Polly and Digory are two children growing up in London around the time of Sherlock Holmes (that is, around 1895) in the same row of houses. Digory's uncle has been experimenting with Magic and has devised a way to visit other worlds. Digory and Polly become his guinea pigs to test it out, visiting two worlds: the dying world of Charn, and the newborn world of Narnia. Along the way we meet the White Witch, the first Talking Animals of Narnia, the first joke, the first Narnian king and queen, and -- of course -- Aslan. We see how evil first enters Narnia, and we see how that evil is addressed.
Within the Narnian arc, of course, this story is important simply for explaining how Narnia started and why a certain wardrobe acted as it did. (And why a certain professor in a future story expressed less incredulity than expected, once.) It may also be interesting for the Biblical stories it's obviously intended to varyingly echo and evoke, blended with classical mythological references. (On that note, this time reading I noticed that in Narnia it wasn't woman who sinned and offered man the opportunity to sin, but rather man who sinned with the woman at worst egging him on. I don't think anyone should particularly care about the gender blame game in either instance. But it is interesting to note nonetheless.)
Outside the Narnian context, the story itself doesn't have as much to recommend it as other Narnian entries do. Narnia's primal magic is excellent -- a world where anything planted just grows? including coins, toffee, and lamp-posts? -- and the world feels distinctly and uniquely new. But other than that, there's not a whole lot to heighten interest. There isn't an obvious driving question to the story. (Digory's mother, sure, but she's not mentioned enough to carry that story, or at least wasn't during this read.) The characters have their own identities, but they exist more to play out the story than to be intriguing themselves. And the story itself is interesting more along the lines of being informative about Narnia than being interesting so much in its own right. Plus there are its unaddressed magical loose ends -- what's the nature of the in-between place or the mark, are those green and yellow items good or evil or simply too powerful, and so on -- which are totally unlike the magic in any of the other stories. Which isn't bad per se, but it's less rationalized than one might want.
Overall, this story is definitely worth reading to get the whole picture of Narnia. And that's why you should definitely read it. But on its own it's not as great as some of the entries in the Chronicles of Narnia.
One last topic: for the newcomer to Narnia, what reading order should be followed? Lewis wrote the stories in one order, but that order is not the chronological one, so a choice must be made.
The allusions this story makes to the contents of the other are few: at start explaining that this story would explain how "the comings and goings" between our world and Narnia started, and at end to set up the mechanism of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I don't believe these brief allusions damage those stories. Knowing that there is a lamp-post in Narnia from this book doesn't really spoil Lantern Waste in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, except to prove that that is Narnia. But a series reader won't be surprised by this, so it hardly matters. (And even someone not seriously reading through the series doesn't need to know these details -- the story setup primes the reader to expect magical events and explanations.)
In the end, then, I think the chronological order is the right order to read through these stories, if you intend to read them all. (And you definitely should!) If you're quite sure you're not reading them all -- but really, they're all short enough and enjoyable enough, that why bother? -- publication order might be reasonable. But I think there's enough magic to each entry that you might as well still read chronologically.(less)
It's Harry's second year at Hogwarts, and things aren't going well. Harry starts off the year on the wrong foot and faces the possibility of expulsion...moreIt's Harry's second year at Hogwarts, and things aren't going well. Harry starts off the year on the wrong foot and faces the possibility of expulsion should he do anything wrong. Students at Hogwarts are being attacked by something that Petrifies them, and nobody knows what it is, how to defend against, or how to defeat it. But rumors say it's a creature from the titular Chamber of Secrets, a hidden room in Hogwarts left by Salazar Slytherin, which only Slytherin's heir can open -- to inflict horror upon the school and purge it of any impurities (namely, non-pure-blooded wizards). Hogwarts is becoming increasingly unsafe for its students...
All things considered, I'd probably rank this the weakest of the Harry Potter books. It lacks the novelty of the setting, characters, and so on of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (which is otherwise a fair contender for the title). It lacks the backstory developments that mark Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It lacks the extent of Harry's character development in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (although it does somewhat develop Harry, but not enough to truly satisfy), or the truly heightened stakes that mark the fourth to seventh books (and to a smaller extent the third book). And this book's overall significance really only becomes clear with all or nearly all of the series under one's belt. Dobby the character, and some of Dumbledore's ruminations at the end, are about the only mind chestnuts this book provides. Really, this book is a slightly zany mini-whodunit in which our favorite characters get more than their share of luck along the way toward solving the problem of the book.
After books six and seven this book becomes less than throwaway to me. But before then, it doesn't do a huge amount for me. Three stars.(less)
It's the seventh year of Harry Potter's schooling at Hogwarts -- or rather it would have been, but for Voldemort's influence on the world. As a result...moreIt's the seventh year of Harry Potter's schooling at Hogwarts -- or rather it would have been, but for Voldemort's influence on the world. As a result, Harry's on the run from the authorities, attempting to carry out Dumbledore's instructions to destroy the sources of Voldemort's power. Should he succeed, Voldemort's power might be broken. Should he fail...
