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Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Silkworm: Part One

The Silkworm is the second novel by Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, following The Cuckoo’s Calling which I have covered on this blog in a very half-arsed sort of way. Part One can be found HERE. It’s a rather incoherent mess, but then, so was the book, so I suppose that works out. Hopefully this coverage will be rather better, and hopefully so will the book.

To summarise very briefly, Cuckoo followed a one-legged ex-military private detective named Cormoran Strike and his new female receptionist/sidekick Robin Ellacott as they investigated the possible murder/apparent suicide of a famous fashion model. In between a lot of unnecessary racism and misogyny, Strike managed to really, really get on my nerves, and he and Robin danced around one another endlessly and tediously without ever resolving it even though they had zero chemistry, but despite far too many NPCs they managed to solve the case and find out that the murderer was the guy who hired Strike to investigate in the first place (and no, this was not explained), whereupon Strike went and beat him up using his own false leg as a weapon. There were some good bits buried in the mess, but it wasn’t a very good book.

But I’m a masochist, so here’s the sequel. It’s not helpfully split into parts this time so each post will contain as many chapters as I can be arsed to do. There are 50 chapters but most of them are only about three pages long. As is the tradition, let’s start with the official synopsis from “Robert Galbraith”‘s website:

“A compulsively readable crime novel with twists at every turn, The Silkworm is the second in the highly acclaimed series featuring Cormoran Strike and his determined young assistant Robin Ellacott.

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, she just thinks he has gone off by himself for a few days – as he has done before – and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realises. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were published it would ruin lives – so there are a lot of people who might want to silence him.

And when Quine is found brutally murdered in bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any he has encountered before…”

Well, that sounds suitably melodramatic and manly and thrilling, doesn’t it. This is going to be a blind spork this time, so I don’t know if it will live up to this description…  but based on previous experience of Rowling’s work, I suspect not. And as I said at the end of Cuckoo, if this turns out to be her thinly-veiled whining about how people were so unforgiving of the way she shamelessly and often cruelly butchered her acquaintances to fuel some of her worst characters, I’m going to throw the book out of the window and abandon this.

I have no idea why this is called The Silkworm, by the way. I can’t see it being someone’s nickname as the first book’s title was, and the pretentious poem at the start doesn’t involve the word, as you can see:

“…blood and vengeance the scene, death the story,
a sword imbrued with blood, the pen that writes,
and the poet a terrible buskined tragical fellow,
with a wreath about his head of burning match instead of bays.
– The Noble Spanish Soldier, Thomas Dekker.”

Yeah, I have no idea either. But it seems like this book’s going to be heavy on the angst. Goody. Well, here we go…


Last time we had a short prologue direct from a crime scene from the point of view of a random policeman who never appeared again. This time we jump straight into Chapter One with Strike himself, on the phone to someone who’s annoyed at being woken up very early, demanding to meet him at a café and refusing to explain why. No, Strike, my major issue with you all last book was that you never explained anything to anyone including the readers, you are not off to a good start. Finishing his phone call, he walks through London to said café and we get some nice descriptions of the area, interrupted for Strike to take a piss in someone’s doorway since apparently the café has no toilet and nothing else is open so early.

Rowling. One, that’s illegal. Two, that’s disgusting. Three, it’s a legal requirement for cafés and restaurants in the UK to provide toilets for customers, which took me exactly 47 seconds on Google to verify. Four, even if none of those things were true, I don’t need to read about your protagonist urinating. (I assume this is meant to parallel the equally fucked up scene at the beginning of the first book, when Robin nearly tripped down the stairs and Strike grabbed her by the breast to pull her back. I don’t know what’s wrong with Rowling but I hope it’s not contagious.)

Strike orders and eats his unnecessarily detailed breakfast, and we get the obligatory description of him as he eats. He gets a much more detailed description than most Rowling characters, actually; he’s a big guy (though never described as fat because only evil people are fat, remember?) with dark curly hair that’s starting to recede, dark eyes, a broad nose and heavy brows. I’m including this for you because I strongly suspect when Robin shows up she won’t get a description at all beyond perhaps hair colour.

The person he was talking to on the phone shows up, and turns out to be a journalist named Culpepper. He has ‘a choirboy’s complexion’, whatever that means, and ‘a strange asymmetry… stopped him being girlishly handsome.’ That makes no sense at all and I’ve no idea what he looks like, unlike Strike. I want to comment on the ‘girlishly handsome’ thing but I honestly don’t know what to say, I can’t work out if she’s trying to imply that he’s gay, noncis gender, metrosexual, bishounen or what. I want to know what the strange asymmetry is too, because all I can imagine are Picasso portraits from after he started going nuts.

They bicker a bit and then Strike hands over a load of papers; the rambling explanation goes on for a couple of pages but the gist of it is that the ‘shaking, besotted, bitter‘ PA/mistress of a lord has realised he’s not going to marry her and so has handed Strike a copy of a lot of paperwork she was doing to help this lord dodge out of paying his taxes, while crying and being all silly and hysterical and emotional of course, and Strike is now passing this to his journalist friend as long as he keeps the source private.

The ‘woman scorned’ trope is getting very old and tired now, seriously, writers. Stop it. Also I can’t be bothered to spend all my time on Google verifying crap but I do believe it’s illegal to hand someone else’s tax information to anyone except that person’s accountant/solicitor/bank or the tax office unless it’s demanded under some sort of legal warrant. I don’t think private investigators are meant to pass information to the press either. And I don’t think we’re ever going to get an explanation for why the woman went through Strike instead of just contacting the newspapers directly. But since none of this has anything to do with the main plot as far as I can tell, and seems to just be here so Rowling can reference the journalistic phone hacking scandal and make digs at peers not paying expenses and taxes, I’m not going to dwell on it any further.

Chapter One, everyone. Strike has a piss and talks a load of bollocks with a weird-looking journalist about something totally irrelevant, and the first female character to feature is portrayed very negatively. I really hope there’s going to be a plot soon.


In Chapter Two Strike gets on the Tube to go home, which is certainly an improvement on last book when he insisted on walking everywhere despite that being really bloody stupid if you live in London and despite him being in pain all the time from being too much of a moron to go and get his false leg fitted properly. He angsts a bit about his father – for the benefit of those who zoned out last book, Strike’s the illegitimate son of some famous rock star who he’s only met twice, and this backstory has so far not been relevant or interesting – then gets off the Tube and goes to his office, and we learn that he’s actually renting the flat above it now instead of just sleeping in there like last book. After whining about how small the flat is and how tired he is, he takes a nap before his first client of the day is due.

He’s woken up when said client arrives, since he can’t set an alarm for himself like a grownup, by his assistant Robin. Hi Robin. Please try to become an actual character this time, you were pretty close last book and then got sidelined. And I was completely right about her description, she’s just tall and strawberry-blonde. They go downstairs to the office, where the client – a William Baker – is waiting for them, along with a woman who introduces herself as Leonora Quine, angel of the plot. William Baker proceeds to act like an arse, being sexist towards Robin and trying to order Strike around, so Strike tells Robin to sort out his bill and kicks him out. I assume he’s probably going to reappear later.

And that’s it. I did say these were short chapters.


The whole of Chapter Three consists of his conversation with Leonora, who despite her name and the fact that she has a daughter called Orlando is white and British. I don’t know why Rowling’s so opposed to common names in her books, where are all the Joes and Daves? Anyway, Leonora explains that her husband Owen, a writer, has been missing for ten days now but he’s not really missing because he often fucks off for days at a time, she’s certain he’s at a writer’s retreat his publisher Christian Fisher told him about but nobody will give her the address or take her phone calls and she really needs to get hold of her husband because of reasons. She’s quite calm and accepting of the fact that nobody’s going to talk to her and says Strike, as a man, is much more likely to get someone to listen to him. That’s a terrible thing to say, but I think I’m going to like her. Leonora speaks with bad grammar for no real reason, but we’re mercifully spared any attempt to reproduce her West Country accent, so hopefully Rowling’s learned her lesson about that. She’s also going grey and wearing very old-fashioned clothes, which clearly means we’re not meant to like her. Fuck that.

