Book Review – Cold Fire

Cold-Fire

Cold Fire
Kate Elliott
The Spiritwalker Trilogy: Book 2

I enjoyed Cold Fire as much—if not more—than Cold Magic. Most of the things I said were wonderful about Cold Magic hold true in the sequel: light but not heavy-handed steampunk influence, intriguing magic, incredibly well-drawn characters, page-turning tension, an awesome culture to spend time in.

This time, the bulk of the action takes place in Expedition. Which is on an island near Cuba. It’s such a drastically different setting, and it has an effect on the kind of magic used, too: in warmer climes, fire mages are more powerful than cold mages.

It took me longer to get used to the prose style this time around. I gave it a pass in my last review, but right now I’m not sure of it. It might have a clumsiness to it? I don’t know. It confuses me. Still, Elliott’s a much more interesting writer at the prose level than many other fantasy writers I’ve read.

Beyond This Point There Be Spoilers
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Revisiting Harry Potter – Part 2

Revisiting Harry Potter Part 2
The Girl Who Reread Harry Potter and Ended Up Liking OotP A Lot More The Second Time ‘Round

This post contains spoilers. Ye be warned. Also, this post assumes you are familiar with the Harry Potter series.

Last month I reread the entire Harry Potter series. It took me about two weeks, give or take a couple days. (I read fast. I also had trouble putting the e-reader down. For reference, I have a Kobo Glo and I take it everywhere.) The books hit me with tidal waves of nostalgia. Oh yeah, I remember that! And that! And… not that. Omigosh, is that because of what happens there?

As you may remember from Part 1, I reread the first four books a lot in the three-year waiting period. I remembered nearly everything. However, having only read the last three once (twice in OotP’s case?) there was a lot I didn’t remember. I was fuzzy on quite a lot of details. That meant the last three were almost, almost like reading new books, except that I remembered all the important things, like who dies and what the horcruxes were.

I found that I didn’t quite dislike the latter three as much, this time around, without that angry three-year span between GoF and OotP. Actually, I liked OotP quite a lot this time around. Umbridge is my favourite villain in the entire series, and the scenes between her and McGonagall are sheer gold.

That being said, there are many things about HP that aren’t to my more refined taste. (Refined, in comparison to my 11 year old self.) The prose is serviceable and has no more artistry than that. The incessant adverbs are, for the most part, unnecessary, especially as JKR plays them straight and doesn’t surprise us with her word choice. Some of her descriptions are ridiculous. This can work as humour, but sometimes they’re not even funny. The three descriptions of the monster in Harry’s chest in HBP—referring to his feelings for Ginny—are ludicrous. How did she get those past an editor? Raking in the big bucks is not an excuse.

And, as far as I’m concerned, the books are too heavily plot-driven. I’ll talk about this in Part 3 more, as it’s very much an opinion as opposed to the more objective criticisms of JKR’s prose style.

I thought I’d split this part up book-by-book and mention my thoughts separately. Here goes!

 

PS

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Sometimes I feel like this is the weakest story, but then again it succeeded at what it needed to do: lure in the millions of readers that made HP such a historic series. The beginning is charmingly off-beat, with an omniscient third-person narrative painting Vernon Dursley as a very Roald Dahl-esque horror. Basically, it’s silly. It’s a silly romp of owls and horrible people and shooting stars and a cat that turns into a most excellent Scottish witch.

However, coming into it after reading the entire series—despite it being six years—added pathos I hadn’t really noticed before. The mention of Sirius Black and the motorcycle. The incredulous joy of the witches and wizards who haven’t been free of fear in years. The foreboding at the end of the chapter, because Harry is about to spend the first eleven years of his life horrifically abused.

It’s hard to distill my thoughts on the rest of the book. It just is, because it’s the first Harry Potter book. It’s so full of set up, and I don’t have strong feelings toward it. It cracked me up how suspicious our trio was about Snape. You have no idea, kids. It was hilarious when I realized that when the Weasley twins bewitched snowballs to hit Quirrell, they were actually hitting Voldemort in the face. This book, in comparison with all the others, whips by so fast. Suddenly there’s a troll, suddenly Hermione is friends with them, it’s fun and cheerful and the end is all mysterious and clever. It’s enjoyable, but it’s probably my least favourite, because it doesn’t really stand out to me. I did like the end, with all those magical tests to get past.

I think a lot of kids really latch onto this one because of that scene where Hagrid tells Harry he’s a wizard, intimidates all the bluster out of Vernon, and gives Dudley a pig’s tail with his pink umbrella wand. It’s that wish fulfilment. But I’d already been hooked on Tamora Pierce, and I always knew what I wanted to be: a knight, preferably in the service of Tortall. So I wasn’t nearly as interested in Hogwarts as wish fulfilment. And I’ve never really liked Hagrid much. He’s a well-written character, and obviously a very good person, but, eh, not really my type.

 

CS

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

From what I’ve gleaned, the Internet thinks this is the weakest book in the series. Especially the plot and the climax at the end, being both too complex and too similar to PS. I can see that, yet I disagree. There’s things I don’t like—basically everything about the flying car. And Dobby. (Winky and Kreacher are fine, but I cannot stand Dobby.)

