I have a complicated relationship with the Harry Potter series of books. Not the franchise- the franchise reduces an engaging story of discovery to a series of cash-grabs aimed at the lowest common denominator of consumer, and is awful. The books, though. They've always thrown me for a loop.
On one hand, they played a huge part in my childhood, and engaged me on a level that I had not yet experienced up to that point. I was in third or fourth grade when I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and I read 3 onwards as they were released. I loved the story, and I consumed the books with voracity. They didn't spark my interest in fantasy- I was already a big reader, and Redwall probably took the spot of honor, although it was really only a matter of time. Regardless, they were very important stories to me, and unlike, say, His Dark Materials, the story, and my participation in its readership, carried on into the end of my teenage years.
I think what I've always taken issue with is that the novels aren't very good fantasy novels. That's not to say that they're not good novels overall- the series' continued acclaim would say otherwise. Rather, I would argue that by the traditional standards by which fantasy literature is judged- world-building, complexity/consistency of any magic system, well-developed, morally-ambiguous characters- she falls short. Rowling's world-building is like the set of a play- it will fool you if you're looking at it from a certain direction, but the facade is obvious. This is evident by the very vocal stance Rowling has taken on addressing the various inconsistencies in the HP universe. In interviews, on Pottermore, in written pieces, Rowling has been continuing to patch up the holes in her universe for the duration of the decade since The Deathly Hollows was released. Do other countries have magic? How big is the wizarding community? Are there only 3 schools, and do they each only have about 200 pupils? What's the real reason for the statute of secrecy- because "we don't want to have to cure the muggles' cancer and world hunger 'cause they may bother us for other stuff" really doesn't fly on second read. There are scores of inconsistencies and unanswered questions about the universe she's created that Rowling has only answered after the release of the final novel, when pressed by her fans.
There are small inconsistencies, too. Can prefects take away house points? Percy takes ten points from Harry and Ron after finding them leaving the girls' bathroom in book 2, but later in the series Ron and Hermione are made prefects and specifically lament that prefects can't give or take away points. In Deathly Hollows, Hermione says Voldemort's name with no repercussions halfway through the novel- after the trace has been placed on the name, but before the reader knows this. Small continuity errors like this are minor, but having spent a good amount of time on fantasy subreddits I can confirm that they are certainly pointed out in other series' whenever possible, typically to make a case against the novel as a whole. Fantasy is about building an immersive world in which the reader can fully get lost, and small holes in the facade can ruin that experience for the astute reader.
The magic system is the final point I'll harp on before getting into the actual purpose of this piece. There is barely even an attempt at consistency in this area, other than that most of the spells vocalizations are Latin-ish. If magic is able to expand spaces, like the car the ministry provides the Weasley's with in book 3, why is Ron constantly complaining about his room being so small? How are the Weasley's poor at all, actually, if they're able to magically duplicate any resource they need? Why is there only one "killing curse", when every duel between Death Eaters and Order members shows a myriad of different spells being shot at one another- do they all just kill differently? Why not use the unblockable killing curse all the time? Do spells need to be "aimed"? In Chamber of Secrets, when we are introduced to the concept of dueling and shown the disarming curse for the first time, there is no corresponding "jet of light" to represent the spell. You point and click, and the wand flies out of your opponent's hand. This is true in Prisoner of Azkaban as well: in the final scene, there is plenty of disarming, and no "aiming" necessary. In Goblet of Fire, however, we are introduced to the stunning spell, and suddenly everything's a jet of light. The wand is a gun that shoots spells, and your aim had better be good or your spell won't work, because, well, it missed. Contrast this with successful fantasy books like MIstborn, The Magicians, Discworld, or even ASOIAF. The authors of all those novels put great effort into making sure their magic system was consistent and didn't present any dei ex machina. If Rowling attempted to do this, it did not show.
So what does make these books great? If you've been reading this so far, here's where it gets interesting. I saw Murder on the Orient Express recently, and it kicked off a Christie phase in which I devoured a number of her books in a short period of time. Something that caught my eye was that in one of the novels, there was a character named "Hermione". I googled "JK Rowling Agatha Christie" to see if perhaps this was a known allusion, but no luck. I did, however, find one lonely google doc from 2004 in which a reader listed all the parallels between Rowling's and Christie's work. The full list can be found here, but these are what I found to be most interesting:
- In "Murder at the Vicarage", there is a character named Lestrange, described as a "mysterious woman with a pale beautiful face" and "something sinister about her". Mrs. Lestrange is married to a character named Lucius.
- In "Sleeping Murder", there is a couple named Lily and James. In a separate Miss Marple mystery, there is another engaged couple with the same names.
- In "Appointment with Death", a young girl with bright red hair is hypnotized and taken advantage of by a much stronger personality. Her name? Ginevra.
- There are multiple Christie novels, like "At Bertram's Hotel", featuring young men named "Ron"- in many of them, he is specified as having bright red hair.
- In "The Clocks", there is a cat named Arabella, whose owner has "about 14 cats" and is portrayed as an idiosyncratic older woman. Mrs. Figg, Harry's crazy cat lady neighbor, has the first name Arabella.
There are a number of other parallels, some more substantial than others. I don't allege that Rowling stole from Christie in any way, but it seems she may have been a fan, and that may have wound up influencing some of her choice in the Harry Potter series.
I began to consider this in the greater context of the Harry Potter series as a whole, and my various criticisms (and simultaneous great enjoyment) of it, and came to an abrupt conclusion: J. K. Rowling is not a great fantasy writer. She is a great mystery writer.
I've illustrated the standards by which fantasy series are commonly judged, and how Rowling falls short in many of those areas. However, when viewed through the lens of the mystery genre, each Harry Potter novel checks the boxes. Each novel includes some big mystery to be solved- what's in the third floor corridor that they're forbidden to enter? Who/what is petrifying students? Who and where is Sirius Black? Who put Harry's name into the Goblet of Fire, and why? Each of these novels presents us with various clues as the story unfolds, typically including a red herring. Each of these novels has a penultimate chapter in which all becomes clear, and a following chapter in which all the loose ends and sub-plots are neatly tied up, typically via facetime with Dumbledore. Leaving aside the greater plot of Voldemort's rise to power, what keeps these novels chugging along is a series of smaller mysteries that engage the reader's interest, keep her guessing, and ultimately reward her with the satisfaction of complete understanding. Rowling's novels are mystery novels with fantasy flavor, not the other way around. I believe she was a fan of Christie as a child, we know she was a fan of E. Nesbit, whom Christie also revered, she probably read a great deal of mystery novels, and this greatly influenced her writing style. As a side note, Rowling has a second series in-progress called the Cormoran Strike novels, which she writes under the name Robert Galbraithe. They follow private investigator Cormoran Strike as he solves a series of mysteries, and they are excellent.
Ultimately, this is how I wind up reconciling these two things: my love, and very high standards for, fantasy literature, and my simultaneous appreciation for the Potter novels. I will not deny that they did a lot for fantasy as a whole insofar as they may have encouraged a generation to pick up a real fantasy novel, but I will not place them on any lists of great fantasy literature. Are they some of the best mystery novels to come out of the last 100 years or so? You betcha.