She goes on to mention rather unconcernedly that weird stuff has been happening since Owen left, there’s been dog shit put through their letterbox a couple of times (disappointingly Strike doesn’t ask just how she knows it’s dog) and a ‘dumpy red-haired woman’ (Molly Weasley?) she doesn’t know came to the door and asked her to tell Owen that Angela had died, but she doesn’t know who Angela is either, and she’s been followed a few times by a dark girl with round shoulders. And we learn that Owen fucked off after a row with his agent, Liz, who said his latest book can’t be published. He sounds like a nice totally not childishly temperamental bloke who is absolutely not going to turn out to have been involved in anything dodgy.

Robin makes a token one-sentence appearance to bring them tea. Nice. Real nice.

Strike could ask for more details about any of this, but he doesn’t. Instead he tells her that his services aren’t cheap. Yes, Strike, we know, private investigators aren’t cheap, so why the hell do you never have any money? Anyway, Leonora says Agent Liz will pay since it’s her fault Owen’s gone off in a sulk, and then says she has to leave because of her daughter. Strike has been half asleep throughout this conversation, by the way, but rallies enough to take contact details and ask for a photo, which Leonora says he doesn’t need because all he has to do is call Publisher Fisher and ask where the fuck Owen is. She swans off, thanking Robin for the tea on the way out, and ends the chapter.

This all feels like Rowling’s trying to set up a scenario where the reader is left wondering which of the three cases we’ve seen is going to provide the plot and she’s just forgotten that there’s a synopsis on the back cover…


Strike opens Chapter Four by going out into the main office and flopping down on his excessively described sofa, and provides us with the rest of Robin’s description, surprisingly. She’s curvaceous, she has a clear, brilliant complexion (complexion seems to be Rowling’s new favourite word), and she has bright blue-grey eyes. Good to know, I spent an entire book not knowing anything about her except that she was blonde. Strike talks to her a bit about the cheating lord from the first chapter, then falls asleep complete with snoring and drooling, leaving Robin to answer the phone like a good little office girly.

It turns out to be her fiancé Matthew, who appeared for exactly one and a half pages of being a shit in the first book and seems set to continue the trend. Why he’s calling the office and not Robin’s mobile, I don’t know. He’s calling to reschedule something – turns out Robin has spent literally eight months (the length of time between last book and this) trying to arrange for herself, Matthew and Strike to meet for a drink and both men have constantly made excuses to cancel because apparently they hate each other even though they have never actually met. Because they’re both really bloody childish and refuse to make any kind of effort over something small and simple that she clearly really wants to happen and that wouldn’t cost either of them anything.

Between each sentence of what is apparently a very long slow-paced phone call, Robin’s thoughts explain that Matthew has taken Strike’s excuses to mean that Strike thinks he’s too good to meet him, that Matthew looks down on Strike for being poor and thinks Robin could do better somewhere else, that Matthew doesn’t like not being an expert on topics concerning Strike like his military background (reading between the lines, Matthew doesn’t like Robin never shutting up about how awesome Strike is), and Matthew doesn’t like that Strike is apparently famous for solving the murder case last book.

Oh God not more stupid inexplicable fame, please. Think of every solved murder case you’ve ever heard about on the news. Now name a single person involved in catching said murderers.

Yeah, I can’t name any either. Nobody knows shit like this. Policemen don’t earn national fame by catching murderers. Damnit, Rowling.

Matthew also doesn’t like that Strike bought Robin a really clingy revealing designer dress after the events of the last book. Well, honestly, I can see his point there, that’s not exactly a ‘friendship’ present.

Anyway, he’s making excuses to cancel their meeting again, and like a good little doormat Robin says it’s fine and she’ll see him later and hangs up to stare at Strike sleeping and think to herself that even though it’s been Strike making excuses far more often, and on one occasion just not bothering to turn up, it’s totally just Matthew making this so difficult and why can’t he like the guy she clearly hasn’t shut up about for months.

Strike wakes up and she asks if they can reschedule to the day Matthew suggested. He’s far too tired to pay attention to something as unimportant and mundane as meeting his friend’s fiancé, a meeting the poor girl is clearly desperate to arrange since she really wants them to like each other, and acts as though he can’t understand what she’s talking about before asking her to call Publisher Fisher for him since he’s sooooo tired. Since he neglected to find out which publishing firm Fisher works for she’ll need to track him down first. In the meantime, he’s going back to bed.

He leaves before she can ask him yet again to stop being a dick and just meet her fiancé for one fucking drink, and she pouts while thinking about how she hasn’t told him that she and Matthew have set a wedding date and are making plans, nor has she told Matthew that she wants to invite Strike, and that’s how the chapter ends. Bye plot, it was nice to get a fleeting glimpse of you last chapter.

Yes, we have spent an entire chapter focusing entirely on Robin’s man troubles, and said troubles are one part her not shutting up about her obvious crush and two parts the men in her life being arseholes. Because Robin is a female main character and therefore can only be defined in terms of her relationship with male characters. And her sole contribution to the plot so far has been to make the tea.

Damnit. I’m done for today. (I fucking hate love triangles. Particularly ones where none of the characters will acknowledge the situation even to themselves and where all of them are honestly just bad people who do not deserve relationships.)

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Posted by on March 25, 2015 in loten

 

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RIP Sir Terry Pratchett

The world lost a giant of an author this afternoon. Knight, writer, artist, journalist, philosopher, all around good man. He campaigned on behalf of a lot of charities, including the Alzheimer’s Association and the Orangutan Foundation, and always had a lot of time for his fans in a way very few authors do. His books, particularly the Discworld series, have been a huge part of my life since before I hit double digits and helped to make sense of the world. And to make fun of it, too.

If you own any of his books, start re-reading them, preferably in the company of a cat and a good drink.

If you don’t, then get thee to a library or a bookstore and start reading.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2015 in loten

 

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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Chapter Six

No warnings this chapter, unless you’re triggered by copious amounts of fail, in which case this is not the series for you. It’s another very long one…


 Chapter Six: The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters

PS6

Why yes, the disturbing smile is indeed foreshadowing for the rest of the book.
(The frog’s or Dumbledore’s? You decide!)

Somehow both Harry and the Dursleys have made it back to Privet Drive despite the chaos of the previous chapter and no indication of how they did so, and we open with Harry complaining that his last month at home isn’t fun because his traumatised cousin is too scared to stay in the same room as him and his ‘half-terrified, half-furious’ aunt and uncle pretend he isn’t there. This is apparently depressing; obviously our hero really preferred it when he was being bullied and abused.

He allegedly spends his time reading his school books (if this is true it will be the only time throughout his school career that he ever bothers, though at this point we don’t know that yet; discounting that, it seems a normal reaction) in the company of his new owl, who he names Hedwig after someone mentioned in his history textbook. Proving that he should absolutely not be allowed to have any sort of pet, she keeps bringing back dead mice because apparently Rowling doesn’t know you’re meant to feed your pets yourself; that said, at least it means he’s letting her fly around instead of sitting in her cage all the time. I don’t know why Hedwig is bringing mice back, though, since owls swallow their prey as soon as they catch it unless they have nestlings to raise. Maybe she thinks Harry’s an incompetent owl chick. We’re told Petunia won’t come into Harry’s room to clean it any more – wait, she cleans up after him? Yet another cross through the poor-abused-Cinderella theory – which means Harry gets the fun job of clearing up owl shit and small pellets of bones and fur. I hope he likes the stink of half-digested mouse.

On the last day of August he realises that he hasn’t actually bothered to plan how he’s going to get to school, so with a few hours’ notice he goes to speak to the Dursleys. Not to ask them about anything, you understand, just to speak to them. Dudley screams and runs out of the room; isn’t post-traumatic stress funny? Petunia may as well not be in this scene since she’s not permitted to speak; Harry ignores her completely and sort-of-asks Vernon to take him to King’s Cross tomorrow morning. Without saying please or otherwise conceding that this is a big favour they have no reason to want to pay. He does at least say thank you when Vernon grunts in answer. Then Vernon makes a brilliant point:

“Funny way to get to a wizards’ school, the train. Magic carpets all got punctures, have they?”

Harry doesn’t answer this, because there is no answer. The school train makes no fucking sense on any level, as we’ll be discussing throughout this post. Vernon follows up with another sensible point, asking just where this school is, and Harry realises he doesn’t know. He’s had an entire month to think about going to magic school and it’s only now that it occurs to him that he hasn’t got a clue where it is.

