Sunday, 14 June 2015

Review: 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' by J.K. Rowling

 The Dursleys were so mean and hideous that summer that all Harry Potter wanted was to get back to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he's packing his bags, Harry receives a warning from a strange, impish creature named Dobby who says that if Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts, disaster will strike.

And strike it does. For in Harry's second year at Hogwarts, fresh torments and horrors arise, including an outrageously stuck-up new professor, Gilderoy Lockheart, a spirit named Moaning Myrtle who haunts the girls' bathroom, and the unwanted attentions of Ron Weasley's younger sister, Ginny.

But each of these seem minor annoyances when the real trouble begins, and someone--or something--starts turning Hogwarts students to stone. Could it be Draco Malfoy, a more poisonous rival than ever? Could it possibly be Hagrid, whose mysterious past is finally told? Or could it be the one everyone at Hogwarts most suspects...Harry Potter himself?

I first read this book in 1999, when I was 10: it was a gift from my parents for having a good school report, since they knew I loved the first Harry Potter book to bits. In the years since then I read and re-read this book, along with its predecessor, too many times to count, and went to watch the film version at the cinema three times along with my equally Harry Potter-obsessed best friend. I pretty much view this entire series through a pair of unbreakable, bulletproof, rose-tinted glasses, and so, as with my review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, this review comes with a ‘Nostalgia Warning’ attached (and also a spoiler warning for those twelve people in the world who haven’t read the books or watched the films).

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets follows Harry and his best friends Ron and Hermione through their second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This second instalment in the Harry Potter series takes all the awesome ingredients of the first book – lessons in wizardry, broomstick sports, House rivalry, dangerous creatures, magic and mystery – and throws them into a cauldron (pewter, standard size 2), along with a whole bunch of newer, darker stuff, including anti-Mugglism (that’s a word, right?), blood feuds, mysterious attacks, and wizard politics, bubbling them up together to make a fun and exciting plot. We get to visit a few new settings at the start of the book – such as the dark and twisted Knockturn Alley, and of course the Weasleys’ delightfully hodge-podge home The Burrow – which is nice, and also some new characters, including Harry’s biggest fan Dobby the House-Elf, who is adorable.

In the tradition of the first book in the series, Chamber of Secrets continues to document Dumbledore’s astounding epic fails in the area of Child Protection. Something is loose in the halls of Hogwarts: students are being attacked and Petrified by this unknown terror, and rumours of the Chamber of Secrets abound. But it’s not the first time this has happened: fifty years ago someone else opened the Chamber of Secrets . . . and fifty years ago, a student actually died. But it’s business as usual at Hogwarts: both lessons and Quidditch continue as normal, and the faculty appear to make no attempt whatsoever to actually investigate the attacks. The one time that Harry, who has twice been found at the scene of an attack in its immediate aftermath, is hauled to the Headmaster’s office, he is subjected to Dumbledore’s version of a rigorous interrogation: that is, one question: “is there anything you wish to tell me?” If only Dumbledore had pressed Harry for more information – or if Dumbledore had only thought to interview the ghost of the girl who was killed fifty years ago, you know, the one that lives at Hogwarts, for Christ’s sake – then the whole thing might have been resolved much sooner and with less hassle. I’m not criticising so much as poking fun, but seriously – come on, Dumbledore!

On the upside, Chamber of Secrets is the first in the Harry Potter series to contain real elements of horror, and Rowling does an incredible job of balancing this with the novel’s light-hearted tone. For the first time we get a real sense of danger within the castle: the increasing frequency of attacks, the atmosphere of tension within the school, the palpable fear about the mysterious monster . . . not to mention the eerie disembodied voices, the bloody writing on the walls, and of course the sinister lair of murderous giant spiders. Needless to say, Chamber of Secrets is much darker than its predecessor. Of course it could be even darker; and of course the villains are somewhat cartoonish (Lockhart, the Dursleys, even Lucius Malfoy to some extent), but since it’s a children’s book with a twelve-year-old protagonist, I think I can forgive it.

I find it difficult to believe that this book used to be one of my least favourites of the Harry Potter series, along with Prisoner of Azkaban and The Half-Blood Prince. I’ll have to wait and see what I make of the others when I get to them; but re-reading Chamber of Secrets now, I think it’s superior to the first book in many ways, not to mention different, focusing as it does on horror rather than mystery. I love Rowling’s trademark dry humour, and as with the first book, this along with her light-hearted tone makes Chamber of Secrets a joy to read.



  1. I've recently been re-reading these as well and the nostalgia is hard to shake. This and the first book were actually more perfect than I remembered - Rowling was a pretty brilliant storyteller right off the bat. This book does a good job of moving on from book one and starting to introduce more and more of the series storyline. I also noticed this time around that the books are sort of awesome in how they "age up" with it's characters and readers. As you mention the villains here are still pretty cartoonish but the threat and complexity ratchet up with each book. So Cool!

  2. Aww, you're re-reading them, too? :) I finished this one a couple of weeks ago and am now about 70% through with Prisoner of Azkaban but I'm saving my reviews for July because I'm participating in Harry Potter Month (Micheline at Lunar Rainbows is hosting it, if you'd like to check it out: