I did like susannahf's alternate title for this book: "Harry Potter and the Ending of an Era". I've been reading the books since just before "Goblet of Fire" came out (in July 2000), so the series has spanned seven years for me, which nicely mirrors the time that's elapsed in the books themselves.
I gather that Amazon had some trouble with their deliveries (as per this thread), so I do sympathise with anyone who was stuck waiting for their copy to arrive (particularly if it turns out that they could have bought it from a local shop cheaper and more quickly). Mind you, glancing at discussion forums in general, I'm a bit disappointed by the poor quality of some comments (from fans and detractors), e.g. "its not a childs book btw god i really wana read it please tell me wot hapens jus in case i neva do or sumin bad hapens 2 me i dont wana die in vain" (from The Sun).
I re-read the first six books before I bought the new one, and one thing that did strike me is that Rowling basically "played fair". In other words, rather than pulling out a deus ex machina ending, she'd make sure that the key information had been mentioned previously; at the same time, it was normally pretty well disguised, rather than being announced as a Significant Clue.
Taking a specific example, in "Philosopher's Stone" Harry gets a chocolate frog card of Dumbledore which says:
Albus Dumbledore, currently Headmaster of Hogwarts.
Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern
times, Dumbledore is particularly famous for his
defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945,
for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon's
blood and his work on alchemy with his partner,
Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys
chamber music and tenpin bowling.
(p77 in my paperback edition)
Flamel turned out to be quite significant later in the book, as the owner of the philosopher's stone which Voldemort was after. On the other hand, the business about Grindelwald was never mentioned again, so it acted as an effective disguise for the relevant parts. However, this turned out to be a fairly significant plot point in the final book, which does emphasise how much planning went into the storyline. Maybe the sixth film will add in a scene at a bowling alley? ("Accio pins!")
The main plot here was obviously the quest for the horcruxes. If this was "Harry Potter: The TV Series" then I'd expect one horcrux per week in more or less independent stories, but there was a much better sense of one big story here. Carrying the locket around did seem a bit reminiscent of The One Ring (from Tolkien), but it provided some good character development for Ron, so I can live with that. I'm surprised that Umbridge was able to conjure a Patronus while wearing it, since Harry couldn't; presumably it had less effect on her.
Looking at the previous books, the whole "fight against evil" has either been quite tightly structured or it's involved Harry just reacting to things as they happened.
Book 1: There were seven challenges to go through until he reached the Philosopher's Stone.
Book 2: He could hear a big snake moving around inside the school.
Book 3: He knew that there was an escapee from prison who was trying to hunt him down.
Book 4: There were three big challenges in the Tri-Wizard tournament.
Book 5: He was encouraged to form a resistance against Umbridge (another direct threat in the school).
Book 6: Dumbledore guided him through Voldemort's past and gave him specific assignments (Slughorn's memory and the lake in the caves).
There was plenty of other stuff happening in those books too, but it was always pretty clear what Harry needed to do. This book was different, just because the hunt for the horcruxes was so open-ended, and he didn't really know where to start. I can see why other people found that a bit dull, but I liked it because it represented a different kind of challenge.
On a personal note, I think it resonated with me because it's similar to some of my own academic experiences. I'm pretty good at studying for exams, and I can also handle specific tasks ("Why can't we send email?" or "Write a program to handle our inventory"). However, I've tended to get stuck on open-ended research projects, where my supervisor basically says "Here's a subject area, go off and do something interesting." Until I can get the hang of that, I'll never be ready for a PhD, so I can sympathise when Harry got stuck and Ron got frustrated with him.
In chapter 16 ("Godric's Hollow"), Harry and Hermione visit his parents' grave. I was interested in the dates that were engraved on the headstone: it said that they were both born in 1960, and both died on 31 October 1981. This was shortly after Harry's first birthday, meaning that he was born in 1980, so his 17th birthday (at the start of this book) would have been July 1997. Obviously the books haven't quite been running in real time (i.e. they haven't been released at the rate of one a year), so this does mean that the readers are ageing faster than the characters. The way that comics normally handle this is to have a floating timeline, e.g. by saying that the Avengers have been around for 10 years, but the team was now formed in the 1990s rather than the 1960s. You can have fixed dates if the time period is significantly different (e.g. historical novels set in the middle ages, or Star Trek novels set in the 24th century), but I'd say it's unusual to take this approach when the books are roughly contemporary. It's also slightly odd that these dates aren't based on the publication date of the original novel. Anyway, this isn't a criticism, just something that caught my eye.