Now, if someone showed up and told you that you were going to a special school but neglected to give you an address or any sort of evidence of its existence beyond a handwritten letter, wouldn’t you be the tiniest bit fucking suspicious? Yes, you would, because you are smarter than Harry Potter. There are rotten vegetables smarter than Harry Potter.

Anyway, he looks at his train ticket and reports that he just has to take the train from platform nine and three-quarters at eleven o’clock the next morning. (A normal child would have assumed this was some sort of typo or prank, but not our hero.) The Dursleys stare at him, tell him not to talk rubbish and then tell him that he’s barking mad. We’ll see in a later book that Petunia would have known about the platform already and been right to the entrance to it with her sister, but at this point Rowling hadn’t planned that part. In any case the Dursleys have bigger problems to worry about and give no fucks, and Vernon agrees to take Harry to King’s Cross since they’re going to London tomorrow anyway so Dudley can have his tail surgically removed. (This is a seriously implausible coincidence, honestly, and a lazy contrivance on Rowling’s part; one would think they’d have tried to deal with that sooner, and Harry would apparently have been seriously screwed if they hadn’t chosen a surgeon in London and gotten an appointment that specific day…)

I wonder what they told the various doctors they’d have to have seen to arrange this. And why it didn’t make the news. Because seriously, a kid with an actual tail would hit the headlines, feature in several medical papers, and would probably end up starring in a documentary.

Harry wakes up at five the next morning, too excited to sleep. Well done, Harry, a normal emotional reaction, those are very rare coming from you. Try to keep it up. They leave two hours later, after Petunia has had to persuade poor Dudley to get into the car with Harry, and arrive at King’s Cross at half past ten. Three and a half hours from Surrey to London is about right, though it does mean they were very very lucky with rush-hour traffic on the M25. Vernon helps Harry get his stuff into the station, which is a good idea because the car park at King’s Cross is actually across a quite busy road from the station itself (we’ll have quite a bit more to say on this in the next book, when we eventually get there). Vernon then points to platforms nine and ten, observes that they don’t seem to have built Harry’s platform yet, laughs and fucks off – if this was chapter one this would be horrible, but given everything the man’s been through in the last five chapters it’s completely understandable. Besides, as I mentioned previously, Petunia knows he’ll be fine once he figures it out (though Rowling surely didn’t know that at the time of writing).

Harry apparently manages to see his relatives drive away laughing, meaning that he’s developed X-ray vision and can see through several walls and across the road to the car. In case you hadn’t realised yet, King’s Cross was an extremely poor choice of station to set this in. Apart from anything else, in order to access the part of the station where the platforms are, you need to go through a ticket barrier (which is why the mock-platform where everyone takes photos, and the attached gift shop, is actually in a different area of the station on a different wall). Either wizards are capable of creating a parchment ticket that will fool a Muggle ticket barrier even though they can’t possibly know how those work, or they insist that every single student buys a useless Muggle train ticket just to access the damned train. And why do they have tickets for the Hogwarts train anyway? It’s not as if there’s a ticket inspector and the only place it goes is Hogwarts.

Disregarding this, Harry is somehow now on the platforms, wandering aimlessly around and starting to panic. He stops a guard but doesn’t dare ask about the clearly imaginary platform; he asks about trains to Hogwarts, but he can’t tell the guard what part of the country it’s in, so this doesn’t work. Next he tries asking for the eleven o’clock train, but apparently there isn’t one. I find this unlikely, since there were eleven platforms back then (there are twelve now) and it’s one of the biggest and busiest stations in the country; chances are there will be at least one train leaving at eleven. There also don’t seem to be any other Hogwarts students in view.

I like this bit. Harry’s trying to work things out for himself and trying to find answers, and he’s being surprisingly logical about it. But let’s stop a minute to talk about King’s Cross Station in more detail…


It’s a big station in the heart of London, in one of the busiest areas, and as mentioned had eleven platforms in the 90s. It is directly across the road from St Pancras Station, which is probably the biggest train station in Britain and is a massive international hub. King’s Cross and St Pancras share a single Underground station which is a hub for six lines. As mentioned before, the car park is across another road, because it’s a crowded part of the city and space is pretty limited. At any given time of the day or night, this area is pretty busy; at mid-morning it’s absolutely mobbed. There is no quiet space for people to arrive by magic unnoticed.

At a very conservative estimate, there are about 150-200 students at Hogwarts, and if the population was worked out realistically then it’s probably a lot more. If each single student or group of siblings is only accompanied by one adult and no other family, that’s still 300 people or so all converging on the station at once and trying to get to one platform. This is logistically very, very stupid. And would also be painfully obvious, since all these kids are hauling old fashioned trunks and half of them have owls or cats with them and as we’ll see in later books most wizards have no idea how to wear inconspicuous Muggle clothing. Yet nobody takes any notice of Harry with his trunk and his owl, nor does he see anyone else clearly on their way to Hogwarts at this point.

It doesn’t make any sense for Hogwarts to have a train anyway. If parents can get their children to London from all over the UK, they can get them directly to the school gates, and the Muggleborns can get to the nearest Muggle station and then maybe Hogwarts could have a small line from there to Hogsmeade. I always thought that about Severus and Lily, as one of the few examples where we have a location; they lived in the north of England, so they would have had to travel a good four or five hours south into central London only to then travel back north again, which seems annoying and pointless and probably expensive. Particularly since for most of Hogwarts’ existence there were no cars, and it wasn’t until around the 1980s that it started to become normal for most families to own a car.

In addition, the first steam train running on rails was invented in 1803, and it didn’t become a viable means of passenger travel until at least 1825 (and it would have been slow as hell and taken a couple of days to get from London to Scotland), and King’s Cross Station didn’t open until 1852. So what did the school do before then, why the hell did they think a steam train was a better idea, and why has nobody in the almost two hundred years since thought of a smarter option? I can see that they might have wanted to try the train when it was first invented, because it was a really fucking huge deal and everyone in the developed world went nuts for trains because nothing like it had ever existed before, and even wizards might have wanted some of this action, but it can’t have taken them long to realise that literally any other means of transport except possibly pony trekking would be more sensible.

Besides, if they can operate a steam train and apparently think it’s better than a magical alternative, why is there no other machinery? Aside from maybe Gringotts’ inexplicable rollercoaster, which seems to work by being tapped by a goblin rather than any sort of mechanism?

So really we’re forced to two conclusions here. One is that Platform Nine and Three-Quarters is not in King’s Cross at all, the entrance must be a teleporter to somewhere that makes marginally more sense. And two is that Rowling wanted her characters to travel by train to boarding school because that’s an established trope in the school stories that her generation (and ours) read growing up, and she was so determined to do it that she never paused to realise IT MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE. Or she did realise it and just gave no fucks, which given the state of the worldbuilding in this entire series is very plausible.

While we’re on the subject of train nonsense, there’s one more point I’d like to make before we thankfully abandon the subject until next book. It’s fun with maths time again!

The Hogwarts Express leaves London at 11 a.m. and arrives in Hogsmeade… eventually. We’re not actually told what time, but it must be about an hour or so before the evening meal, to allow for the students to get there and the newbies to be sorted into their houses before they settle down to the start of term feast. So let’s say somewhere between 5 and 7 p.m., meaning a travel time of 6 to 8 hours. We don’t know exactly where Hogwarts is, of course, but let’s take one of the most northerly major Scottish stations as a rough reference – Inverness. (There’s another line going further north from Inverness to Thurso, but based on the weather we see in the books, Hogwarts isn’t that far north.)

A quick Google search tells me the average speed of a passenger steam train is about 60 to 85 miles an hour. We don’t know the exact route the train takes either; the distance from London to Inverness as the crow flies is 550 miles, which would take about 9 hours, so given that they can’t go in a straight line it’s probably at least 10 hours and maybe longer. So the kids actually wouldn’t arrive until at least 9 p.m., and then have to travel to the castle and go through the sorting ceremony before they can eat and go to bed. That’s fine for most of the older students, but given that five years out of seven the first lesson is going to be at 9 the next morning it’s a hell of a shock to the system for the younger ones.

We also don’t know how many carriages this train is pulling, but there seem to be enough for every single little clique of students to have their own compartment and for many of the loners to have a compartment to themselves, plus extra space for toilets, luggage storage and the random sweet trolley we’ll see shortly. The more carriages you add, the slower the train will move.

