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Book cover art by Mary GrandPré (left).
Review © 2000 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Though it might not have quite as fresh a story, the second Harry Potter adventure lacks for nothing in entertainment value. This is a series that has managed to sustain its charm, in spite of the fact that it would take one more book for J.K. Rowling to start really building upon her premise. Here, the story is largely a rehash, moreso than an expansion, of book one. Harry, along with his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, are due to return to Hogwarts school for their second year. However, just before Harry is to leave his abusive aunt and uncle's home (this is the element of these books I find most potentially disturbing, really, moreso than the sorcery aspects that have silly fundamentalist Christians in a dither), he is visited by a shrivelled little house-elf named Nobby, who warns Harry that to return to Hogwarts will mean mortal danger. Nobby also reinforces his point by literally getting Harry imprisoned in his bedroom. But when the Weasleys come to Harry's rescue, he finds himself unable to access the magical Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King's Cross station. Clearly something is up.

Through a bit of magical rule-breaking that lands him and Ron in serious hot water, the boys manage to make it to Hogwarts, where almost immediately, dark and dangerous secrets begin to reveal themselves. After hearing threatening and evil voices that seem to emanate from the school's very walls (voices only he can hear), a terrifying message is found written on a wall, stating that the Chamber of Secrets has been opened, and that the Heir of Slytherin will have his vengeance against his enemies.

Thus it is that the plot of the second novel closely parallels that of the first. Whereas in Sorcerer's Stone, Harry and his friends sought the secret of what lay beneath the trapdoor in the school's forbidden corridor, here they seek another hidden area of the school and the secret it contains. Also, there is the mystery of who exactly is causing these evil acts to occur, with the requisite character or two thrown in as a clear red herring so that the real culprit's actual identity is a nice surprise. Some of Rowling's surprises this time aren't as surprising as they could be, but the book as a whole coasts by on the appeal and goodwill generated by its predecessor, which ably compensates for shortcomings in originality. Also, when you consider the fact that Rowling's series is appealing to a whole new generation of children, who in most cases probably don't have much (if in fact any) experience in reading as a form of entertainment and thus aren't yet aware of how familiarity breeds clichés, you can excuse Rowling for playing it very safe in her series' second installment and giving the kids something they're comfortable and familiar with, easing them further into the series without hitting them all at once with too many new ideas that would threaten to alienate them. Sure, more sophisticated adult readers might be impatient for more freshness, but credit Rowling with savviness in handling the young ones.

There are elements of wit and commendably non-obnoxious message-mongering going on here, too. A new character, Gilderoy Lockhart, a narcissistic celebrity magician who is all talk and no walk, is a hilarious parody of ego and celebrityhood in general. And Harry and his friends learn a thing or two (metaphorically of course) about racism: the pejorative "mudbloods" is used to refer to magicians of mixed parentage — one magician and one Muggle (human) parent. Naturally, the nasty Slytherins make much use of it.

In all, Harry Potter continues to be a series that justifies its fame, its sales, and even (as irritating as such things can get) its hype. Read them now and be a kid again. It's magic.

Follwed by Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.