I was not disappointed in Chamber of Secrets when I read it, but that’s only because I didn’t know the glory that was awaiting me in Prisoner of Azkaban. I remember finishing up the first Harry Potter book and feeling like someone had bashed me over the head with an awesome stick, and I demanded my mother take me to Books-a-Million so I could buy the second book the next day. I called ahead to reserve a copy, which made me feel very adult, and when I got to the help desk at the store, the guy was like, “Huh? I think we’re sold out of that, I don’t see any back here,” and I died a thousand deaths until he managed to find my copy. And once I had it, I embraced it rapturously and sang a little song that was like, “My book my book my brand new book!”
I bought it in hardcover with my own money, which was sort of a big deal back then. That’s sort of a big deal now, to be honest. Because I am poor. The copy I bought at the time now has a severely cracked spine and is sort of difficult to read because I’m always afraid I’ll break it worse, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. Which should tell you something about my true level of affection for this book, despite the gripes I am about to gripe.
This is my least favorite book in the series by like, a lot. As I started writing this post, I realized that the reason for my dislike is that nobody shows to best advantage in it. All these characters I love with my whole heart — and y’all have to know I all the way love these people — kind of act like morons. Let’s do a rundown, shall we?
Ron – Come on. Not cool to make fun of Squibs. Also, what the hell with the car? And the slugs thing is gross, although it’s nice of you to defend Hermione’s honor, and very brave to go into the Forbidden Forest looking for spiders.
Harry – WHAT THE HELL WITH THE CAR HARRY. YOU HAVE AN OWL. Other than this I guess I have no complaints. God knows I like it when Harry’s so m.f. cool with Tom Riddle and he’s totally about to die but he’s still all,
“[You're] not the greatest sorcerer in the world,” said Harry, breathing fast. “Sorry to disappoint you and all that, but the greatest wizard in the world is Albus Dumbledore. Everyone says so. Even when you were strong, you didn’t dare try and take over at Hogwarts.”
That is pretty great. Not as great as when Harry defends Dumbledore in the sixth book, but pretty great. Good job, Harry.
Hermione – I don’t like to see my girl Hermione with a crush on Gilderoy Lockhart. (Please infuse my saying of his name with as much disdain as you are able to hold in your head at one time.) I don’t need Hermione to be nonstop perfect and brave (for an example of Hermione being teenagery in a way that I like, see the time Snape makes fun of her teeth OH I WILL HAVE THINGS TO SAY ABOUT THAT in book four), but I have been a smart twelve-year-old without having a crush on someone dopey. Hermione could have done that too. She’s the total MVP of this book in terms of getting shit done when Harry and Ron are dithering, and I want to gag every time she’s doing her crush-on-Lockhart moves.
(Facts: When I was twelve and everyone else had a crush on Jonathan Taylor Thomas, I had a crush on Carl Anderson, the guy who plays Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. He was my first love. God he’s so hot. Whenever I try to make light of my crush on Carl Anderson, I watch part of Jesus Christ Superstar and am swamped anew with teenagery crush love.)
Hagrid – I don’t know why I continue to love Hagrid, y’all. He is nearly always part of the subplot I hate the most in any given book. Yet whenever things would look grim for Hagrid throughout the series, I’ll be right there screaming NOOOOO at the top of my lungs. Anyway, this is not a good book for Hagrid. I hate that he goes to Azkaban, and Cornelius Fudge is a jackass, and this marks the moment at which I decided to loathe Cornelius Fudge for all of eternity because no way did Hagrid deserve to go to Azkaban. However, it was very not cool of Hagrid to raise a huge deadly spider in the school (also WHOA I just realized Hagrid never talks about knowing Tom Riddle in school, which like, wouldn’t it make sense for Harry to ask him at some point? Hagrid’s right there and knew Tom Riddle in school). It was even not cooler for him to send Harry and Ron to hang out with Aragog. They’re twelve. Hagrid, they are twelve. Twelve years old. They do not even know the Stunning spell yet. Come on.