Otherwise, I like CS quite a bit. Gilderoy Lockhart cracks me up. Moaning Myrtle is great. Tragic, but great. The diary is fascinating to me. I wish we were in Ginny’s POV for this one, because the diary is so creepy and she clearly was traumatized by the experience. In a way, the end of CS is darker than POA: the school is about to be shut, so many people are Petrified, and until Harry actually gets to the Chamber, we don’t know who the Heir of Slytherin is. Also, Harry has to start dealing with fame in this book. The climax is chillingly creepy. I thought that Harry’s interaction with the memory of Tom Riddle was much more fascinating than his confrontation with Quirrell/Voldemort in PS. Anyway, I thought the plot made sense. I never had trouble with it.

 

POA

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

This was, traditionally, my favourite of the series. It’s the most tightly plotted. Remus Lupin is a fantastic character. Hermione is amazing and takes All The Classes. Hippogriffs are pretty! (It’s funny that I don’t like Hagrid more, actually, since he and I are similarly obsessed with dangerous animals. Though I tend to like mine a bit cuddlier than, say, Acromantula.)

I’ve always liked the big confrontation at the Shrieking Shack. Yes, it’s basically Sirius and Lupin talking a lot, but hey, I like it when characters talk a lot. It’s a dialogue rather than an infodump, though it serves the same purpose. I don’t even know what’s not to love in this book. As someone who has struggled with depression—as JKR did, herself—I instantly recognise the Dementors. They are exactly what depression is like. I don’t know if this is still my favourite, because I actually really like OotP now, but it’s up there. Oh, oh, and we get a better glimpse into how classes are taught, through Remus’s class. I appreciate it when my magical school stories are academic.

 

GOF

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Looking back on it, it’s nothing too special, even though I liked the addition of other magic schools. I still enjoy the Quidditch World Cup, the whole section is excellent. It’s a glimpse at the larger world. The Death Eater march is also interesting, because politically it’s… familiar. There’s some smart political commentary in Harry Potter. Especially in regards to house-elves. Before, I didn’t like or understand Hermione’s tirade on house-elf rights. It seemed silly. On reflection, it’s a really laudable thing for Hermione to do. The silliness I didn’t like as a teen I understand better now: Hermione never talks to the elves about it. She speaks for them, a privileged wizard. Much like if I started speaking for, say, Muslim women who wear the hijab, instead of listening and letting them talk. It’s presumptuous. But her heart is in the right place. The flawed depiction is spot-on. Hermione makes mistakes, frequently, but she’s so steadfast, intelligent and loyal. She’s my favourite of the Trio, for sure. Even if it was flawed, she still took a stand for what she believed. At 14. And she learns from it, and puts her feelings to good use in DH. She feels more for the disenfranchised, I think, because Ron and Harry are privileged by coming from wizarding families. Sure, Harry Potter might have been raised by Muggles, but that doesn’t matter when everyone knows his history. Hermione’s a ‘Mudblood’ and her empathy comes from the oppression she faces, and that she can extrapolate to others. It’s really important for that kind of a character to be in a children’s story.

 

OotP

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Ahah. I eat my words at 15.

Not all. I still feel like Grawp as a character is very poorly drawn, for example. Either cut him, or make his role less clumsy and tacked on. In theory, I want to see more non-humans and I want those smug pure bloods to eat their words. In practice, Kreacher’s role in DH manages that much better than Grawp ever has. While having a giant at the Battle of Hogwarts is useful, he could have been mentioned off-handedly and not given so much time when I never felt there was much pay-off.

But regardless of Grawp, this second time ‘round I really appreciate OotP. Without those three years of frantic speculation, OotP is delightful and creepy. Umbridge is a wonderful, wonderful villain. That detention quill is one of my favourite details in the series. (Ooooh the shivers!) ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ and the training sequences are so much fun. I love when we watch the characters actively learn magic, and for a series set in a school, there’s precious few of those scenes. The Weasley twins are fantastic. Harry’s raging is annoying but age-appropriate and, from my advanced age of somewhere in my mid-twenties, I can nod and sigh teenagers. Oh, and that thing with the brain at the Department of Mysteries? So great. Oh oh and Snape backstory! And the Noble and Ancient House of Black! And… you know what? I love how dark and yet bizarre it is. It’s just this fireworks explosion of carnival-esque colour and creepiness.

Sirius dying still bothers me though. I just feel like the steady murdering off of every parental figure, barring the Weasleys, Harry has is overdone. Actually, I think it’s interesting that his non-traditional father figures, Sirius the suffering-from-PTSD-and-claustrophobia convict and Lupin the angsty werewolf, are removed from the narrative leaving him with the very traditional and very loving Weasley family that he eventually marries into. I have very mixed feelings about what this says.