Pros: It's a Harry Potter book. It's the last Harry Potter book. That means, if you've read any of these stories previously, it's a must-read. Various parts present thoughtful ruminations at times on the meaning and significance of death. Plot-wise, there's little excess: the key points of each scene are necessary for subsequent scenes to fit together well. (Not purely out of desire to milk the franchise did the movie get split in two, although I'm sure that played a not insubstantial part in the decision. :-) ) Off the top of my head, I can think of only one other book that I've read that's done it better, that being The Name of the Wind. (Another good book -- more highly recommended than this one, even.)
Cons: I found the was-Dumbledore-really-bad questions to be implausibly raised. (And don't get me started on Rowling's Dumbledore-is-gay retconning...) There was essentially no foreshadowing of them in previous books, so when I read it I thought them little more than malicious mudslinging by characters with incentive to do it. Not that I have difficulty believing what was related to be possible, but it did not mesh well with the Dumbledore character I knew before this book. Surely it can't be that easy to evade capture by wizarding authorities that a few teenagers barely of age can avoid capture so well for so long. As for capture...how is it possible that the characters could have unintentionally avoided the Taboo for so long, either by not triggering it or by not having even heard of the existence of it? (Why in the world would Ron not have mentioned it on learning of it, for example?) Speaking of Ron, I find the gift he receives to not quite make sense as a gift, in context -- the purported guess at why he receives it in the book is pretty tenuous. The final (extended) showdown, from Hogsmeade onward, is overly campy in how it brings everyone together just so for a battle where every last character gets their moment of glory. And that showdown itself feels a bit too alternatingly joyful and sorrowful -- it just doesn't feel like it's being conducted seriously enough, with unstated acknowledgment of the danger involved. Harry's solution to the problem posed in the last chapter makes almost no sense; the solution posed in the movie makes far more logical sense, and it's more thoughtfully satisfying too. The epilogue has been condemned by many for being a pretty shallow ending to the series, and it is exactly that.
But all that said, it's the end of the Harry Potter story. Despite its flaws, which are not inconsiderable, it's still an enjoyable read. I'd rate it about 3.5 stars or so, and closer to 4 than 3 so rounding up to 4.(less)
All the earth's legends and myths trace back to a time when mages wielded enormous power, acting as the gods of humanity (the vast majority of whom ar...moreAll the earth's legends and myths trace back to a time when mages wielded enormous power, acting as the gods of humanity (the vast majority of whom are drowthers capable of no magic, or perhaps negligible magic at best). These powers could be increased enormously by travel between the two worlds of Earth and Westil using Great Gates created by gatemages. But ever since Loki closed all the Great Gates, it has become impossible to travel between worlds. Since then magic on Earth has dimmed, and internecine warfare amongst the mage families make any gatemage a dead man once discovered. For if a Great Gate were ever constructed, it would make that family enormously more powerful than the other families, which no other family will tolerate. But no matter: although the families don't know it, construction of any Great Gate now results in the instant loss of a gatemage's power.
Danny North is an undiscovered gatemage. This book begins to tell his story: of pretense on discovering his own powers, of survival when discovered, and of learning what he can do. And, perhaps, of trying to do what cannot be done.
Pros: The naturist magical system of the book is familiar in some ways, new in others, cleverly building upon the well-known magical tropes. The mechanics of gatemaking, from Danny's point of view, are fascinating. (Although I found myself often wishing I could just make him try all the gatemagic variations I could imagine, rather having to wait for him to attempt them himself.) The contrast between the prose in Danny's story and a sibling story intertwined with it is striking, and it does an excellent job keeping the two conceptually separate.
Cons: Card in the afterword notes that he wanted this story to have some "earthiness" to it, and it certainly has that. Malign and unprovoked misuse of magic and uncaring and crass vulgarities pervade the first half of the book, and they continue to intrude in much of the second half. Directed as it often is at innocents, it can be somewhat painful to read at times; it's certainly not edifying. This does taper off substantially after a certain point. But getting to that point is a slog if you prefer reading at least marginally sympathetic characters. Some of the developments feel almost predictable at times, in that I could almost guess where the story was going to go well in advance of it actually going there, or I would have guessed if I'd read more slowly. (And given how I read, I suspect this means these things will be even more obvious to most readers.)
This said, this book was an intriguing read, at least ignoring the earthier parts. I'll be interested to see where the story goes -- the current plan seems to be to make it a trilogy, so we'll have more to show here soon.
(A last note: The Lost Gate derives from Sandmagic, a short story appearing in Maps in a Mirror, which I had read but forgotten. It's interesting to read that story in light of the background information this book adds to it, and vice versa. Which do I prefer? Probably the short story, for its darkness serves a better point than The Lost Gate's does.)(less)