Monthly Archives: January 2016

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Chapter Eleven

Well, sad news aside, life must go on. And unfortunately we’re at the point in the book where going on involves yet more bloody Quidditch. This chapter took a while to do despite it being one of the shortest because frankly we were both glad of any excuse to be sidetracked.

 Chapter Eleven: Quidditch
Today’s picture: it’s raining… Quidditch players?

We’re into November now, and the weather has finally turned cold. Pretty sure it would have been snowing for a while by this point, honestly, but some years are more extreme than others, so whatever. Hagrid can be seen out of the windows defrosting broomsticks – it’s implied this happens every morning, or at least very frequently. Inevitably for the first paragraph of a chapter, there are quite a few things wrong with this. Why do the brooms need defrosting? Why are they being stored out in the open where they will get frosted over, and why would this actually matter? Why does he need to do it so often when most of the time they’re not being used? I know the school must be desperate to invent things for Hagrid to do, since his job is pointless, but even so.

He’s also wearing a rather bizarre collection of furs: ‘a long moleskin overcoat, rabbit-fur gloves and enormous beaverskin boots.‘ Again, this raises a few issues, quite apart from the moral objections (we should probably have been keeping a tally of gratuitous animal cruelty in these books, honestly, but it’s too late now). First, where did Hagrid get the furs from? I can’t see trappers, tanners and furriers being traditional wizarding trades. Did he go and hunt for them himself? Finding beavers must have been a bit of a challenge in that case, since they’ve only been reintroduced to Britain in the past few years, and I can’t imagine how many moles you’d have to kill to get enough fur for a long coat for someone Hagrid’s size. Plus how does he know how to turn animal skins into preserved furs to work with?

The main reason this is stupid, though, is that fur just isn’t all that great at keeping people warm. We’d still be using it for winter clothing if it was, instead of just decoration. And if you really insist on using fur, you wouldn’t use moles. They have barely any fur and it’s certainly not going to keep you warm, it’s more like velvet than anything. You’d want wolf or bear, or reindeer; wolverine if you can find it. But no matter what fur you use, synthetic Muggle fabrics are just plain better. And someone somewhere must be sourcing cloth from the Muggle world, because again, I can’t see wizards growing cotton/raising and shearing sheep/working in factories to produce it.

My personal theory for how the wizarding world operates (which I think I’ve mentioned before) is that somewhere on the planet, probably somewhere like the Bermuda Triangle, there are vast industrial estates and farms that produce all their material goods like food, cloth, timber, equipment etc. The reason the wizard population seems so small is that more than half of them are all working mundane Muggle-esque industrial jobs in these vast farms. The world we see, of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley and so on, is just the upper-class tip of the iceberg. Because nothing else makes any sense.

I told you we were eager to be sidetracked.

Harry’s due to play in his first-ever Quidditch match, inevitably against Slytherin. Nobody’s seen Harry play because Wood’s decided to keep his ace in the hole a secret. This is because Wood is a moron, and because the seeker is a stupid role. Clearly the seeker isn’t part of the team, or he’d be practising with the team during their assigned training sessions. Unless his team-mates aren’t included in this, and it’s just that nobody else has seen him? Ordinarily this would be sensible because nobody not on the team would be remotely interested in watching them train, but given how the school occasionally reacts to Harry whenever they remember, it’s unlikely. And given how seriously everyone takes this stupid sport, the other teams should want to check out the new competition, even though they should take one look at his broom and realise they can’t win and not bother. Also, the Quidditch pitch must be visible from the school itself, and the teams have to book the pitch to practice. You haven’t kept it a secret at all, mate, people just don’t care.

‘But the news that he was playing Seeker had leaked out somehow.’ Gosh, you don’t say. Fancy that. It’s almost as if the entire school witnessed him being sent a suspicious broom-shaped parcel and put two and two together, isn’t it. Egad, Holmes.

People are either telling Harry he’ll be brilliant (inevitably) or telling him they’ll run around under him with a mattress; Harry’s not sure which is worse. Er, neither of them, Harry – both those types of people are on your side. You ought to be pleased some of them are suggesting they’ll try to stop you dying horribly. Of course, this is actually meant to just be mockery implying he’s bad and will fall off, but seriously, someone with a mattress would be better than nothing and suggesting you’re going to try to save someone isn’t terribly insulting. Not much better, admittedly, depending on the mattress – do we think the wizarding world has reached the point of modern mattresses (invented somewhere around 1900), or are theirs still stuffed with straw or horse hair or something? Maybe they’re the sentient mattresses from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Harry thinks he’s really lucky to be friends with Hermione now, because he’d never get through all his homework by himself with all this training going on. It’s not outright stated that she’s doing it for him, and we’ll see throughout the series that she does make token attempts to try to make them do at least some of it themselves, but… yeah. What’s more, all the teachers must know Harry’s going to have a lot of extra-curricular stuff to do and must realise he’s likely getting help with his homework (plus if Hermione’s helping his marks have just shot up) and they’re just letting it happen. Teachers usually do tend to notice when student papers are suspiciously similar, especially when the class sizes are as small as Hogwarts is implied to be; are we really meant to believe none of them ever pick up on this?

I’m concluding that Hermione is really desperate for friends. Or alternatively, since she’s secretly best friends with Neville, she’s bribing Harry (and Ron) so they won’t pick on her any more.