Harry does look out of the windows when he’s on the train, but it’s certainly never mentioned that they’re going past or through Muggle places, only random trees and fields, and you’d seriously struggle to get a railway laid from London to the Scottish Highlands that doesn’t go through any other settlement or pass under or over a motorway. Particularly one that is apparently entirely separate from the actual railway network. It certainly wouldn’t be a direct enough line to get all the way to Hogwarts in about six hours.

For comparison, modern British trains travel at anywhere between 60 and 120 miles an hour depending on how many stops they make and the specific line they’re on; London to Inverness takes 8 hours, which would probably come down to 7 if it ran directly without stopping as the Hogwarts train does. So if Rowling bothered to do any research on this, she has just assumed that steam trains are as fast as modern trains.

Witches and wizards in the Potterverse can teleport. In fact they have four separate ways of teleporting (Apparition, Portkeys, Floo powder and phoenix superpowers), and two means of flying by magical objects (brooms and flying carpets, although the latter is illegal in wizarding Britain), and at least three species of flying animal able to carry passengers (Thestrals, hippogryphs, and more ordinary winged horses), and above a certain power level it’s possible to fly entirely of your own accord either directly or by being an Animagus with a winged form. They also have a huge magic teleporting bus that seems to work by yet another method. And as a last resort many wizards can drive, although I certainly wouldn’t trust any of them behind the wheel of a car.

Given all these alternatives, who the fuck would think that a slow steam train from a station that’s a logistical nightmare is the best option to get these kids to school?


Meanwhile, back with what passes for the plot, Harry is panicking after the guard gets tired of stupid questions and walks off. It’s ten to eleven and he doesn’t know how to get to the platform that he’s convinced exists despite all evidence to the contrary and he doesn’t know what to do now, maybe he should start poking the wall with his wand to see if it works the way the entrance to Diagon Alley does? This is actually a very good reaction, he’s showing actual intelligence and logic despite panicking. So naturally Rowling immediately spoils it by handing him the solution on a plate after he panics for just two short paragraphs. A group of people walk past him and he hears one of them mention that the station is packed with Muggles. Hey, a wizard word! They must be wizards! He looks around and yes, they have an owl with them too, so he follows them. This too is nicely reasoned and on its own this scene works well, but as part of seven bloody books where Harry gets answers conveniently handed to him in ever more implausible ways, it’s just tiresome.

The people he’s following are ‘a plump woman’ and a large group of children, all with red hair because Rowling doesn’t know how genetics work and has forgotten that red hair is a double recessive allele. Meet Molly Weasley, everyone – she’s described as ‘the plump woman’ three times in a single page, but since she’s on Team Harry she at least escapes being compared to various animals. Molly’s an interesting character – she’s pretty terrible as described in the books, but for some reason I’ve built up a headcanon version of her where she’s actually pretty cool, and I’m not entirely sure why.

The woman stops and has a helpfully loud and detailed discussion with her children about what number the platform is. Secrecy, what secrecy? Regardless of Molly’s various issues, at no point in the series does she come across as stupid, so I’m guessing here that she’s spotted Harry following them and recognises him and knows damned well that he hasn’t got a clue about these things. Most of this chapter is set up absolutely perfectly to ensure that Harry befriends the Weasley family, and it’s so perfectly done that it’s tempting to think perhaps someone – maybe Dumbles, maybe someone else – planned the whole thing. (Upon reflection it’s not really that surprising that this fandom ended up having so many conspiracy-theorist fanfics…)

There is one girl in this family (the youngest, Ginny), and her dialogue makes her sound about four or five years old. Which is worrying, because she’s going to come to Hogwarts next book, so she’s actually ten. As Harry watches, the woman sends the eldest boy, Percy, onto the platform – but people walk in the way, and he doesn’t see how the boy does it. Next she sends a pair of twin boys, Fred and George, after a bit involving them pretending she’s got them muddled up, which is actually quite a nice touch and sounds like an old joke worn very thin. Though if you read it another way it could also be suggesting it’s a genuine mistake on her part, which is unlikely given that the twins are around thirteen or so. In any case, enjoy what you see, because sooner or later the twins are going to be revealed as absolutely terrible people whose popularity amongst fans is utterly bewildering.

Harry still can’t see just how the boys are managing to vanish into the wall between the two platforms, so he walks up to them and gets their attention. Molly greets him and recognises that he’s a newbie, and introduces her final son as another newbie – Ron. Harry admits he doesn’t know how to get onto the platform, which Molly treats as perfectly understandable – her voice when she speaks to Harry is described invariably as ‘kind’; her voice when speaking to any other character gets no description at all – and she explains that you literally just walk through the wall, adding that he should do it at a run if he’s nervous.

A total stranger has just told Harry to charge head first into a brick wall. To get to a platform that doesn’t seem to exist, in order to go to a magic school that he doesn’t know the location of. And he does it. Not only that, but while he’s running towards the wall he’s telling himself that it’s not going to work and he’s just going to crash, yet he doesn’t slow down or stop or even flinch and in fact he closes his eyes so he won’t see if it works or not.

Of course, it does work, and when he opens his eyes he’s on a platform absolutely rammed with families – somehow he didn’t run straight into any of them – and there’s a big shiny nonsensical bright red steam train. The description of the atmosphere is nice though, it’s really busy and everyone’s talking to one another and the owls are complaining and cats are wandering around loose.

Don’t ask how the barrier works, by the way. Harry certainly never does, and it never gets explained. (Let us also note that while we’re given at least a modicum of explanation how to get from King’s Cross to the platform, we’re never told anything at all about how one might get back… again, more on that next book.)

He drags his heavy trunk and caged owl along the platform until he finds an implausibly empty compartment, passing enough people that we get two random snippets of conversation – a boy named Neville is with his grandmother and has lost his toad, and a boy named Lee who has dreadlocks and therefore may potentially be our first non-white character has something creepy and hairy in a box.

Having found his empty seat, Harry struggles to get his heavy luggage onto the train, and the twins spot him and come over to help. This is very out of character for Fred and George. Once they’ve dragged Harry’s trunk on board he thanks them and conveniently pushes his hair out of his eyes, letting them see the magical pony-scar. Despite having only been maybe two years old when Voldy snuffed it, the twins too know exactly what that is and what it means, and start fanboying at him until their mother calls them back to the platform to say goodbye and Harry sits down to eavesdrop.

Molly tries to clean something off Ron’s face, and the twins mock him for it. Percy shows up in his uniform, with a prefect’s badge, and the twins mock him for it. Molly then wastes her breath telling the twins to behave themselves, and while they give her cheek about it they make fun of Ron again. They then tell the family that the boy they helped is Harry Potter, omg, and for some reason Molly is surprised by this even though she knew James and Lily pretty well and should have recognised their son a mile off even without the special scar of specialness (given his supposed resemblance to James). Ginny promptly starts fangirling, hopping up and down and begging to be allowed to go onto the train and look at him, which when you know what happens in later books is actually a really fucking creepy reaction. Molly tells her Harry’s not a zoo exhibit – the wizarding world has zoos? – and asks the twins how they know, and they say they saw the scar that they shouldn’t know anything about. Molly seems sympathetic, and warns the twins sternly not to hassle Harry over it, forbidding them to do anything stupid like ask him what You-Know-Who looks like. That’s nice of her.

Ginny starts crying when they get on the train without her. This is probably an odd reaction to most people, but like most pureblood kids the Weasleys are homeschooled and for her entire life she’s had at least one brother at home with her; now she’s got most of a year on her own for the first time. It’s strange because if you follow this line of thought she and Ron ought to be extremely close, since as twins Fred and George will have spent all their time together to the exclusion of everyone else and the other boys are quite a bit older, yet as we’ll see in later books Ron mostly completely ignores his little sister and she doesn’t seem bothered about it.

