Gollancz, 2006, 196 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-575-07875-8
Some writing assignments are impossible. Imagine that in the lull between the publication of Harry Potter (Book 6) and Harry Potter (Book 7), someone writes a book billed as an attempt to predict how the Potter series will end. It’s a lucrative proposition ripe in potential embarrassment: Five minutes past the publication of the final volume, who’s going to even glance twice at a book attempting to guess what has finally been given form?
There’s one catch, though: this “someone” ends up being David Langford, the award-winning fan-writer, Ansible editor and all-around fabulous author. I have praised the merits of his books before, from the nuclear comedy The Leaky Establishment to the essay collection The SEX Column… and Other Misprints. Ask anyone who’s ever voted for Langford at the Hugo Awards (he’s got more than twenty of them) and they will tell you this this isn’t just any other Potter cash-in: this is “David Langford takes on Harry Potter”.
So what happens when you let loose former nuclear physicist, constant wit and forever critic Langford on one of the most celebrated series of our time? You get a good time.
To be fair, The End of Harry Potter? doesn’t spend all that much time trying to second-guess J.K. Rowling’s series finale. After a perfunctory introduction in which Langford explains the limits of his thought experiment, the book settles into a comfortable examination of the Potter phenomenon from a variety of angles. Only a polymath like Langford could take us through the literary antecedents of the series, track down the mythological signification of character names, dismantle Rowling’s favourite plot devices, point out bloopers and blind spots, try to fit the Potterverse in reality, or pick apart the ethical problems inherent in the series’ overuse of memory charms.
The best chapter remains “Casting Spells”, in which Langford speculates on the nature of magic in the Potterverse. On the menu: how new spells are created, whether they refer to a “central spell registry” and the way Occlumency is absolutely vital to upper-order magic: “…a mind-reading wizard who is an expert in Legilimency can see your idea for a spell taking shape before you begin to think the incantation.” [P.67]
That’s why you ask a science-fiction writer to look at a fantasy series.
It may not be an all-inclusive look at the Harry Potter universe, but it’s a fast, fun read. Langford is unable to resist the lure of familiar alternate endings to the series (“VOLDEMORT: No… I am your father” [P.173]), and jokes abound throughout the book. Don’t expect to spend a lot of time reading this book: It’s up to the usual Langford standards in delivering an addictive reading experience. He navigates a careful path between dismissing elements of the series end embracing its quirks, delivering a book which should appeal to the bright kids and adults who appreciate the series without necessarily pandering to them.
A test of the book, of course, comes after reading Volume 7 of the series and matching what happens to Harry and his friends versus what Langford was brave enough to set in type. Since Langford doesn’t actually stretch his neck too far (and neither does Rowling, to think of it), he does fairly well: A number of his more confident predictions are to be found in the authorized ending, and what he gets wrong are usually smaller details. But even those don’t matter much: As it stands, the biggest problem with The End of Harry Potter is not what it gets wrong, but that it’s missing what Langford would have found to comment in the seventh volume of the series. It feels curiously incomplete. Is anyone pondering a revised and updated edition?