She’s also lent Harry Quidditch Through the Ages, which Harry magnanimously allows is actually very interesting (supposedly). He learns there are over seven hundred ways to commit a foul, though most of them aren’t possible without wands, which are banned. I find this unlikely, although we’re told every last one of them happened during one match in the 1400s, but in any case, while the ‘actual’ book mentions this number it only lists ten. Apparently the full list isn’t available to the public in case it gives anyone ideas (haha, witness Rowling desperately fishing for an excuse to avoid coming up with them) – basically there’s no way to avoid breaking the rules because nobody will tell you what the rules are. Much like Hogwarts itself. Seekers are usually the smallest and fastest players, and the worst accidents usually happen to them, BECAUSE HARRY’S REALLY FUCKING SPECIAL HAVE YOU GOT THAT YET? People usually don’t die outright, but they do sometimes vanish and show up months later in the Sahara Desert or something.

That would kill most people, wizards or not. Apparating is difficult and it’s apparently quite common for people not to master it, not to mention that most of the Hogwarts kids haven’t even been told it exists yet. Even assuming their brooms go with them when this happens, unless you know where you are and which direction you need to fly to get to the nearest magical community with owls to tell people where the hell you are, you’re going to die unless it’s possible to create a Portkey on the fly when you probably don’t have your wand. Wizards have a spell to create water (laws of physics, what laws of physics?) but we’re explicitly told later they cannot create food. Cooling charms are a thing and could probably be used to avoid heatstroke, plus warming charms at night; but although I’m sure there is an anti-sunburn charm of some kind, what are the odds of a random Quidditch player knowing it and being able to do it wandlessly?

Anyway. Hermione’s apparently more relaxed about breaking rules since the troll incident (new theory, she was hurt in that fight and has sustained some sort of temporary brain damage, or is just faking it so the boys will be less horrible to her. While it’s more or less true for most of the rest of this book, it’s not really in character and she shakes it off before next book) and Harry says she’s ‘much nicer‘ as a result. Because what makes someone nice isn’t their personality, it’s whether they’ll let you do whatever you want or not. Charming.

She’s also continuing to be the only character capable of magic on a regular basis, since during a particularly cold break she conjures up some bright blue flames in a jar for the three of them to huddle around for warmth. This seems excessively complicated since warming charms are a thing, or if it’s that cold they could just stay inside, and where did the jam jar come from, and how are they holding the jar without getting burned? It still sounds cool though.

Current spell count: Hermione, 4 (presumably she had to Transfigure the jar as well). Ron, 1. Harry, 0. Someone suggested we track this, and since it makes Harry look useless and Hermione look awesome I’m happy to oblige.

Snape shows up completely at random and approaches them; Harry notices he’s limping. I have no idea why he’s here. Does Hogwarts really make him supervise breaks in addition to everything else he has to do? Is there any reason why Rowling couldn’t have worked this scene into a Potions lesson? He says library books aren’t allowed outside the school building and takes the Quidditch book away from Harry, along with five points. Harry says afterwards that he thinks Snape’s just made that rule up, but given that nobody’s told Harry any of the rules I don’t know how he’d know that. It also seems quite a sensible rule to me, given the presence of mud and puddles and snow and the freaking lake.

The point of this random little scene was for Harry to then decide to go to the staff room later to ask for his book back, because he’s about to see something plot-relevant. Snape didn’t need to be involved, Harry could have been going to talk to another teacher – maybe to ask for an extension on his homework so Hermione wouldn’t have to ‘help’ so much – or could even just be passing an empty room and overheard voices. We’re about to see why Snape was limping so telling us earlier that he was limping isn’t important. And there is no reason on this earth why what Harry’s about to see would be taking place in the staff room, seriously. Where are all the other teachers?

I’d also like to point out that this is Friday evening, since tomorrow is Saturday morning and the Quidditch match. We know Harry has Potions on Fridays. Why wouldn’t he have just asked about the book after his lesson? And are we really meant to believe Snape taught lessons with the injury we’re about to see?

And while I’m pointing out stupid things, why is it Harry asking for the book back? Hermione lent it to him. It’s her library book. She should be the one going to ask for it back, because she’s going to be the one in trouble for not returning it to the library if Snape doesn’t let them have it back. This is why multiple characters should have POV scenes. I know Harry is a very special snowflake, but he shouldn’t be doing everything and there are some things that just have nothing to do with him.

Harry sees Filch and Snape in the implausibly empty staff room, after they implausibly don’t hear him knocking twice and he opens the door to have a look. Snape is holding his robes out of the way of his ‘bloody and mangled‘ leg while Filch hands him bandages, and he’s also talking about how hard it is ‘to keep your eyes on all three heads at once‘. He notices Harry and shouts at him to get out, and Harry sensibly does so.

(Incidentally, there’s no indication here that Snape is wearing trousers. Um, draw your own conclusions for that one. Random old guys at Quidditch games in Book 4 notwithstanding, Britain is not a climate where any population can possibly evolve not wearing anything under loose robes, even if they weren’t all having to stay vaguely in line with Muggle fashions to avoid standing out as much as the stupider wizards do. Yes, kilts are traditional Scottish dress, but seriously, it’s way too damned cold for that. Let’s assume Fluffy ripped the relevant part of the trouser leg off, shall we?)