The train leaves, and Harry feels excited and happy that it’s really happening and he’s really going even if he’s not sure where. Then Ron and the twins show up, because everywhere else on the impossibly huge train is full, and after introducing themselves the twins disappear to go find Dreadlocks Lee and his thing-in-a-box, which turns out to be a tarantula. Background detail is only ever mentioned if it’s going to appear again later, remember that. Ron sits down, and after a few minutes asks if Harry is really Harry Potter despite this having been confirmed multiple times in the last five minutes. Admittedly he says he thought it might have been one of the twins’ jokes, which is fair enough because seriously he has no reason to believe anything they’ve ever told him. Ignoring his mother’s instructions he continues to harp on about it, asking if Harry’s really got the scar, talking about how much Harry remembers of You-Know-Who and generally displaying all the sensitivity and tact of the stereotypical bull in a china shop. This will be his main character trait for seven years, so brace yourselves. He follows this up with saying ‘wow’ and staring at Harry for a few minutes, presumably while his brain reboots. Ron, you are three months older than Harry, what the fuck do you care about something that happened when you were a baby. Stop it. Bad sidekick, no biscuit.

Harry once again forgets that his upbringing should have left him with no real social skills and changes the subject to ask if all Ron’s family are wizards (I meant to mention in a much earlier post how annoying it is that the default term is the masculine ‘wizard’ instead of just saying something gender-neutral like ‘magical’), and Ron says he thinks so and then contradicts it by saying his mother has a second cousin who’s an accountant, but they don’t talk about him. We will never hear about him again. Please note that even the supposedly progressive liberal Weasleys automatically cut off Squib relatives and pretend they don’t exist. Ah, hypocrisy. Ron asks about the Muggles he heard Harry lives with (who told him? This all seems part of someone’s master plan…) and Harry promptly says they’re horrible, glossing over all the many reasons why they might be like that around him, before adding that he wishes he had three wizard brothers. And a sister, Harry, remember? You should probably keep reminding yourself that she exists.

In one of the best parts of his characterisation we’ll ever see, Ron answers ‘gloomily’ that he actually has five wizard brothers and that he has a lot to live up to, because brother Bill was Head Boy, brother Charlie was Quidditch Captain, now brother Percy is a Prefect (which should not be capitalised goddamnit; this isn’t Pokémon, and if it were, Farla would be yelling at you) and even though the twins mess around all the time they get really good marks and everyone likes them. (Rowling seems to have forgotten some of this later, given that some ado is made of the twins failing miserably at their OWLs, though it’s implied to be a conscious choice on their part rather than lack of ability.)

“Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first.”

If only the books had stuck to this portrayal of Ron. He could have been a much better character, and exploring this would have explained all his worst traits and made him much more tolerable and realistic. Instead, as you’ll see later, he’s not. He goes on to complain about how you never get anything new if you’re the youngest, and he’s got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand (in complete defiance of what we were told last chapter about how wands work and how little they cost, and while we’re at it why isn’t Charlie still using it?) and Percy’s old pet rat (that is not on the list of approved pets we also saw last chapter).

He then pulls said rat out of his pocket to demonstrate, and tells us this is Scabbers and he’s useless and sleeps all the time. Quite what ‘use’ Ron expects a pet rat to have is beyond me, but of course he sleeps a lot, you idiot, most rodents are nocturnal. And at this point in the series Scabbers is just a rat. Anything that may or may not occur in later books had clearly not been thought of here. Ron goes on to say that Percy got an owl when he was made a prefect but they couldn’t afford one for him too – er, Ron, the twins don’t have owls either and Percy only got his as a reward for achieving something, why would you have expected one? Shut up. Even rich families would struggle to put seven kids through boarding school, so of course most of them won’t have many new things. (Also, why would getting a new pet mean Percy had to abandon his previous one? People usually become attached to their pets…)

Continuing to display mystifying social awareness, Harry cheers his new friend up by talking about how he was always poor too and had to wear his cousin’s old clothes and never got proper birthday presents. This is nice, because at this point we haven’t seen just how screwed up the Weasleys’ level of poverty actually is and we haven’t seen enough magic to realise that the notion of any purebloods being ‘poor’ by our modern standards is ludicrous. Harry goes on to say that until Hagrid showed up he had no idea about being a wizard or about his parents or Voldemort, and Ron is horrified and impressed that omg you said You-Know-Who’s name!!!!

You have to wonder how Ron, or any of the other post-war kids, learned the name in the first place if everyone’s too scared to say it. (I suppose maybe this could have been the first time Ron heard the name, and figured out who it had to have been from context?)

Harry replies logically that it’s not about bravery or anything, he just never knew you shouldn’t say it and keeps forgetting because he doesn’t know anything. And this is a good point – Hagrid never said the name was taboo, just that he personally didn’t like saying it. Ollivander only ever says He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, which could be referring to anyone – his dog? Satan? Aberforth? It would be amusing if You-Know-Who and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named were two different people, wouldn’t it? Okay, from context we can figure out that Ollivander meant Voldy, but it’s not said directly. This is really the first time Harry’s been explicitly told that absolutely nobody says the name. Yet he doesn’t ask why…

Anyway, Harry adds that see, he doesn’t know anything, he bets he’ll be the worst in the class. It’s obviously been preying on his mind a lot, so it would be nice to see more evidence that he’s naturally insecure and doesn’t think much of himself, instead of just having this same conversation being raised time and time again out of nowhere. Ron becomes the latest person to reassure him that no, loads of people come from Muggle families and they learn just fine – er, Ron, how do you know? You’ve never been to Hogwarts before. You’ve certainly never met a Muggleborn student before. (Luckily for the student.)

The conversation cuts off abruptly here, so we never find out how he knows, and they sit and stare out of the windows silently until half past twelve before their next visitor shows up – a witch pushing a trolley full of sweets. One, I’m surprised there’s actually an adult on this train aside from the driver, because until now it seems like the children are left to run wild – and in fact I think after the third book this woman is never seen again. Two, why is there no other food on offer? Yes, children like sweets, but the ticket didn’t say they had to bring their own food and I expect most of the first years are pretty hungry. Besides, I associate a candy fetish with younger children. But Rowling really, really likes talking about sweets, so for the next two and a half pages that’s pretty much all we get, and most of them are a blatant ripoff of Willy Wonka products.

Harry remembers briefly that he’s been deprived of treats most of his life and that he’s never had spending money before, and goes mad and spends a sizeable pile of silver coins on some of everything. The woman doesn’t try to stop him doing this, so it’s a good job he’s not diabetic or allergic to anything. Ron doesn’t buy anything because his mother made him corned beef sandwiches, which she didn’t remember that he doesn’t like, and I’ll stop you there Ron because corned beef is a Muggle product and how the hell does your family even know what it is let alone be able to buy it regularly enough to have an opinion of it? (This would make a lot more sense in the version of the Potterverse where wizards live alongside Muggles in Muggle society, rather than being a completely separate culture, but Rowling never seems to be able to remember which one she’s writing.)

Anyway, Harry then forgets his deprived upbringing again and shares with his new friend. With most children this is a perfectly fine reaction, but Harry’s spent his entire life only getting Dudley’s leftovers and with having things snatched off him all the time, as well as apparently not having much to eat and certainly no sugary treats. He should have no concept of sharing. He should also be far more food-fixated than he is, and right now should be stuffing down as much of this as he can without being sick and cramming the rest into his pockets and his trunk to save for later in expectation of never getting food like this again. It’s also pretty bad taste to pull out fistfuls of money and spend the lot on something frivolous right in front of someone who’s just been complaining about being poor; either Harry’s socially aware enough to avoid mistakes of this type or he’s not, you can’t have both.

Of course, a lot of the sweet-fixation here is to lead onto a specific conversation about Chocolate Frogs (I’m assuming this is a brand name so they can keep their wonky capitalisation), which in the books are just frog-shaped chocolates that come with trading cards of famous witches and wizards. Ron forgets that he’s meant to be poor and claims to own about five hundred of these cards, which is a lot of chocolate for one kid in a family who are apparently infamous for being poverty-stricken. The card in the first frog Harry opens, inevitably, shows Albus bloody Dumbledore.

“Albus Dumbledore, currently Headmaster of Hogwarts. Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Professor Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and tenpin bowling.”

The US edition of the books formats this as though it’s on an actual trading card, similar to the way they format the letters. I like that, wish the British books did it. Now, this bit is often cited as one of Rowling’s best pieces of foreshadowing – and to be fair when I first read the books I did totally miss it – but if she really wanted to be clever she should have quoted a couple of the other cards the boys find in later frogs too instead of singling out this particular one. That would also be less fanboyish and Dumbles-is-amazing, which would have been nice.

