowling has said she had the series plotted out before she started writing the first book. If so, she planned for a broad canvas to comment on free will, the role of every person in the battle against evil, the oppressive terrors of bureaucracy, and the redeeming power of sacrificial love. In this book, that last theme is presented in an unusually Christian way for a series that has seemed adamantly nonreligious.
The evil Lord Voldemort turns even nastier in this final volume, if that’s possible, becoming a Hitler-like figure who treats magic-less Muggles and mudblood wizards and witches the way the Nazis treated Jews. And he wants to indoctrinate every pureblood wizard child into a magical version of the Hitler Youth. So the stakes are very high for Harry and his friends.
Not every loose end gets nearly tied up in the final book, though. What is magic, really? What happens to souls when people die, and how do those magical talking paintings work? Why is there no magical replacement for eyeglasses? What exactly does that flayed, crying child near the end of the book represent? Trust me, you’ll wonder, too.
Rowling seems to be leaving some elements intentionally vague. But others are explained in the sort of hard-to-follow detail you might find in a technical manual.
But she makes enough emotionally satisfying details perfectly clear. We learn whether Snape is a good guy or a bad guy. We find out what made Dumbledore tick (Harry’s wizardly mentor is still dead, but that doesn’t prevent him from moving the plot along.) We get the exact story about how Harry’s mom and dad died. And we watch the no-kidding, final battle between Harry and Tom Riddle (Voldemort’s real name).
Transformation is a major theme in the series, and nobody changes more than Harry. For much of the long saga, he’s a boy who depends on pluck, luck and strength of character to survive forces beyond his control. But by the end of Deathly Hallows, he’s a man in full control of his moral and magical choices.
By the time this literary roller coaster glides to a stop, after a brief epilogue that offers a glimpse into the adult lives of some key characters, most fans will probably feel they got their money’s worth.