So let’s review, as he tells Ron and Hermione what he thinks happened. According to Harry, Snape tried to get past Fluffy on Halloween, several days ago, and was bitten for his troubles and gave up; Snape must therefore have been trying to get to whatever Fluffy is guarding, and therefore must have let the troll in as a diversion. Apparently Snape then didn’t bother trying to heal his leg, and left it for several days during which time nobody noticed him limping (or, you know, leaving a trail of blood behind him), before the pain got too much for him. He then enlisted one of only two people in the whole school incapable of using magic to help him and began to treat said injury in the staff room in the middle of the afternoon, and somehow only Harry saw.

This is beyond stupid.

There was no mention during the aftermath of the troll fight that Snape was hurt, and if his leg was literally mangled it would have been very noticeable – his clothes would have been shredded, he would have been bleeding badly and he would have been limping very obviously, assuming he could walk at all after being mauled by a giant dog. There is a great deal of difference just between being nipped by accident while playing with a friendly dog and being bitten by a scared dog who is trying to warn you off, let alone being genuinely attacked by an angry dog that really wants to bite you. Even little inbred rat dogs still have more or less the same dental structure as a wolf, and their teeth cause a lot of damage unless they’ve been bred to have no proper jaws.

Snape is also not an idiot and wouldn’t have just left it untreated (headcanons regarding depression notwithstanding) and we see several times over the series that he’s a decent healer who can fix complicated shit nobody else knows how to deal with. Also, he’s a spy and double agent – no matter how badly he’s been hurt, he’s not going to visibly limp unless he wants someone to see it or unless there’s nobody to see it.

To make sense of the timeline, we need to assume that although Snape did go to the third floor on Halloween – to head Quirrell off, as we’re told later in the book – he wasn’t attacked then. We also need to ignore Harry noticing him limping this morning, and assume that was for a different reason – walking carefully because of the ice, or an old injury aching in the cold, or something else that Harry misinterpreted. Because this sounds like a fresh attack, as though he’s only just been bitten. (Either that or he’s been bleeding for days, which… no.) So he’s gone back to the third floor again, and this time has gone inside. We know he had no reason to do that – it’s the middle of the day, Quirrell won’t have done anything that needs checking up on; he knows what Fluffy’s guarding and isn’t after it himself. Maybe there’s a staff rota for having to feed and clean up after Fluffy, and Snape just happened to be unlucky today and was bitten because the poor dog is getting very temperamental after being confined for months. We can also assume that Filch may have been in the area and wanted to help, and since Snape probably knows about Muggle healing and doesn’t really want to go to the nurse to get it fixed anyway and also probably isn’t horrible to Filch he may have agreed.

There is still no explanation for why they’re using the staff room, or why nobody else is in there, or why they didn’t hear Harry knock. Unless there were other staff there? Harry only nudged the door far enough ajar to see Snape and Filch, he didn’t see the whole room. If there were other teachers there, maybe they were taking an interest in the novel Muggle idea of using bandages, and wanted to see what could potentially happen to them if they get bitten when it’s their turn to look after the dog. Maybe they didn’t answer the door to Harry because they were assuming a student would take the hint and fuck off when nobody let them in.

In any case, we know none of this is what happened, because every time this incident is mentioned throughout the series, the narrative insists that of course Harry’s version is correct. This means that at this point Rowling still had Snape cast as the villain, and also thought he was REALLY FUCKING STUPID. The only other possible explanation, if we accept the book’s insistence that Harry’s not an unreliable narrator at all, is that Snape is deliberately setting himself up to take the blame. This does make sense of everything, but leaves unanswered the question of why on earth he’d bother. It would take Dumbledore’s direct order to make him do it, and I don’t see what purpose that would serve. Of course there’s always the chance that Dumbles is just doing it for the lulz, which is entirely too plausible, but still.

Ron believes Harry’s version without question, of course. Hermione is more sceptical, though not because she realises it’s all nonsense – after all, she only has Harry’s account to go on – but because she simply doesn’t think Snape would do that. ‘I know he’s not very nice, but he wouldn’t try and steal something Dumbledore was keeping safe.’ This is both absolutely true and yet utterly naive of her. No matter what she’s read that insists Dumbles is super-amazing, by this point she must have seen that he doesn’t do anything except sit on his throne during meals and say stupid things every now and then. Why would anyone be afraid to cross him? At this point in the series he’s just another staff member.

I could easily forgive Harry being an unreliable narrator. He’s just a kid at this point, and as we’ll see throughout the series he often jumps to conclusions when he doesn’t have all the facts or doesn’t want to get all the facts. Particularly where Snape’s concerned. And his theory does make sense if you don’t know what’s really going on. But he’s not treated as an unreliable narrator; even though he’s wrong, the book retcons history to say he was right, and will keep on doing so for all seven books.

They can’t discuss it any further, since they still have no idea what Fluffy’s guarding and therefore don’t know what the stakes are. That’s still no excuse for jumping into Quidditch again, book. It’s now the morning of the match, and Harry is bricking it. Much as I hate Quidditch and everything it represents, I do like his reaction here; there’s no unnecessary melodrama, he genuinely comes across as anxious. He’s too nauseous to eat breakfast, despite Hermione ‘wheedl[ing]‘ to try and persuade him (this is almost as bad as nagging. Don’t do it). Seamus agrees with her that he should eat, though since he’s not a silly nurturing female he doesn’t get insulted by the narrative for it, and helpfully tells Harry that seekers are most likely to get hurt and he’ll need his strength.

The match is due to start at 11. Apparently the whole school has piled into the stadium, of course. A lot of them have binoculars – not the magic ones we’ll see in book four; just ordinary Muggle ones. Seriously, why does Rowling decide in later books that wizards don’t know anything about the Muggle world and don’t use Muggle inventions? That said, binoculars are pretty useless for watching anything moving fast over a wide area.