Why does the card mention ten-pin bowling, anyway? How many wizards do you suppose actually know what that is? I also don’t believe for one second that Dumbles has ever been bowling. (Let’s also note that this is the last we ever hear anything about the twelve uses of dragon’s blood; remember, every detail is important!)

Anyway, Harry discovers at this point that wizard photos move, because the little trading card picture has buggered off. Sadly the only one here is Ron, who can’t possibly explain why even if Harry bothered to ask, and our hero presumably forgets all about it after this because nobody will ever explain how this works. Is there only one photograph that makes its way through every Chocolate Frog card in existence? Are they as aware as the paintings we’ll see later? How the hell is this possible? We’ll never know. Meanwhile Ron is amazed that Muggle photos can’t do that, which is decent as a culture-shock moment but makes no bloody sense.

Now we’re done with the plot-relevant chocolate, we move on to most of a page dealing with Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans. I don’t know why. They’re the first thing Rowling dwells on that will never be plot-relevant, so clearly she was very proud of herself for thinking of them. They’re jellybeans that come in all your standard candy flavours but also random things like spinach, grass, fish and so on, though aside from snot and earwax they are all still edible flavours. There’s no mention of ones tasting of, say, copper, or mud, or that nasty glue they use for stamps and envelopes, or the taste you get when you accidentally chew on a leaking pen and end up dyeing half your mouth blue which I have totally never done. In any case, why do these exist? Why would anyone buy a brand of sweets where only about half the packet will taste nice and you’ve got no way of knowing which half? (Why the hell do they actually now exist in our world for fans to buy? Who is buying them and what is wrong with you?)

They get yet another visitor, a ’round-faced’ boy Harry saw on the platform, asking if they’ve seen his toad. He is also a future member of Team Harry, hence the lack of mocking animal-related descriptions. He looks tearful, sounds miserable, and gets upset when they say they haven’t seen it, because normal children care about their pets. Since our hero and his new sidekick give no fucks, he departs still toadless and without getting an introduction, and hopefully he makes it out of earshot before Ron says callously, “Don’t know why he’s so bothered, if I’d brought a toad I’d lose it as quick as I could” before referring again to how useless Scabbers is. He tried to turn the rat yellow yesterday but the spell didn’t work.

Let me repeat that. He tried to use magic on his pet to turn it a different colour. Hey, remember when the narrative described Dudley abusing animals and implied that it was a bad thing? Harry sure doesn’t. It’s also a pretty weird writing choice to have one of the heroes of a children’s book being so dismissive of his pet and scornful of other pets, because that’s not how most children think.

Ron offers to show Harry and gets his wand out of his trunk. Because it’s a hand-me-down, the wand is battered and chipped and the unicorn-hair core is poking out at one end. What the fuck did Charlie do to it? Also, it’s a stick, I would assume it would snap if it was treated this badly. He’s about to try to cast a spell again when yet another visitor shows up, the first female student we’ve seen compared to seven – about to be nine within the next two pages – males. She gets fractionally more description than Draco, Neville, Lee and most of the Weasleys did, at least, though as you can see – “she had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth” – this is not something we should commend Rowling for. She has Neville with her and is helping him look for his toad, which instantly makes her a better person than the boys.

I like Hermione, okay? I know a lot of the fandom shits on her, and it is occasionally justified because she does make some pretty poor decisions from time to time, but overall she’s still a better and more human character than 90% of the rest of the cast. She’s also more interesting than a lot of them just because she’s Muggleborn – and intelligent, which is depressingly rare. Rowling has claimed that Hermione’s her self-insert; excuse me while I laugh hysterically, because seriously, no. No, she’s not.

Anyway, she sees that Ron has his wand out and is obviously about to do magic, and asks to watch. Ron then spouts some absolute doggerel that nobody would think was a real spell, especially someone who’s grown up around actual spells: ‘Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow, turn this stupid, fat rat yellow.’ Turns out George taught it to him, and for some reason Ron believed him. Strangely enough, it doesn’t work, and the girl asks if it’s actually a real spell before telling them that she’s tried some spells at home that always seemed to work, and nobody in her family is magical so they were all very excited when she got her letter –

…wait. Letter? I assumed an actual person would have to show up to explain things to Muggle families. I believe this is retconned later since I’ve always had it in my head that she mentions McGonagall visiting her family, and that must have come from somewhere.

Anyway, she carries on talking excitedly about how she’s heard Hogwarts is the best magic school there is (God help the rest of the magical world if that’s true) and how she’s memorised all their textbooks and hopefully that will be good enough and by the way her name is Hermione Granger and what are their names, and this is just cute. This is how an actual socially awkward child behaves when they’re going to somewhere as exciting as magic school. Even if you’re not a fan of Hermione, you have to admit that in half a page she shows more personality and better reactions than Harry has in six chapters. In just this brief scene we’ve learned she babbles when she’s excited or anxious, she helps people, she tries probably too hard at more or less everything, she’s bossy and she might have an eidetic memory. Likewise, we’ve learned that Ron is pretty self-conscious, he doesn’t much like his family and feels guilty about it, he doesn’t like animals, he has no sensitivity or tact and can be a bit self-pitying. What do we know about Harry’s personality by this point? He hasn’t got one. He just reacts the way the book needs him to react.

Harry and Ron introduce themselves when she stops to breathe, and she recognises Harry’s name and tells them she’s read all about him because, unlike our hero, she bothered to buy books that weren’t on the school list and actually tried to learn more about this new world before going there, and apparently he’s in loads of books. Harry is surprised at this and Hermione says she’d have found out everything she could if it had been her. Good point, Hermione. Harry, you’re an idiot. She changes the subject to talk about what houses they might be in and we learn of the third and fourth houses; Gryffindor, which she has been told is the best and is the house Dumbledore was in, and she hopes she’s in that one although Ravenclaw, the final option, ‘wouldn’t be too bad’.

Okay. Allow me to quote a fanfic.

“In what weird alternative universe would that girl not be Sorted into Ravenclaw? If Hermione Granger didn’t go to Ravenclaw then there was no good reason for Ravenclaw House to exist.”

That is a line from Methods of Rationality, on FFN under the author Less Wrong, which I’m sure a few of you have heard of. I’m not going to link to it because in my opinion it’s not really worth it. The first fifteen or so chapters were very good but it’s just gone downhill from there, jumping multiple sharks en route, and will finally be crashing to some sort of implausible ending this month at over a hundred chapters. [Mitchell adds: my opinion of it is a bit more conflicted; I really loved a lot of the early parts of it and thought they were brilliant, until Yudkowsky started taking it too seriously. I honestly can’t give it an unequivocal recommendation, but I don’t feel comfortable encouraging people to avoid it either. Hooray, ambivalence.]

In any case, that one line right there is perfect. Hermione as presented to us would absolutely choose the book house over anything else if she had to crawl over broken glass and give up a couple of limbs to get in. Later on in the series the brainwashing has taken hold and she would probably sadly waste herself in Gryffindor, but at this point she hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid and this is just ridiculous. If a different author had been writing these books, Our Hero would have gone to the amazing-hero house, and his sidekick would have gone to the loyal hardworking house, and Hermione would have gone to the super-smart house, leaving our (hopefully much better written) antagonist to go to the politicking and plotting house. But no.

That line about Gryffindor being the best house because Dumbles was in it might not be as bad as it sounds, if we bear in mind Hermione doesn’t know anything about the wizarding world at that point except what she’s read. If she got hold of something written by a Gryffindor it stands to reason she’d be left with the impression that house was by far the best. First-year Hermione struck me as mostly inclined to believe what adults tell her; she didn’t really learn cynicism for a couple of years. Nonetheless, it’s still bloody stupid.

Hermione takes Neville off to continue searching for his toad, and just as when Neville left them earlier, hopefully they get out of earshot before Ron’s nasty comment: “Whatever house I’m in, I hope she’s not in it.” So do I, Ron, so do I. But not for the reasons you do. Harry asks what houses Ron’s brothers are in now he finally has the names of all four of them, and surprise surprise, every last one of them was in Gryffindor, and so were their parents, and Ron’s worried about what they’ll say if he doesn’t get in. He agrees Ravenclaw wouldn’t be that bad – Ron, it’ll snow on the Sun before you get into Ravenclaw – but shudders at the prospect of going into Slytherin, because eeeeeeviiiiillll. Shut up, Ron.