Dobby – Just. I just don’t. This book is the reason I hated Dobby. He is the worst at helping Harry. Until he becomes free, and then he is suddenly awesome at helping Harry, which obviously I’m in favor of. But he is so aggravating in this book, and I mean aggravating in its etymologically accurate sense, of adding weight and turmoil to Harry’s already tumultuous life.
Colin Creevey – See everything I said before about Dobby. Except that Colin Creevey never becomes lovable. He’s basically a low-rent version of two characters — Dobby and Neville — who between them can do pretty much anything Colin Creevey does, but are much more fleshed-out, awesome, and lovable over the course of the series. The books would have been fine without Colin Creevey. He adds nothing to anything. He just irritates me.
Gilderoy m.f. Lockhart – This man. Is the worst. (Not the actual worst. That is still Snape.) Everything about him is awful, and I wish he had died in the cave-in. I am not sure I even want to get started on Gilderoy Lockhart because of how relentlessly awful he is. The only reason I do not shriek that J.K. Rowling should have left him out of the series is that without him we wouldn’t have had that wrenching moment in the fifth book where the kids run into Neville at St. Mungo’s. As a hardcore Neville fan I am willing to make some compromises to have that moment. But Gilderoy Lockhart is awful, and in addition to being awful, he’s not quite as funny (except when he’s Kenneth Branagh) as J.K. Rowling thinks he is. Too one-note. I get bored of him very quickly.
Ginny – GINNY. GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER WOMAN. I have saved Ginny for last because Ginny was a very, very hard sell for me, and there was no real reason it had to be that way. I spent the whole of the first four books complaining about the inevitability of a Harry-Ginny pairing. Ginny spends way too long in this series being overawed by Harry, and that’s even more frustrating to me in retrospect because I now know that Ginny is tough and brave and awesome, and because this is J.K. Rowling and J.K. Rowling always knew everything about everyone, Ginny always was tough and brave and awesome. And I’m cross we didn’t get to see her being tough and brave and awesome all along. I’m not mad at her for getting fooled by Voldemort, but I’m mad at her for sending Harry that valentine. Ginny, you are better than this.
Just basically there are a lot of characters I love who act a fool in this book, and some characters I never love taking up too much book space. I actually think this is one of the better mysteries in the series, from a purely plot perspective. The monster is quite frightening, and the diary is a cool way to let Harry defeat Voldemort again without its being a rerun of the first book’s climax. I love that the whole plot hinges on something as petty as defeating a bill in the Ministry. The red herrings with Hagrid and Percy are elegantly executed. The stakes are high and Rowling keeps escalating them. The confrontation at the end is chilling, that moment when Harry realizes that something isn’t right with Riddle? Eeeeeek.
It’s all nicely set up, and if I read this by itself, I probably wouldn’t have any complaints. It’s only by comparison with how great almost all of these characters are capable of being that I mind how lame they are. The problem is that the third book features an even better mystery in which all the characters are displaying to absolute best advantage.
Oh, also, to the question of the books’ increasing darkness over the course of the series: The first three books are supposedly lighter than the later ones, which I guess is because nobody dies in them and things turn out okay for everyone in the end. But there are definitely hints at how dark things can get. When Tom Riddle kidnaps Ginny and writes “Her skeleton will lie in the Chamber forever,” that’s the first moment in the series, for me, that was legitimately high-stakes scary. Hermione was always going to get un-Petrified because mandrakes, and Harry was always going to save the Sorcerer’s Stone, and yeah, I was pretty sure Ginny was going to get rescued, but this is the first point in the series where I could see matters playing out a whole other way.
These are the scariest moments to me in the books, all the times where J.K. Rowling makes you pay attention to how little control the good characters really have over the fates of their loved ones. They are vulnerable from so many directions, you know? Ron and Harry are completely on the case with Hermione being Petrified and then BAM just when you think all the jeopardy has been jeoparded on the best friend flank, here’s an attack on the baby sister flank! You weren’t expecting that, were you? Were you? And seriously. She could have died. That’s a thing that could have happened. Voldemort doesn’t even care.
PRISONER OF AZKABAN. BRING IT.