Ron, Hermione, Neville, Seamus and Dean are all sitting on the top row. I’ve no idea where the other Gryffindor girls are. They’ve made a banner out of a sheet that Scabbers chewed (good to know Scabbers is alive, but the sheet would have been removed and mended; let’s be charitable and assume they asked permission).

‘It said Potter for President and Dean, who was good at drawing, had done a large Gryffindor lion underneath. Then Hermione had performed a tricky little charm so that the paint flashed different colours.’

I like Dean being good at art. I think this is pretty much the only time art is acknowledged to exist, at least until we meet Luna who is mocked for making her own clothes and jewellery. I do wonder what sort of books Hermione’s been reading that have this sort of basically useless charm listed, though – one assumes she’s just blazing through the entire school library and has already learned all the good spells.

Current spell count: Hermione, 5. Ron, 1. Harry, 0.

[Mitchell adds: we actually got a bit sidetracked here wondering whether ‘So-and-so for President’ was the sort of thing British children would be likely to say. I thought it rather peculiar and probably an American cultural export, but Loten assures me that it isn’t necessarily so, and the title of ‘president’ is still around even if it isn’t a major political figure. That said, I still think it’s a bit of an odd choice and suspect Rowling just wanted the alliteration.]

Most of this chapter is omniscient-narrator, since Harry’s taking part in the match and unable to see or hear what’s happening in the crowd. That’s fair enough, but I wish more of the book were this way. Ignoring my personal view of Harry as a narrator, though, this is the first Quidditch match we ever see, and Quidditch is pretty much Harry’s only hobby; he’s not interested in anything else. I personally would find his POV of the match insanely tedious, but it would be important to his character, and he could quite easily be narrating up until things start going wrong and we cut to what’s happening in the stadium. Again, multiple characters having point-of-view scenes would help; instead, the narration of this chapter comes off as weirdly detached and lifeless a lot of the time.

Harry’s getting changed with the rest of the team when Wood tries to make a speech. (Incidentally, there’s no description of Quidditch robes beyond their colour. I would imagine they’d need to be divided, like riding dresses were until side-saddle was invented, because otherwise you’d have to bunch them up around your waist to sit astride a broomstick and that rather defeats the point of a robe.) The ‘speech’ is taken over by the Terrible Twins and one of the other players, Angelina Johnson, who were all on the team in previous years and have it memorised; it’s not much of a speech, but Wood’s only fifteen or sixteen.

All three Gryffindor chasers are girls. Hurray, diversity! Though one of them, Alicia Spinnet, won’t appear again that I can recall. Angelina Johnson and Katie Bell both have small recurring parts until at least book six, but I can’t remember Alicia showing up again. There don’t seem to be any girls on the Slytherin team, but there also don’t seem to be any purebloods with silly names, going by the names we hear throughout the match – Marcus and Adrian sort of echo the Roman theme a lot of families seem to have, but we also have Terence and other unremarkable names. In a house containing students saddled with, amongst others, Draco, Lucius, Narcissa, Bellatrix, Rodolphus, Rabastan, Alecto, Andromeda, Astoria, Blaise, and of course Severus. Admittedly, most of them don’t exist at this point in the series, in which case I wonder why Rowling decided later to give half of them outlandish names. At the moment most of them are pretty normal.

Anyway, Madam Hooch the useless substitute teacher is refereeing, and tells both teams she doesn’t want them to cheat. I would have thought that went without saying, personally. Of course Harry decides she’s mostly talking to the Slytherin captain, Marcus Flint. Marcus is a fifth year, but this will be retconned in later books because Rowling forgot when he should have graduated and ends up saying he had to repeat a year; this seems to be a fairly well known thing in America and possibly in other countries, but I truly don’t know how common it is in Britain. I personally don’t know of anyone who’s ever had to; there was one girl in my year who (somehow) failed her OWL-equivalents, but they didn’t hold her back to repeat the year, she just had to revise them alongside her sixth-year classes and retake them. Harry also decides that Marcus looks like he has troll blood in him. Such a lovely boy you are, Harry. Kindly fuck off.

Commentary for the match is provided by Lee Jordan, friend of the Terrible Twins. Why a biased fourteen year old is the commentator will never be explained, but credit where it’s due, it’s actually pretty well written. I don’t find sports commentary interesting, but it’s done well here. A little too well, given Lee’s age, but okay. We’re also not told how he’s doing it, incidentally; the wizarding world is more Muggle-savvy here than in later books but they certainly don’t have microphones, and Rowling hasn’t invented the spell Ludo Bagman uses in book four yet. Maybe he just shouts really, really loudly.