Harry changes the subject to ask what Ron’s older relatives do, because he wants to know what wizards do when they leave school. Ron says Charlie is in Romania farming dragon-chickens, and Bill does something vague for Gringotts, and by the way did you know that someone broke into Gringotts last month? They haven’t been caught and they don’t appear to have stolen anything but they must be a wicked bad dark wizard and I think I hear the Foreshadowing Fairy’s little bells again. He then promptly changes the subject to ask what Quidditch team Harry supports.

Presumably resisting the urge to facepalm and repeat for the umpteenth time that he doesn’t know anything about the wizarding world, Harry replies patiently that he doesn’t know any teams, and Ron goes off into a long speech about the game that we are mercifully spared since Harry’s apparently not listening. Though it does include a list of the famous matches he’s been to with his brothers. Ron, you’re meant to be poor, remember? (Let’s also note that Ron’s reaction here is bloody weird: “I don’t know any teams” does not mean the same thing as “what the fuck is Quidditch?” and he seems to be responding to the latter.)

They’re interrupted by yet more visitors, good grief. It’s ‘the pale boy’ Harry met in Diagon Alley, who is described in these exact words four times on one page, accompanied by two other boys who are ‘thickset and extremely mean-looking’ and therefore clearly not future members of Team Harry but just normal evil fat people, and in fact they’ll never get any more description or characterisation than fat, mean and stupid. Draco says that people all down the train are talking about how Harry Potter’s in this compartment – in which case you’d think most of the school would have come to have a look at him, wouldn’t you – and asks if it’s true before introducting the other boys as Crabbe and Goyle and giving his name, finally, as Draco Malfoy.

For some reason Ron sniggers. I don’t see why. His middle name is Bilious and his sister is Ginevra, he is fully aware of how stupid wizarding names can be and Draco is totally reasonable compared to that. Though the Weasleys do mostly have more Muggle names, which is somewhat strange when you consider that Molly’s brothers were named Fabian and Gideon. Understandably annoyed at this unprovoked rudeness, Draco snaps that he doesn’t need to ask Ron’s name because his father told him all Weasleys have red hair, freckles and more children than they can afford, before adding that Harry will realise sooner or later that some wizarding families are better than others and he can help him.

Eleven year old boys don’t talk like this. It’s just phrased really oddly. It’s also worth noting that Draco’s stance here is about lower class riff-raff, not blood purity, so that clearly isn’t a thing at this point in the series. Anyway, Harry responds that he can tell the wrong sort for himself, and refuses to shake hands. I can understand wanting to defend his new friend at this point, but his antipathy towards Draco started in their first meeting for no reason. (Let’s also note that Draco’s made a basic logical fallacy here, which really bugs me – “all Weasleys have red hair and freckles” does not entail “all people with red hair and freckles are Weasleys”, though in this universe the latter does seem to be true because Rowling can’t logic either.)

Draco then apparently forgets that when they first met he apologised on hearing that Harry’s parents were dead, since he decides to react by saying that if Harry’s not careful he’ll go the same way they did because they didn’t know what was good for them either. And then he picked up a white fluffy cat and went looking for a spinning chair to sit in while practising his evil laugh, because seriously what the fuck. He’s gone from sucking up to death threats in a single paragraph and isn’t behaving anything like he did when we first met him. Rowling just wants us to hate him.

Harry and Ron stand up and challenge the three of them to a fight, because that’s the sensible and appropriate response when someone’s a bit rude. Understandably not remotely threatened by this, Goyle reaches for some of their sweets instead and Scabbers bites his finger and hangs on.

This entire scene is ludicrous. Rowling wrote them having an argument, then wasn’t sure how to end it, so she resorted to slapstick. Goyle screams and flails a lot, which makes sense because rat bites hurt and can carry a lot of nasty diseases; Scabbers loses his grip and goes flying, slamming into the window and falling to the floor and thus breaking numerous bones, and for some reason Draco and his friends run away in apparent terror. From one rat, who’s now badly hurt and possibly dead.

Hermione shows up again, apparently drawn by the noises, and asks what the fuck happened. Ron ignores her, casually picks up his injured rat by the tail – DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU OWN A RAT. This is how you pick up wild rats that might bite you if you really truly have no other way to move them; it’s an absolute last resort and it can seriously injure them – and says nope, he’s fine, he’s gone back to sleep. No, Ron, he’s unconscious and hurt and will probably die, you are a terrible child. Still ignoring Hermione, he and Harry have a conversation about Harry’s first meeting with Draco and it turns out Ron’s heard about their family from his father and Malfoy Senior is clearly totes eeeeeviiilll.

Finally he acknowledges Hermione’s presence and she says they should get changed because the driver says they’re almost there, and asks if they’ve been fighting because they’ll get into trouble before even getting to school. Ron blames his rat and tells her to leave; she shrugs this off, tells him that he has dirt on his nose and does so. You go girl.

The boys get changed, and Harry notices that Ron’s robes are too short for him and you can see his trainers underneath. (This was changed to sneakers in the US version.) Two things. One, why does Ron have trainers, those are Muggle shoes. Two, his mother’s meant to be a domestic goddess and she can use magic, why can’t she alter the damned robes. My mother once made me a uniform from scratch in two days because the school suppliers fucked up and couldn’t get my stuff to me before term started, and she couldn’t Transfigure stuff with a magic stick. The main indicator of poverty in this series is the condition of one’s clothes; no, Rowling, that doesn’t indicate poverty, it indicates laziness or lack of magical competence.

A magic voice from nowhere tells them that their luggage will be taken to the school by magic – fuck knows what happens to all the cats running around loose – and the train stops. Harry and Ron get off and hear Hagrid yelling for the first years to follow him; he greets Harry by name because showing favouritism to a random kid is never a bad idea ever, then tells all of them to follow him and his single tiny lantern into a pitch-dark forest. He doesn’t bother taking a register, by the way, so he’s got no idea if they’re all there and since none of them can see he’s also clearly not bothered if any of them get lost en route.

They walk down a steep, narrow, dark path to the edge of a huge lake, where there are lots of tiny little boats waiting for them, and everyone piles in. There’s no sign of Draco and his friends, but Harry does notice Neville sniffing unhappily off to one side, and Hermione’s still with him. That’s nice, those two should be friends. Once they’re all in the boats, Hagrid yells ‘Forward!’ and they all somehow start moving, and they sail across the lake towards a castle.

No, this makes no sense either, does it. I suspect Rowling dreamed it and thought it was a cool image. If there’s any in-universe justification at all, maybe they just want to make sure the rest of the students get to the school and settle down before the first years arrive so the sorting ceremony goes smoothly, or maybe just to make sure everyone can stare at the newbies and scare the shit out of them.

Hagrid yells for all the small children to duck as they go into an ivy-covered tunnel in the cliff that the castle stands on – er, Hagrid, if they need to duck, no way in hell are you fitting through – and even though there’s no mention of light Harry can see that they sail through this tunnel right underneath the castle to an underground harbour.

The geography here makes no sense. The Slytherin common room is under the lake, so I can’t see how the castle can stand on top of a huge cliff that far above the lake and I’ve always pictured it being not far from the shore. As if this wasn’t odd enough to imagine, from the harbour the children all climb through another tunnel to a grassy area outside the castle they were apparently just underneath. Hagrid still hasn’t taken a register and checked that nobody’s fallen out and drowned or that they all made it. Also the grass here is described as ‘smooth‘, which is weird and I don’t know what it’s meant to look like.

In the meantime, Hagrid’s somehow managed to find Neville’s toad, which the poor boy is thrilled about. His name is Trevor. That’s sweet. No idea how Hagrid managed to find him, but okay.

And the chapter ends with Hagrid knocking on the big impressive castle doors. Let us note here that we have met exactly one female student and seen exactly one possibly-coloured student.


Holy hell, that was a long one.

To fix this chapter, get rid of the fucking train. Most of the students go directly to Hogsmeade and make their own way to the castle once a teacher has checked their name off a list. First years have to wait and all be taken up together, and not in magic boats. Muggleborns and Muggle-raised kids like Harry could travel to whatever the nearest Muggle train station is and take a short train ride from there to Hogsmeade on the magic steam train, which provides the trope and the imagery and gives the kids time to meet one another and have the necessary conversations while still making some sort of sense.