I was sorry not to see more of Neville and Luna in this book, but I think that Neville really did well for himself. Thinking back to book 1, where he was really nervous about standing up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, in this book he's leading the resistance, going toe to toe with Voldemort, and pulling Gryffindor's sword from the sorting hat like Harry did in book 2. Based on the prophecy from book 5, I can now easily see him taking Harry's place if Voldemort had originally gone to a different house. In fact, I wonder whether he would have come into his own a bit sooner if he hadn't been overshadowed by Harry in previous years. If there was an extended edition of this book (in the style of "deleted scenes" on DVDs), I'd quite like to see what went on at Hogwarts while Harry was away, from the point of view of the people who stayed there. Mind you, I suspect that there will be several fanfic stories which cover this ground.
Regarding Aberforth Dumbledore, he was mentioned in chapter 24 of "Goblet of Fire" ("Rita Skeeter's Scoop"):
'An excellent point,' said Professor Dumbledore. 'My own brother, Aberforth, was prosecuted for practising inappropriate charms on a goat. It was all over the papers, but did Aberforth hide? No, he did not! He held his head high and went about his business as usual! Of course, I'm not entirely sure he can read, so that may not have been bravery...'
The obvious interpretation is that this was a euphemism for some kind of dubious sexual practice, but I now think that this book suggests something different. In chapter 28 ("The Missing Mirror"), Aberforth says that his sister Ariana used to help him feed the goats, so I wonder whether she had accidentally done something strange to one of them (when she couldn't control her magic) and he took the blame to cover for her? If that's true, it would make Albus a bit of a git for mocking him, but I think that would also be consistent with some of the things we've learnt about him in the latest book.
While I'm re-interpreting past events, it now turns out that Luna's Patronus is a hare rather than a rabbit (as per my review of the fifth film), but I think that's an easy mistake to make.
I've sometimes considered what would happen to the main characters after they left Hogwarts (assuming that they survived); my prediction was that Harry would be an Auror, Hermione would become a teacher (not necessarily at Hogwarts), and that Neville would become a Healer. These turned out to be inaccurate (or at least unproven), but they were also fairly short term goals, effectively describing what would happen in a hypothetical book 8. By contrast, there were two parts in this book that I particularly liked because they set up the idea of long term plans for Harry's future. The first was in chapter 7 ("The Will of Albus Dumbledore"), when he imagines Ginny in a wedding dress. The second was in chapter 25 ("Shell Cottage"), when Lupin asked Harry to be godfather for his baby son. This then made it more of a wrench to realise that he'd have to die.
Speaking of which, there were several deaths in this book, and I was sad to see some of the characters go. Hedwig's death shocked me the most because it was so sudden (and so early in the book); Dobby's was the most moving, particularly with the grave digging afterwards; Tonks' surprised me the most, particularly because it then seemed as if her son would have to grow up without his parents or godfather. In Fred's case, it wasn't too bad because I think he's always appeared with George, so he wasn't really established as much of a character in his own right. I'm glad that Harry survived, and it was a nice touch for his brief death to have a secondary benefit (protecting the other Hogwartians).
I particularly liked the scene in chapter 31 ("The Battle of Hogwarts"), where Ron said that they should send the house elves away (for their safety) and Hermione jumped on him. There was a similar scene in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (where Will and Elizabeth wanted to get married in the middle of a battle and other people asked "Is this really the right time?"), but I think it worked better here because it wasn't just a case of "We may be about to die, so let's make the most of it while we're still alive." Instead, Ron just said something that gave Hermione an extra insight into his character, and reminded her why she fell in love with him in the first place. I think it's important that he wasn't just agreeing with her to get back in her good books (as per the camping trip) but was actually offering a serious opinion that related to other people.
It's interesting that Harry didn't actually kill Voldemort; the book said that the spell rebounded. Perhaps that's linked in to the whole horcrux idea, namely that killing someone is the ultimate act of evil?
I did wonder whether Rowling would put in an epilogue to say something like "Harry died in bed at the age of 83 surrounded by his loving grandchildren", which would technically count as killing him off while still giving him a happy ending, but I think that was implied by the stuff about the Elder Wand in chapter 36 ("The Flaw in the Plan"), since he needs to die a natural death to break the wand's power.
As for the epilogue we actually got, I think it worked well, and it reminded me of the final episode of Charmed. It did seem a bit clunky in places, with a lot of expository dialogue to do a recap; honestly, it did remind me of badly written fanfic, so I'd have preferred an omniscient narrator approach. However, I'm happy with the events that it described and Ron had a few funny lines.
Going back to my theories on book 6, I think I had a reasonably good success rate, although I was wrong on a few points:
a) I was right about Dumbledore wanting Snape to kill him.
b) I was wrong about Snape's motivation; it turns out that he was quite fond of Lily. (As a side note, I don't think that any of the recent Hogwarts teachers have been married.)
c) I was right about Slughorn being a decent guy, since he did join in the final battle on the Hogwarts side.
d) This book didn't reveal any more information about the way that paintings work, i.e. whether the painting of Dumbledore has all of his memories up to the point of his death.
e) I was wrong about Ron and Hermione; it turns out that they did work out as a long-term couple, and I'm glad to be mistaken there.