Highlights from the match commentary:

  • Lee takes the chance to ‘compliment’ Angelina’s looks. By itself the comment isn’t that bad, but I have issues with him doing so in front of the entire school when there’s no possible way she can object. At least McGonagall scolds him for it, but this isn’t the last time he’ll do it. There’s at least one match in a later book where he’ll complain within earshot of the whole school that she won’t go out with him no matter how often he says she’s pretty, which is skeevy on multiple levels. (Let’s not mince words about this, this is sexual harassment and Rowling really shouldn’t be treating it as a cute character quirk.)
  • He also compliments Flint, surprisingly, mentioning him ‘flying like an eagle‘. At least, I think it’s meant to be a compliment…
  • Alicia Spinnet was apparently ‘a reserve‘ last year. So the houses do have reserve teams? This will never be mentioned again, not even in the year where Harry’s the captain. And if they do, why did Gryffindor not have a seeker this year? Did both their former seeker and the reserve seeker graduate, and is nobody else in the house capable? What were they going to do if McGonagall hadn’t broken the rules to get Harry on the team, go without and lose every match? (As if.)
  • Katie gets hit in the back of the head with a bludger. Lee astutely points out that this must have hurt. She drops the quaffle, but according to the narrative doesn’t also fall off her broom and smack into the ground with a fractured skull to later die of severe brain damage, or just die instantly as her head explodes. She’s only a second year at this point, so this is her first-ever match as well since she’s not a special snowflake, and she’s already sustained a life-threatening injury. I’d find another hobby, love. (We’ve deduced that Katie Bell must be a second-year here given that she’s older than Harry and still at Hogwarts in book six. This is never acknowledged anywhere; I honestly don’t think Rowling had decided on ages for the rest of the Gryffindor team at this point.)

I suppose we ought to let ourselves be sidetracked again for a minute: let’s talk about head injuries.

Head injuries in Fantasyland are bewilderingly common. Being hit on the head is a commonly abused plot device – it provides a narratively convenient way of knocking a character out to kidnap them or move them somewhere quickly or prevent them doing something stupid. Sometimes the character gets to stay conscious but be a bit dizzy and out of it enough to say something they shouldn’t have for the convenience of other characters or to generate quick drama. For authors who write visually it’s a good descriptive injury, as well, particularly for authors who know/hope their work will be adapted to the screen in some form or another – head injuries provide dramatic bleeding and distinctive visible bruises.

And yet, when’s the last time you read anything where there were actual physical consequences? Head injuries are serious. If you’ve hit someone hard enough to knock them out, you’ve caused some internal damage. There are no actual nerves in the brain, so beyond a headache many people have no idea there’s anything wrong until suddenly days or even weeks later they drop dead. Your skull is relatively tough, since it’s designed to protect your brain, but there are weak points and it was never intended to withstand sudden impacts, and the brain itself is fragile and full of lots and lots of very important things that shouldn’t be shaken up too much.

In the real world if someone gets hit hard in the head, there are a lot of potentially fatal consequences. A fractured or cracked skull. Damage to the spine where head and neck join, with added nerve damage. Internal bleeding. Swelling of the brain. Water on the brain. Blood clots. Damage to the eyes, ears and/or nose. Damage to the mouth possibly including partial amputation of the tongue.

And of course concussion, that not very well understood term that authors usually get wrong. Mild concussion isn’t too serious, it’s the movie version – you feel dizzy, your vision goes a bit weird, you’re a bit confused and can’t focus on things properly, you may even throw up, and then you’re okay. A serious head injury will cause a correspondingly serious concussion, which is much less fun and can screw you up for months, perhaps longer, if it doesn’t simply kill you.

And that’s all just from the initial injury, not taking into account the possibility of brain damage. Think about it; your brain controls everything. Damaging part of it is catastrophic. You could lose one or more of your senses, the ability to walk or speak, your understanding of time or language, your visual memory. You can develop serious mental, physical and emotional disorders. If you’re lucky, the effects may wear off over years, or may be partially countered with therapy. Brain tissue doesn’t heal – any damage is permanent, and whether other areas of your brain are able to learn to compensate for the damaged parts or not is pretty much down to chance.

Let’s not forget memory loss, another favoured plot device. In fiction, memory loss can be funny or it can be frustrating, and occasionally it’s briefly angsty, and then it fixes itself. In the real world, it’s horrifically traumatic and very upsetting, it tears people apart and literally ruins lives, and it may or may not get better.

My favourite example of Fantasyland misusing head injuries comes from A Song of Ice and Fire; at one point Sandor Clegane uses the flat of his battleaxe to smack Arya Stark over the head so he can kidnap her before she gets herself killed. A full grown very muscular warrior smashes a ten year old girl in the head with a gigantic war axe. And she’s fine when she wakes up, she barely has a headache. Shame on you, George. Shame.

This issue isn’t restricted to Fantasyland, of course; plenty of other genres use convenient unconsciousness, particularly crime/spy/action thrillers and so on. But most of what I read is fantasy in one form or another, so that’s generally what I talk about.

In conclusion, don’t use head injuries as plot devices, and certainly don’t use them for comedy. Do your research.

I will now hand you over to Mitchell to discuss real-world brain injuries in sport.

[Mitchell here.] I actually find it odd that I feel so compelled to discuss this subject, mostly because I personally have almost no interest in sport at all. But it’s an issue that doesn’t receive as much exposure as it ought, and the cavalier way Rowling treats it strikes me as an exaggeration of a lot of problematic real-world attitudes.

Let’s take American football, for example; in the last couple of years there’s been a lot of research coming out about the long-term brain damage players have been subjected to (a very high instance of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is more usually associated with boxers; according to this article a study found it affected “96 percent of NFL players that they had examined and in 79 percent of all football players”, for instance).  And the cause isn’t so much a few high-impact collisions, as very frequent minor ones.  From what I understand it’s also been found that it’s much worse in American football than, for instance, rugby, in part because (somewhat counterintuitively) the protective gear and helmets make players more comfortable hitting harder and, e.g., ramming into each other headfirst. Add to this the fact players of American football tend to be more heavily built and the armour adds even more weight, and these players are building up a lot more momentum before crashing into one another.

