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July 22, 2007

Megan McArdle Rips JK Rowling

Ouch, baby, very ouch. I feel like I have to links this because people will think I swiped from her. Not so.

She explains very neatly why I can't get into Pottermania:

There are two ways, I think, that one can present magic: as something that can be done, but only at a price; or as a mysterious force that is poorly understood. So in Orson Scott Card's Hart's Hope, women who perform magic must pay the price in blood, their own or that of others.

Those prices provide the scarcity needed to drive the plot forward. In the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, magical power has no obvious cost. But we don't need to understand the costs of magic, because the main characters can't perform it. ...

But there have to be generally accepted rules.... if your characters will be using magic, they must do so by some generally believable system.

Yet in the Potter books, the costs and limits are too often arbitrary.
A patronus charm, for example, is awfully difficult - until Rowling wants a stirring scene in which Harry pulls together an intrepid band of students to Fight the Power, whereupon it becomes simple enough to be taught by an inexperienced fifteen year old. Rowling can only do this because it's thoroughly unclear how magic power is acquired. It seems hard to credit academic labour, when spells are one or two words; and anyway, if that were the determinant, Hermione Granger would be a better wizard than Harry. But if it's something akin to athletic skill, why is it taught at rows of desks? And why aren't students worn out after practicing spells?

The low opportunity cost attached to magic spills over into the thoroughly unbelievable wizard economy. Why are the Weasleys poor? Why would any wizard be?

...

The answer, as with so much of JK Rowling's work, seems to be "she didn't think it through". The details are the great charm of Rowling's books, and the reason that I have pre-ordered my copy of the seventh novel: the owl grams, the talking portraits, the Weasley twins' magic tricks. But she seems to pay no attention at all to the big picture, so all the details clash madly with each other. It's the same reason she writes herself into plot holes that have to be resolved by making characters behave in inexplicable ways.

She also gets at something I forgot to mention in my review: the fact that in these "mysteries," virtually all of the answers to the mystery are known to the allies, friends, and family of the hero -- in fact, sometimes everyone except Harry seems to be in on the Big Secret -- but are for some bizarre reason these vital facts withheld from him until appropriately late in the book. Usually with the explanation "I didn't want to worry you."

Well, you know, when the world's greatest evil undead archmage has a vow of vengeance against one, maybe a bit of worry is actually appropriate, and Dumbledore, Sirius, and the rest of the gang might want to consider that it's a bit nonsensical to deny Harry key information (sometimes necessary to saving his life) in order "to protect him."

On the other hand... A very positive review of the new book here, spoiler free for the first part, then come the spoilers.


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posted by Ace at 02:03 AM

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