Harry Potter – Some Balance from Jill Roberts

Jeff VanderMeer • July 28th, 2007 @ 10:59 am • Nonfiction

Jill Roberts, publicist for Tachyon and all-around smart cookie, shared a short piece she wrote on the latest Hairy Putter book for a non-public messageboard. When I asked if I could post it, she sent me the revised version below. Just for a bit o’ balance while we’re all on this muggles high. For my part, I stopped reading the books after the fourth one. The beginning of the fifth just seemed like parody. – Jeff

I must admit that I read Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows mostly for closure. Since that bureaucratic slogfest, Order of the Phoenix (Book 5), I’ve been disappointed in the series. Love the charming Potterverse and (many of) the (really too many) delightful characters with their adorable Dickensian monikers. Hate the overwrought, bloated plotting, shameless usage of the deus ex machina, and the overall “magic is free” mindset. More about that shortly.

Overall, Deathly Hallows was a stronger book than the previous two, but the endless magical battles and narrow escapes left me a little numb. Happy that Snape’s plotline was handled so very well. I heart Snape, that creepy bastard. Horcruxes? Embedding pieces of your soul in magical objects is neat, but less so if there’s infinite backtracking (and backpacking) to find them. Ending was totally effective for me. Despite myself, I cried. A little. Weird epilogue was kind of tacked-on, and it leaves the possibility of the dreaded Potter spin-off. (Take the money and run, J.K.!) Ultimately, here’s why I think DH was afflicted with the same weaknesses that plagued the series.

Plotting: So many twists and turns and regroupings that I generally forget the (Hor)crux of the quest. What are we destroying again? Didn’t we destroy it already? How many times do we have to go back to the frackin’ Shrieking Shack anyway? Rowling has always used too many magical puzzles and battle scenes to drive the plot when she’s stuck. Too much plot makes books ginormous. Hurts my back to carry in backpack.

Deus Ex Machina.: Remember when Gryffindor loses the house cup and then Dumbledore just magically appears and gives it to them? Just what I’d want my kids to think – if you’re good, you’ll always win! Riiiight. Repeated at will in other books, including DH (Now with even more convenient plot-salvaging!). ‘Nuff said–I judge, but spoil not.

Free magic: Caveat: I’m an old-school Dungeons & Dragons geek. Read only the last bit of each of the next four paragraphs if you’re bored. I’ll never know and yet will not have relinquished my need to be didactic. (And yet I’ve accused Rowling of going on and on…)

In traditional D&D style role-playing games, you pick spell lists based on your class (consistent character traits) and level (combination of age and experience). You can’t gallivant around firing off spells that are out of your class or above your level. Magic has a cost – you have a supply of spell points based on your level and once you’ve used them up, you can’t cast more spells until you’ve rested up and recharged. All of this makes magic only one tool to complete a quest, which makes the game/story more varied and fun. You might find magical items that give you some extra magical goodness, but not an infinite amount.

With your spectacular and yet completely commonplace Potterverse wand, you can cast as many spells as you want, totally free. You can learn any spell that you want, anytime. Yeah, you might have a hard time mastering it, but if you really try hard…yay! A useless adolescent lunkhead (that would be Crabbe) can cast a kazillionth level spell that should cost an infinite number of spell points. The wand solves everything. It’s a plot device on a stick!

I’m not quite enough of a pathetic, aging geek to claim that D&D is the only way to structure magic. But this nice convenient wand-thingie with magic on tap? Not very interesting. Teenagers casting incredibly powerful spells with their plot-sticks simply because it’s expedient? Not so much. Don’t give me great characters in a great ‘verse and then run them around endlessly doing pointless, confusing things until capital “M” Magic saves their asses. It could have been so much better, dammit.

Note: I’m actually a big fan of the Potter movies. Judicious editing, good casting, and excellent CGI really have given me a great feel for the Potterverse and restored much of my mangled sense of wonder. David Yates made a surprisingly good film out of the Order of the Phoenix. Gets the next one too, though I was hoping they’d give it back to Cuarón (who hopefully has better things to do).

- Jill Roberts

6 Responses to “Harry Potter – Some Balance from Jill Roberts”

  1. Cheryl says:

    Megan McArdle, who normally blogs for The Economist, had a go at the “magic is free” thing in The Guardian, with predictable results.

  2. jmnlman says:

    I always thought one of the characters at some point should pull out a .44 and just shoot somebody. Funny how cell phones would derail a lot of the plot.

  3. Steve says:

    “Funny how cell phones would derail a lot of the plot”

    Actually, Deathly Hallows is set in 1998.

  4. Steve says:

    … and that’s the year *Seinfeld* ended.

  5. Harry’s Games: D&D, Econ, etc. « Changing Way says:

    [...] 28th, 2007 Jeff Vandermeer seeks to provide a bit o’ balance while we’re all on this muggles high by inviting one Jill Roberts to air her views on HP7. Jill argues that the Potterverse should be [...]

  6. Harry Potter Wands says:

    The title Voldemort originates from the French terms that means “fly from death,”

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