Similar problems have been observed with players of European football, (what Americans call soccer), from players ‘heading’ the ball and such. I’d be curious to know whether it’s also present in sports like, for example, hockey, where high-speed collisions also occur but don’t necessarily involve the players’ heads directly…

I find it’s really a rather thorny issue and while there is definitely research being done into improving helmets and other safety equipment, I find society as a whole tends to turn a blind eye to this because the sports themselves are so popular as entertainment. I personally am reminded of nothing so much as gladiatorial combat, especially when you consider that many players come from disadvantaged backgrounds and may see the game(s) as their only means of advancement in society. That is not conducive to informed consent (and in any event studies have found players not to be well-informed about the risks). I never particularly cared for American football, but knowing about things like this I can’t stand to watch it at all.

That said, I bring this up here because Quidditch as depicted is even more violent and dangerous than this, is played with no protective equipment whatsoever, and is presented as consequence-free. If people are sustaining severe concussions and long-term brain injury from heading a football, or just from running into each other repeatedly, I don’t think I need to stress what would likely happen to people hit in the head by flying self-propelled cannonballs. Or involved in aerial collisions on broomsticks (even disregarding the possibility of being stabbed with said sticks). Et cetera. Some of this can perhaps be excused in that the conclusive research is fairly new (or at least only recently coming to light), but it’s not as though we only recently discovered head injuries were dangerous.

I apologise for going on at length about this because it’s only tangentially related really, but as Loten said above way too many fictional works treat head injuries cavalierly and this is just yet another manifestation of that. I’m not sure how harmful I really think it is, broadly speaking – there’s an extent to which people probably do realise that fiction is inaccurate about this, but it’s probably still a bad idea to perpetuate misconceptions about how dangerous they really are.

We now return you to your usual programme. Whether you like it or not.

Back with the plot, Hagrid joins the Gryffindor kids in the stadium at this point, for whatever reason. He’s managed to find binoculars that fit his hands and face, so his arbitrary size-changing doesn’t seem to be happening at the moment. He thinks it’s an achievement for Harry to have avoided trouble for the ten minutes or so that he’s been playing; this is a terrifying game. Harry supports this by describing one of the bludgers as ‘more like a cannon ball than anything‘.

Yet another side-track; in ‘real’ Quidditch, the beaters are armed with dodgeballs, and when you’re hit you’re timed out for a minute or so. And the snitch is a player in yellow with a tennis ball in a sock tied to their belt, and the seekers have to chase them and take it off them; if they’re not caught after a certain length of time they have to have one arm tied behind their back, and after another length of time it’s both arms. The game ends once someone catches them, though it’s only worth thirty points; the role is more of a human stopwatch than anything, and really just exists to stop the game going on too long.

We have mixed feelings about this. Truthfully we both think the notion of trying to play real Quidditch is bloody silly and we can’t really see why anyone would want to, but if you accept that as a goal then this is actually a nice solution. It keeps the whimsy and eliminates the risk of horrific death/injury and the stupid gamebreaking scoring.

Anyway, back to the game. Angelina scores, and Harry does some loop-the-loops to celebrate. Not only does he not fall off his broom, but his glasses don’t fall off. Now that truly is magic. Incidentally, he’s not taking part in the game; instead he’s floating majestically above the match, just in case nobody had grasped his superior status, looking for the stupid golden flying walnut. In his defence, this is what Wood told him to do: ‘We don’t want you attacked before you have to be.’ Wood accepts that of course the seeker is going to be attacked, that’s how this game works (and his brilliant strategy for his new seeker boils down to ‘try not to die’). Given how valuable Harry is as the Chosen One, why on earth did Dumbledore allow him to play?

More proof that wizards aren’t anti-Muggle in this book: Hooch has her whistle, and one of the Terrible Twins is wearing a wristwatch (Harry sees the sun reflecting gold from it and thinks it might be the flying walnut).

Eventually Harry does see the walnut, and so does Terence Higgs, the Slytherin seeker. They both charge towards it, and Flint ‘blocks‘ Harry. I had to re-read this scene to figure out what’s going on, because blocking someone is a perfectly normal sporting move but everyone went mad screaming about cheating and fouling; Flint actually deliberately crashed into Harry, which is not what ‘blocking’ means, Rowling. Of course, every single other player stopped what they were doing to watch the amazing snowflake chasing his walnut around, because they all know that scoring goals is utterly meaningless and if he catches the damn thing they can all go inside for a hot drink.

Lots of whining about Flint cheating, and the match resumes with a penalty to Gryffindor, since Terence missed the walnut in all the confusion and now it’s flown off somewhere again. No, really, getting in the seeker’s way ought to be something all the players regularly do, and honestly I can’t imagine there’s ever a full game without people colliding in mid-air.

Presumably as narrative punishment, Marcus gets hit ‘hard‘ in the face with a bludger during the next paragraph. We’ve talked this subject to death during this post; let’s just acknowledge that it’s stupid and move on.

Harry’s broom starts doing weird things at this point, as he dodges a bludger ‘spinning dangerously past his head‘; it lurches and twitches and acts like it’s trying to buck him off, leaving him panicking about falling off. I have problems picturing this scene – he’s hanging onto the broom with his hands and knees? How is he using his knees, he’s sitting on a stick that’s right up in his crotch. Rowling seems to be confusing it with a horse. And of course we have no idea how brooms are usually controlled anyway, so we have no frame of reference for how strange or scary this is or whether he’s taking the right actions or not.