 

HBP

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I’ve never disliked HBP. When it came out I thought it was a great throwback to Prisoner of Azkaban, with a similar level of grimness, pacing, and school-focussed hijinks. Hogwarts is back to normal (sort of), Dumbledore finally gets his head out of his ass and starts treating Harry like a real person, and there’s that textbook. Advanced Potion-Making. Party! More academic stuff! Actually, in some ways the textbook is a let-down, since basically everyone treats it like a cheat, even though, uh, potion-making seems to have been about following recipes anyway. I’m going to cover this more in part 3. Suffice it to say I love the ‘learning’ details and HBP had many of them. I liked the new face of Draco: suddenly we can sympathize with him while still thinking he’s a shithead. Complexity! I love that he hangs out with Moaning Myrtle. I bet she crushes on him. (What? Tom Felton at least is very attractive.)

Basically I liked this book a lot. I liked the pacing and the plot and the thing with the inferi in the cave was creepy and the ending was very dramatic, and since I knew Snape was on Dumbledore’s side, Dumbledore’s death didn’t trouble me unduly. Also, Ginny Weasley is badass and apart from the aforementioned ridiculously stupid description of the monster in Harry’s chest, I think they’re adorable together.

 

DH

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Well, I’m not really a fan of DH. It’s alright I suppose. (Look! High praise!) The Deathly Hallows themselves aren’t foreshadowed anywhere ever, and neither are the Tales of Beedle the Bard. No, Harry’s Invisibility Cloak doesn’t count as foreshadowing in this case. Maybe if we’d had an inkling that his is a particularly good Cloak, but until the scene at Xenophilius Lovegood’s, all we know is that they are rare and Moody has two.

Anyway, much of the book is the Trio camping with the One Ring locket horcrux being angsty, which is boring. It just is. I’ve always felt that this books suffers from lack of the Hogwarts framing device. Hogwarts imbues such a sense of place. One of the problems with DH is a complete lack of sense of place. Well, ok, for the most part they’re out in the wilds of Britain somewhere. But unless you’re familiar with the wilds of Britain… well, even then, there’s not much character since the drama is focussed on the Trio and setting wards and Snatchers and what not. They spend some time at many places from the previous books, but they’re constantly moving so everything feels a bit more like a cardboard cut out. Maybe another author could have pulled it off, but I don’t think the structure played to JKR’s strengths. The action setpieces—the raid on the Ministry, Gringott’s, Battle of Hogwarts—were impressive but never really felt like enough payoff to account for the boredom and tedium. Look, I have nothing against showing boredom and tedium in war: I’m given to understand that’s how war works. It’s just you shouldn’t bore your readers too. Tamora Pierce pulls this off in Squire and Lady Knight. Kel constantly chafes when she’s not taking action, but it’s never boring for the reader. Part of that might be because Tamora Pierce simply has wittier, more engaging dialogue (even if her prose style is occasionally awkward).

And during the Battle of Hogwarts, Hogwarts didn’t feel like Hogwarts. That could be put to good use, but introspective dialogue about how heart-wrenchingly strange Hogwarts seems is scarce-to-non-existent as the action mounts. It doesn’t became different-but-unique, it becomes stock. It’s a cardboard cut-out of a magic school.

My favourite part in the book, though, is how the Trio’s kindness wins over Kreacher. I think Kreacher is adorable in a creepy way.

I have mixed feelings about Harry … well, not dying. I still feel like the story would be stronger if he’d died and sacrificed himself like Lily for everyone he loved. (He does accomplish that, but it feels… cheap. Like he didn’t sacrifice enough, or something, but then again, his whole life he has been raised to be Dumbledore’s lamb—maybe it’s fair that he gets a chance at life.) And then again, resurrected heroes, from ancient myths to Jesus to King Arthur (the Once and Future King) are a trope and have strong cultural resonance and maybe that’s not so bad. I have no issue with Harry laying down his life, though. I like that well enough. I like that he chooses surrender over violence. Even when he fights, he embodies a gentility and honour that is reinforced by the people he surrounds himself: Ron, who cares strongly for those he loves and who also sacrifices himself (the chess game), and Hermione, who never ever leaves Harry and who also stands up for the rights of others.

Also, the horcruxes… I wish this hadn’t been dumped on us near the end of HBP. It feels late in the game to bring that about. It’s hard to get really invested in horcruxes. Instead of one McGuffin, now we have seven. Usually liches have one phylactery, but no, Voldemort-by-way-of-JKR has to make everything more plotty and annoying. This compounds my annoyance at how we don’t spend any time in school learning things. Please, throw out your strengths, JKR, and just write all-out action. Sigh.

Also Remus Lupin + Nymphadora Tonks = Ted. Ted. WHY? I hate the name Ted.* Ever seen that Buffy episode?

Look, we’re just going to not talk about the twins. For me, the grief is still too near.

Oh, and the epilogue. It sucks. It shouldn’t have been printed.

*My apologies to any Teds out there.

List of abbreviations that you’re probably already familiar with but in case you aren’t here’s the handy dandy guide:
HP – the Harry Potter series
JKR – J. K. Rowling
PS – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
CoS – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
PoA – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
GoF – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
OotP – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
HBP – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
DH – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows