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It’s one year after Harry has learned about the wizarding world, but here he is again back at the Dursleys’, doing backbreaking chores like weeding while his cousin lounges around eating ice-cream. It’s his birthday, no less, but his friends haven’t sent him anything. No wonder that Harry misses Hogwarts so much.
We’re also introduced to Dobby, a house-elf who warns Harry against from going to Hogwarts through a variety of ways, including keeping his friends’ correspondences from Harry and smashing Aunt Petunia’s pudding. Shortly after, Harry gets a warning letter from the Ministry of Magic because he’s not allowed to use magic outside school, and magic has been detected at his address. So the Dursleys find out that Harry’s not supposed to do magic (which he had conveniently forgotten to tell them), and Harry gets locked up—literally—in his bedroom. The Weasleys perform a heroic rescue, Harry gets introduced to the Burrow, and spends the rest of the summer in an enjoyable fashion.
Until he goes to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. The rest of the family disappears through the barrier but he and Ron can’t get through. Ingeniously, they remember the car and decide to fly to Hogwarts in it. I guess they were never really the brains of the group.
Needless to say, they get in a lot of trouble. But this is the only beginning. Harry finds out he is a Parseltongue, meaning that he can understand and speak to snakes. This also explains why he could understand the boa constrictor in the first book. He then starts hearing voices and students start getting Petrified.
It’s up to the Golden Trio again to solve this mystery. People suspect that it’s Harry, but the Trio think it’s Malfoy. So Hermione proposes a plan involving chocolate cakes and Polyjuice Potion, and they launch it semi-successfully, breaking about a dozen school rules in the process. I say semi for a reason… you’ll have to read the book to find out!
But back to the story. Hermione gets Petrified and Harry and Ron are left to save their school and friend. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of action involving spiders, one very erratic car, a charming but useless teacher, Memory Charms, a giant serpent, and our favourite villain Lord Voldemort. And now I really cannot say any more for fear of giving away too much.
Much as I am a Potterhead, I have to say that this book had more plot weaknesses than the last.
- The Ministry of Magic seriously needs to update their way of preventing underaged wizards/witches from doing magic outside school. If they go by the student’s address, does that mean that Ron and about 70% of the rest of the school population can do magic? Then I remembered something about the Trace, mentioned in later books. Presumably, the Trace is a charm that stops underage wizards and witches from performing magic outside school. Then why did Harry take the blame for Dobby’s Hover Charm? Hmmm…
- Why did Harry and Ron not wait for Ron’s parents to come out of the station? Ron said they could have Apparated (“teleported”) home, but they would have needed to collect the car, right? McGonagall did mention that Harry could have sent an owl, but frankly, I didn’t think of that either.
- The hiring of Lockhart. Why in the blazes did Dumbledore hire such a ninny? Okay, so no one wanted to take up the job, but literally anyone would have been better than him. Dumbledore obviously knew that he was a fraud. I can’t bear to think of the school’s OWL and NEWT results in Defence of the Dark Arts that year.
- The cancellation of school exams. What about national exams like OWL and NEWT?
Maybe I’m nitpicking, but these were honestly the thoughts that crossed my mind the many times I re-read the book.
But all is not lost
As much as I didn’t like some parts of the plot, this book has plenty of things to praise.
- The writing. Rowling’s writing is, as usual, on point, at times humorous, at times sombre, but always captivating. So it’s not a literary classic like Hemingway or Dickens, but it’s very readable for children and adults alike.
- Dobby. I initially thought he was quite irritating, but I grew to like his (somewhat misguided) attempts to help Harry.
- The mystery element. I liked how this book was part mystery, with the Trio needing to find out who the one setting the Basilisk loose was. The fact that the Basilisk is able to kill if one looks it in the eye puts more pressure on our budding investigators.
- The quotes. Dumbledore, that fount of wisdom, is known for dispensing advice and choice quotes that have since been featured as the subject of multiple Buzzfeed articles, memes and quote images. This book is no exception. My favourite?
It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
On the whole, I didn’t quite like this book as much as the first, as I will expound on in a wrap up of the series, but for all its flaws, it remains one of my favourite books of all time.