It starts zig-zagging wildly around and making violent swishing movements, and now people are starting to notice (everyone was already watching him chase the walnut, but somehow didn’t see the broom bucking until this point). Hagrid says it looks like he’s lost control of the broom, but that’s apparently impossible for reasons he won’t say. Then it starts rolling over and over, and more people are noticing and pointing; it jerks really violently and Harry falls off, and is now only holding on with one hand. Seamus wonders if something happened to the broom when Flint hit it. I’m wondering how the broom is stilll flying given that its rider isn’t sitting on it any more; I would have thought the first thing anyone would do is build a stop function into the damned things so if the rider falls off it doesn’t fly off into the sunset without them.

Two things I would like to mention here. One – every single person, Harry included, is assuming that this is the broom malfunctioning. Hermione is the only person to think that another human might be doing it deliberately; everyone else thinks it’s perfectly normal for sticks to go crazy and have seizures. Given that she’s Muggleborn (and that Harry’s an idiot) and everyone else commenting is wizard-raised, it’s possible they’re right and that this does happen often enough to not be that remarkable. Just in case this game wasn’t lethal enough already.

We could even take this a step further, given how many things in the wizarding world display a worrying level of sentience and ability to go horribly wrong. It’s entirely possible that magic in this world is actually wild and unpredictable, and only Muggle-raised practitioners assume it can be controlled. Maybe the default state of this universe is batshit chaos. Honestly, that would explain a lot.

The second thing I want to mention at this point is that nobody takes any action whatsoever. Harry’s in serious danger of falling off. None of his team mates fly closer to try to help/get ready to catch him. None of them ask Hooch to call for a time-out. None of the teachers in the crowd are trying to intervene (except one, as we know). Everyone’s just letting it happen. Lee’s not even commenting on it. I personally find this hilarious, honestly, especially in the film where you get to physically see them all just not giving a fuck.

Anyway, Hagrid says only ‘powerful Dark Magic‘ can interfere with a broom.

  • How does he know that?
  • How do you make a stick insanely magic-proof?
  • What does ‘dark magic’ even mean in this universe?

None of these questions will ever be answered. We’ll also never learn how our villain jinxed the broom in the first place, or why. This is the least effective way to hurt a Quidditch player ever – if it was us we’d have greased the damned thing so he fell off naturally, or just plain set it on fire. Or done nothing and let Nature take its course, given how messed up this ‘sport’ is. Dobby’s insane bludger plan next book is 100% more effective than this. The crazy idiot house elf who’s actually on Team Harry is a better villain than the man actively trying to murder him here. Go figure.

Hermione, trying to be a small spark of sanity in this batshit world, assumes that no, sticks can’t do this on a whim, someone must be doing it. She borrows Ron’s binoculars and starts looking at the crowd for someone acting suspiciously. Because the plot demands it, the first possibility she sees is Snape, who’s watching Harry with his lips moving. Like every other person in the crowd who’s watching Harry and talking about what the hell is wrong with his broom. But no, authorial fiat declares that this particular person is suspicious, so Hermione doesn’t keep looking for additional suspects – it’s fair enough, I suppose; she’s only twelve and she’s trying to help her friend, unlike everyone else at the match. It’s just so contrived that it’s irritating, and there’s no possible way she can know at this distance that he’s casting a spell and not just talking to whoever’s sitting next to him.

Continuing to be a better person than everyone else, she has not only identified the (possible) source of the problem but now goes to deal with it. Ron continues to be the worst sidekick ever by simply sitting there and watching her (and occasionally Harry) through the binoculars, just like everyone else in their little group. Seriously, this is just hilariously stupid at this point.

Harry’s broom is now ‘vibrating so hard, it was almost impossible for him to hang on much longer.’ Cough, cough. Things are getting so silly that it’s actually the Terrible Twins who finally try to help him, but the broom kicks higher every time they get near him, so they fly around underneath to catch him if he falls. Hooch continues to do nothing at all, along with every other adult in the crowd, and every other player. Except Marcus, who cheerfully grabs the quaffle and scores five times in a row because everyone’s just staring vacantly at Harry.

You know, why doesn’t he just let go at this point? He’s finally got a safety net (though admittedly not one I would trust). Let go of the stick, you idiot.

This next scene so desperately needed editing. Hermione fights her way through the crowd all the way around the stadium to get to Snape, running along the row behind him and knocking Quirrell over on the way. At this point the broom should have stopped buggering about, at least for a few seconds while he picks himself back up. It doesn’t – though I do actually like the brief mention of Quirrell here, it’s a nice bit of genuine subtlety. I’d appreciate it more if it wasn’t obvious that Rowling went back and stuck it in later instead of rewriting the scene, because clearly this is still the first draft where Snape’s still the villain.

Hermione crouches down next to Snape, who somehow doesn’t notice her. Nor does anyone else sitting near them. She calls up her blue fire again and sets fire to his robe.

Spell count: Hermione, 6. Ron, 1. Harry, 0.

It somehow takes thirty seconds for Snape to notice he’s on fire. Which is more than enough time for Quirrell to have sat up again and continued what he was doing; I suppose we have to assume he hit his head or something (there’s a lot of that going around, after all). There’s been no description of who else is sitting here, but whoever it is, they don’t notice the fire either. Snape also continues not to notice Hermione right next to him; she doesn’t move until she hears him yelp, when she calmly scoops the fire off his robe and into a jar in her pocket (somehow) and walks away from his seat and makes her way back to the others on the opposite side of the stadium. Which he apparently also doesn’t see.

