I don't give out five star ratings very often. In my view a book has to be simply excellent to warrant it - it has to be a book that I return to again and again. In my opinion, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone falls into this category. It isn't as though it's a perfect book - the writing is pretty ropey at times and the basic story is not dissimilar to others I have read - but it is a warm, entertaining, and very inventive read.
Who doesn't know the story by now? Harry Potter is on the cusp of his eleventh birthday, living with the beastly Dursleys, when he is visited by Rubeus Hagrid who informs Harry that he is a wizard. From here Harry goes to Hogwarts, School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He finds out that he is famous, thanks to events that occurred when he was just a child and managed to defeat Voldemort (or He Who Must Not Be Named). In this first tale about Harry, we are swept into the world of wizardry and straight into a first-class mystery about the object being guarded by a three-headed dog...
So why do I love this book so much? Well, I can tell you why I don't love it! The plot is straight out of other books - who hasn't read about the orphan child who discovers hidden powers, and learns to use them in order to defeat evil? When have we not met a kindly elderly gentleman with long white hair and rather formidable magic skills? I can name a number of authors who have written about similar ideas, especially in the field of fantasy. Rowling is writing nothing original here, in terms of plot.
The reason why I was so taken by this lovely debut novel is the 'surroundings' to the plot. The world of Hogwarts and the fantastic little twists on familiar items that Rowling adds in are simply superb. Right from the first time we hear about chocolate frogs that can actually jump, and portraits which the subjects sometimes leave, I was hooked and felt that every little detail of the world was delightful.
Rowling also writes with great humour and an appreciation for the minds of children, and what would appeal to them. My favourite moment in this respect is when Harry and Ron are being held by the Devil's Weed and Hermione is fretting about not having wood for a fire when Ron yells "Have you gone mad? Are you a witch or not?" The relationship between the three main characters is written beautifully, from the way they defend each other to the bickering that breaks out amongst them.
In fact, all of the characters are very solid - it is easy to see this when people who have read the series pick out different favourites! I enjoyed the sarcasm and quiet menace of Snape, and was keen to find out more about the reasons why he hates Harry so much. McGonagall reminds me of my old English teacher (stern, but with a heart of gold underneath).
The writing is reminiscent of both Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. From the former, Rowling cherrypicks ideas from her various school stories (e.g. Malory Towers - castle-like school on a cliff, with four Houses, travel by train to get there). From the latter, she uses the sheer inventiveness and wit of taking common items or ideas and turning them on their heads. I have no objections to the hint of plagiarism since I love both authors and hence have taken this series to my heart as well.
Extremely good fun and a great way to encourage younger readers. Highly recommended.