J.K. Rowling claims to have mapped out all of the events of the seven Harry Potter books before she began writing the first, when she was a poor single mother camped out in an Edinburgh cafe. So she'd say, I guess, that the spectacular, distinctly cinematic set-piece ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was already in her mind, with the dramatic, action-filled 600 pages that lead up to it.
Well, maybe, but I wonder. There's been a distinct trajectory to the series to this point, with Harry turning 17 (adult in Rowling's world) at the start of this seventh book. As the characters have gotten older, the subject matter has gotten darker, and more "adolescent", a trend you'd have expected to see continue with Hallows. Indeed, some reviewers have already seen it as a continuation of the dark sanguinary depths of The Half-Blood Prince.
And yet, while there is indeed no shortage of blood in the rush of battles, duels, captures, escapes, and near-misses, the tone is distinctly different. It is cartoonish, cinematic, but without the psychological depths of the sixth volume.
Harry, Hermione, and Ron spend long periods of Deathly Hallows cramped together under enormous physical and mental stress, yet they seem to suffer no more than the cabin fever you'd expect from any three people thrust into that situation. From one book to another these characters have grown up instantly. Adolescent torments and tantrums have dissolved, as if by magic.
Much else in Deathly Hallows, however, remains as before — the lovingly described detail of this alternative universe that allows its fervent fans to debate for weeks the precise effects of a spell or a curse, the complicated mechanism by which the hands of fate, or the will of Dumbledore, are played out.
Much too is wrapped up, or given depth — Dumbledore's family and personal history, of which we've previously known little, and, of course, that great question of the real allegiance of Severus Snape. (No, don't worry, I'm not going to give that away here; you'll have to read the book.)
Even, finally, after six books of being treated with total contempt, Rowling invites her readers to feel some sympathy for Dursleys, that unattractive epitome of Thatcherite suburbia. There's none of the sharp political satire of Half-Blood Prince, and, sadly, little of the delightful humour of the middle books. The general absence of Hagrid, with his Falstaffian presence, is sadly missed.
But it is the lack of real darkness that is the most notable absence. Harry certainly endures events that are as dramatic as could be imagined, but he glides through them all more like James Bond than George Smiley, with little of the existential angst and societal dislocation he suffered in Half-Blood Prince.
You might almost say that J.K. has gone soft, whether this was her original intention or not. She's said, again and again, that she won't be writing about Harry in any further book, and the epilogue of Deathly Hallows does its best to drive home that message, taking the surviving characters two decades into a comfortable future. Perhaps as she spent her last months with Harry, Rowling could not bear to give him too rough a time, too traumatic an experience.
So Deathly Hallows is great fun, gripping reading, I didn't regret the two hours in the cold it took me to obtain it, and it should make a great action movie. But I'm looking forward to Rowling moving on to adult characters and adult themes, taking some of the intellectual and emotional sophistication that she displayed in Half-Blood Prince, rather than slipping back to the successful action formula of the early Potter books, as she's largely done here.