Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling

Scholastic, 1999, 341 pages, US$6.99 tpb, ISBN 0-439-06487-2

Second year at Hogwarts, and a second year of assorted trouble for boy wizard Harry Potter, who probably doesn’t need any introduction. Now that we’ve been introduced to the students, teachers and support staff at Hogwarts, this story feels free to dig deeper in the whole universe created by J.K. Rowling for her series. Fortunately so, for this is what makes the Chamber of Secrets so enjoyable this time around.

It’s not as if this volume is so dissimilar, plot-wise, from the first novel. Once again, Harry must confront a mystery, endure random sniping from unfriendly peers and rely on his friends. Mix in a few classes, quiddich matches, magical tricks, sinister reminders of Voldemort’s power and you’ve got a well-rounded adventure that runs the danger of reading a lot like the first one.

But everyone on all three sides of the pages is growing up. J.K. Rowling is more comfortable writing about her universe, Harry and friends are one year older, and so are the readers. Unlike many kids’ series, the Harry Potter Series seems written “in real time”, allowing for kids to grow up as the novels are released.

While the results of this evolution are still (mostly) forthcoming as The Chamber of Secrets is read, attentive readers can already see the germs of future conflicts in this volume. Rowling takes the opportunity offered by a visit through the seedier side of Diagon Alley to make us glimpse a magical universe that’s far deeper than anyone had hitherto suspected. Magic even has a civil service, which depends on good-natured public servants much like in ours. Is class warfare coming up? Well, it’s a British book: what do you think?

More directly, Rowling touches upon the touchy implications of “magically-gifted” persons in the “real” world and the inevitable muggle-wizard relationships. Discrimination appears at Hogwarts, drawing a none-too-clear divide between the pure-blood aristocracy and the more “populist” wizard population. Yes, this series is definitely growing up.

A side effect of this added depth is an added interest for readers already used to the fantasy genre. Whereas many (including your truly) were prompt in quibbling that the first volume contained nothing especially new, this second volume helps in establishing the series for what it is, a fully-imagined universe that can support itself without references to other previous mythologies. For all the above complaints about the similarity of the intrigues, Chamber of Secrets curiously feels more original than the first volume. Go figure.

It helps, obviously, that Rowling’s addictive writing style stays clear and compelling. Reading Harry Potter has a charm of its own, and so don’t be surprised to plan your life around the time you’ll be putting aside to read this book. It’s that good, and even makes the book critic-proof to some degree; when you’re having this much comfortable fun reading about Harry and friends, why complain?

The success of Harry Potter speaks for itself, and I’m not adding much to the discussion by pointing out that these books are, in fact, a heck of a lot of fun. Though I still intend to read the books as the movies come out, I’m having a harder and harder time justifying that decision; you mean there are at least two more books to read, available right now? Gee, I don’t know…

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