I mentioned that I felt a bit sorry for Draco in book 6, since he was clearly getting in over his head, and expressed genuine remorse about letting the werewolf (Fenrir Greyback) loose in the school where his friends lived. That theme was continued here, specifically in chapter 23 ("Malfoy Manor") when he's asked to identify Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It's plausible that he might not have recognised Harry (due to his face being swollen), but I'm sure that he'd recognise the other two, and yet he was vague about it ("maybe" "It could be"). I think Harry understood this, since in chapter 36 ("The Flaw in the Plan") he refers to "Draco" rather than "Malfoy", which I believe is the first time he's done that. In the epilogue, they weren't exactly friends, but they weren't enemies either, and I think that works better than all the fanfic stories which pair Draco off (romantically) with one of the Gryffindor students. In a similar way, I liked the scene with Dudley at the start of the book, where he expresses gratitude to Harry and they part on good terms.
More generally, Dumbledore has kept saying that Harry's greatest strength is the power of love, and I think this book proved that to be true. It's not just other people's love for him, or his love for them, but love in general. Snape left Voldemort because he loved Lily, and Narcissa lied to him because she loved Draco. For that matter, this demonstrates the importance of mercy: if Harry hadn't rescued Draco from the burning room then his return from the dead would have been quite brief.
Going back to book 5, the Sorting Hat expressed doubts about whether it was really a good idea to divide students into separate houses. Dumbledore said something similar in chapter 33 ("The Prince's Tale"), when he said "I sometimes think we Sort too soon..." Maybe they could move to a system where one house is reserved for (say) the first and second years, then they get Sorted for their third year and beyond?
I do sometimes wonder which house I'd wind up in; I think that if I was compared to the general population then I'd probably wind up in Ravenclaw, but I've been reluctant to make that "claim" because I'm aware of how many people are smarter than me (particularly at university level), so I might be more suited to Hufflepuff. As a related issue, I liked the idea that Ravenclaw use riddles rather than passwords for their tower, although I'm not sure whether they'd be entirely effective at keeping out students from other houses (e.g. Hermione).
I don't think that Rowling will write any more novels in the series, but I would be interested in world building, e.g. actually getting to read "Hogwarts: A history" or "A history of magic" (hopefully longer than the Comic Relief books, although they were good too). Right now, I'd say that I'm satisfied; even if there was going to be another novel, I'd have to wait for a couple of years, so it doesn't bother me that this is the last one. And there are still two more films to look forward to.
Earlier this week, I mentioned the leaked book and speculated about whether newspapers would print spoilers. Now that the book has come out, I think it's time to review what actually happened.
Schneier's blog included an accurate version of the ending (aside from the epilogue), although I didn't realise that at the time. Comment 16 from "jdl" (on Tuesday 17th) said:
"That wand's more trouble than it's worth" said Harry. "And quite honestly," he turned away from the painted portraits, think now only of the four-poster bed lying waiting for him in Gryfondor Tower, and wondering whether Kreacher might bring him a sandwich there, "I've had enough trouble for a lifetime".
(I've copied the typos from that comment; they aren't present in my copy, but I assume that this was an error by jdl rather than a misprint in the leaked copy of the book.)
Lots of other people were posting fake spoilers, so I interpreted this as a joke ("Harry said 'meh' to the quest and went back to bed") and it didn't spoil the book for me, but I'm disappointed that someone would put it there, and this does suggest that the leaked version was real. I also think that Schneier missed the point when he said that spoilers don't matter because they won't affect sales.
I saw a copy of the Evening Standard on Wednesday or Thursday which had a banner on the front page advertising their Harry Potter review inside. I didn't read it, and I can't find the relevant article on their website, but I'm guessing that it contained spoilers.
The BBC made a point of saying that the relevant "Have Your Say" board would be moderated to reject spoilers "without exception", and their review is pretty discreet. Similarly, MSN asked how they should handle spoilers.
The BBC also have a report about JK Rowling objecting to spoilers. That refers to an article in New York Times (from Thursday 19th) which does have minor spoilers, but nothing too serious.
The Sun have a review in yesterday's (Saturday's) paper, written after the book was put on sale; this was announced by a headline on the front page, but the review was tucked away inside. They apparently got a speed reader to whizz through the entire book in 47 minutes. Mind you, they say that it was 759 pages long, whereas my copy is 607 pages long; the "children's edition" did seem a bit thicker in the bookshop, so maybe it's larger print? Again, that only contained minor spoilers.
So, all in all, I think that the news organisations have been pretty well behaved, and it's just online idiots who caused trouble.