Most of the conversations are fine. There’s some exposition in there and some future plot points and the personalities of most of the kids start to show through quite nicely, most of it only needs minor tweaks. Change some of the things Draco says, he’s quite capable of making enemies of Harry and Ron without spouting awkward classist nonsense or turning into a Bond villain; let them have a normal argument that ends with Draco and his friends storming off, no stupid rat attack.

Though actually under this system Draco and Ron aren’t there, nor is Neville, so of the kids we’ve seen so far the only ones present would be Harry and Hermione.That’s a good thing. They’re both totally new to this world and totally out of their depth and I think they could have had some really interesting conversations, discussing things Hermione’s found out and trying to puzzle out the answers to questions they’ve both thought up. There’s at least two other Muggleborns in their year, who we haven’t met yet (unfortunately both boys, the gender ratio is waaaaaay off here) and they could join in too.

I feel that would have turned out better for all concerned, personally, but okay, let’s see. They sit around in Hogsmeade for a while waiting for all the first years to arrive, so that gives them some time to talk to the others and have their argument and infodump and whatever. And I suppose for Harry and Ron to make friends, though I can’t say I’d mind if that didn’t happen. Once they’re all there and have all been checked off the list, they’re taken to the school in some appropriately magical way, maybe the ‘horseless’ carriages they use for the regular students, giving them time to finish anything they didn’t get around to before.


And in other news, since clearly I’m not tormenting myself enough with exposure to Rowling’s failures, I picked up a copy of The Silkworm. Book 2 of Cormoran Strike’s romantic drama, with some sort of crime plot trying to happen in the background. So there will be a few posts on that over the next month or two, I expect, as well as more HP posts.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2015 in loten, mitchell

 

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The Casual Vacancy (BBC adaptation)

AKA “why the fuck is there an adaptation of this shit”. Well, aside from the obvious cash cow milking. Contains spoilers, if anyone cares. Warnings, if for some reason you force yourself to endure it, for domestic abuse, child abuse, fat shaming, depression shaming, and of course rape. Because this is Rowling writing grown-up books.

I’ll be honest, I barely remember the book. I only read it once, a couple of years ago, and disposed of it very quickly as soon as I’d struggled to the final page. As Dorothy Parker once said, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” My brief recap of the book and why I think so poorly of it can be found HERE. So this review is going to be a bit short on commentary since I don’t really know how it stands up to the original; it’s also likely to be pretty biased because I was so disgusted by the book that there was really no chance of me liking this.

That said, the writeup in the TV listings magazine said that the person adapting it had made several bold changes, which I hoped would mean no gratuitous victim-blaming rape scene and a sensible ending. Let’s see if this optimism was warranted, shall we? It’s a three-parter but due to sheer lack of interesting commentary all three parts will be condensed into one post.

Incidentally, Sir Michael Gambon is in this, as a minor character I don’t remember anything about. I think having Dumbledore here (Dumbledore v2.0, at least) pretty much says everything that needs to be said. He’s also playing a racist, classist, manipulative snobbish wanker again, though his emotional abuse is restricted to one person, his unpleasant prejudices are more blatant, and we’re spared everyone else insisting that he’s wonderful.


So, part one. It seems that this adaptation has the same structure as the original book in that the first third is just introducing the cast and seeing the start of everyone’s reactions to Barry’s (hilariously overdramatic) death. Nothing really happened – as an example of the pacing, it was four and a half minutes before anyone said anything. Four and a half minutes with no dialogue. The characters are still one-dimensional clichés with no real substance and all thoroughly unlikeable, their stories are still full of gratuitous attempts at Drama! and I still don’t really care. We also still have blatant slut-shaming, obnoxious judgemental classism, and various other nastiness. So far it seems there were no ‘bold changes’, except that they didn’t kill Barry right at the beginning but tried to show a bit of him onscreen first so the viewers would care 0.0001% more than the readers did. And I’m no longer optimistic about them removing the rape scene, since the eventual victim is being made to look even less sympathetic than I remember and I can’t help but worry that they’re working up to ‘she deserved it’. Next episode should hopefully be better, though, since the middle third of the book was actually fairly good.


Part two, then. At least it doesn’t take so long to get going this time. And as with the book, now we know who all the characters are, it’s a lot more tolerable for the most part. The Drama! was all demonstrated in the first episode as part of the introductions and a lot of it gets ignored completely here in favour of the plot, which is a big improvement. And Krystal, our eventual victim, is being shown quite a bit more sympathetically this time, though I’m still not convinced they’re going to handle her storyline well next episode and she really does get treated like shit. One of the main offenders of the book is more of a bastard than I recall too, which I approve of since everything he did was whitewashed in the original from what I remember.

The writer of this adaptation has tried, I’ll say that. They’ve softened some of the worst bits, and they’re trying to make other bits funny or otherwise entertaining, and there are a couple of decent scenes; but the original subject matter just isn’t there, the characters are terrible, and they’d have done better to try an original script loosely based on the book.

And to leave the sex out. That was just sad.

They should also have left out a really weird dream sequence that seems to have existed purely to title-drop and babble about death. I don’t really remember that being in the original, but it certainly sounds a bit like Rowling, which isn’t a compliment.


And finally part three, covering the section of the book that drove me to a state of bloody fury. Let’s see just how bad this gets, shall we?

Another slow start, more dullness. I do like the way they’re handling one of the teenagers this time, they’ve made him look like the total bastard that he is, whereas the book whitewashed it all and tried to make him sympathetic. And I like the way they’ve handled one of the adults, Krystal’s social worker; she was pretty pathetic in the book and spent most of her time chasing a commitment-phobic guy who wasn’t interested in anything but sex. They didn’t include his character and let her be competent and pleasant. And Krystal and her druggie mother are being given actual characterisation and balance, they’re not just a label screaming POOR PEOPLE ARE TERRIBLE.

Sadly they did seriously minimise one of the few characters I actually liked, one of the teens. I’d have liked to see more of him, he was fairly decent.

…well. They’ve made Krystal decide to get pregnant before being assaulted, at least. She’s actually lying about being pregnant because she’s hoping her ex-boyfriend’s mother will look after her and her little brother so she won’t have to live with her junkie mother and the constant threat of rape from the drug dealer. And while she’s fighting with her ex, her brother falls in the river. So it seems like we’re not going to get the rape scene after all? Praise zombie Jesus.

Oh. And Krystal drowns trying to find him in the river. Which is what I thought I remembered happening in the original. And then we see that her brother was rescued by someone else and doesn’t die as in the book. So Krystal dies for no reason, and yet this is still so much better than her canon storyline – where she’s raped, immediately (within five minutes) decides it’s inspired her to get pregnant to get a council house, shows no actual trauma at all, then gets her brother killed through neglect and commits suicide afterwards.

And we actually get a bit of follow-through where some of the characters seem to decide not to be terrible people any more. Unlike the book, which just stopped a page or two after the deaths.


Is this better than the book?

Sort of. The bad bits are still bad, which spoils it. But they removed the horrible victim-blaming rape scene! And they’ve cut out a lot of the more pointless and irritating bits, and trimmed down the cast a bit so it’s easier to focus on who’s who. And as with most adaptations of badly written books, just getting rid of the characters’ inner monologue helps a lot. The cast is mostly pretty good too, though surprisingly one of the best actors is the little kid. And as I said above, some of the characters have been written much more positively. They stripped out the stupid and unpleasant victim-blaming depiction of bullying, too.

But it’s not really enough to make up for the bad bits. And if they were going to change the ending it would have been nice to keep Krystal alive, she existed purely for everyone to shit on. The point of the ending, if there was a point, was that the tragedy allegedly shocked everyone to their senses, and there were so many others they could have killed off if that’s what they wanted.

Anyone not from the UK – not that I think this was good enough to ever be made available outside the UK – you could probably sit through at least part of it just to see what middle-class villages and lower-class social housing estates look like, since that’s always hard to describe, and to hear some different regional English accents, but it’s not really worth the effort.

Overall verdict: they did a very good job with some very bad material. It’s not interesting enough to watch, particularly, but it’s not terrible.

[Harry Potter posts will resume as soon as possible. The next chapter is in the process of being drafted, but once we got started we found something to criticise in virtually every paragraph, so it’s going to take a while!]

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2015 in loten

 

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