Spell count: Hermione, 7 (unless she’s wearing asbestos gloves). Ron, 1. Harry, 0. This is getting rather silly, isn’t it?

The only possible explanation here is that Snape is perfectly aware of what’s going on and is continuing to follow Dumbles’ sadistic and inexplicable order to take the blame. Because otherwise he could just walk a few seats down and punch Quirrell in the mouth, or Stun him, or something (or even just distract him by forcing him into conversation). Unless he thought Harry would fall off if he stopped what he was doing even for a few seconds, hence him making no attempt to stop Hermione. This is such an Idiot Plot.

Don’t you just love that he and Hermione are the only characters actually trying to do something? Hermione’s just trying to be a good friend with faulty information, but Snape is meant to be super-evil and villainous. Once again I point out that all the other teachers are at this match watching and are doing precisely sweet Fanny Adams.

The movie did this scene so much better. Hermione got under the seats so nobody would see her. She used regular fire, not her super-obvious easy-to-identify signature blue fire. She got the fuck out of there without waiting to see what happened. Someone else told Snape he was on fire, breaking his (much more obvious) state of deep concentration. While he was attempting to stamp out the fire, which is an understandable human reaction even if you do have a magic wand, Quirrell gets knocked over. (Alternatively, Snape took the opportunity to ‘accidentally’ hit Quirrell.) The broom recovers, but because all the events happened so close together there’s no way of saying which particular thing fixed it, and Quirrell is now under observation and can’t start doing it again.

I’m planning to do a post about the movie once we’re done with this book. I think we’re going to end up concluding that it’s a lot better than the book, which is… really not the conclusion I expected to come to.

Anyway, Harry’s able to get back on his broom now. I suppose we could slightly handwave it as him being too stupid (or, more charitably, too scared) to realise that the broom’s not trying to kill him any more for a little while after it actually stops.

Ron remembers he’s in this scene and tells Neville it’s safe to look now. Apparently Neville’s spent the last five minutes crying into Hagrid’s coat. I’m choosing to read this as Neville being triggered into a flashback of when his broom went haywire and tried to kill him, even though that’s clearly reading waaaaaay against authorial intent and even though there’s no reason a broken wrist would create post-traumatic stress given everything else that’s happened to him. He’s probably extremely acrophobic after being thrown out of windows and dangled at heights, so his first time on a broom would have been terrifying even if he hadn’t ended up falling twenty feet. Rowling ironically writes very good post-traumatic stress by accident when she’s trying to say something else.

‘Harry was speeding towards the ground when the crowd saw him clap his hand to his mouth as though he was about to be sick – he hit the pitch on all fours – coughed – and something gold fell into his hand.
‘I’ve got the Snitch!’ he shouted, waving it above his head, and the game ended in complete confusion.’

Try to picture this happening. It sounds like Harry caught the walnut in his hand and then put it in his mouth to me. And how did he manage to land on all fours when he’s got a broom between his legs? I’m pretty sure that would have prevented him ever reaching puberty (which could have seriously improved a lot about the later books). Not to mention that landing on all fours is a good way to shatter your limbs, since there’s no indication that he then rolled over or did anything else sensible.

More to the point, remember that the walnut has wings? In the films, they’re metal. Catching that in your mouth would give you some horrific Joker scars. Even assuming they’re not made of metal in book-canon (why would we assume wizards would do anything to make an object safer, though?) it would still hurt.

If Rowling really wanted him to catch it in his mouth for whatever stupid reason (we know she hadn’t thought of the ‘I open at the close’ thing at this point, there’s been no mention that snitches are one-use-only) she could have salvaged this by just having Harry fall off the damned broom. He’s screaming, his mouth is wide open. The snitch – which does not have wings – is as sadistic as the cannonballs, and flies into his mouth. Done.

There ought to be a scene break here, since we jump to twenty minutes after the match at this point. Marcus is arguing that almost swallowing the walnut by accident doesn’t count as catching it; poor naive bastard. Unsurprisingly, nobody’s listening to him. Gryffindor won by over a hundred points, because apparently when Marcus started scoring goals totally unopposed he got bored after five and decided not to keep doing it until he reached a score where catching the walnut wouldn’t be enough? If he’d kept going he could have won the match, and it would be totally legal since the referee didn’t stop play to help the young boy in danger.

It’s fun to imagine the Slytherin chasers just sitting either side of one of the goals idly throwing the quaffle back and forth through the hoop for five minutes while all this is happening.

Harry, Ron and Hermione are in Hagrid’s hut drinking tea; Seamus, Dean and Neville are no longer deemed worthy of witnessing the plot and have vanished. (It’s a good point, though. They all heard Hermione say it was Snape; they all watched her dealing with it. Then what? They decided they didn’t actually give a fuck and wandered off? Wait, that actually makes sense, never mind.)

Ron explains everything to Harry, and makes it sound like he was involved in it instead of sitting watching Hermione do it. She keeps silent – maybe she’s starting to realise things aren’t making sense and is trying to think it through. It’s all news to Hagrid, even though he was sitting right next to them at the time, and he says it’s rubbish and asks why Snape would do that.

Harry says he found out Snape was trying to get past the three-headed dog at Halloween (so Snape must have wanted to silence him). Hagrid is shocked that they know about Fluffy, to the surprise of the Trio who understandably hadn’t guessed that was the monster’s name; it turns out Fluffy belongs to Hagrid. He bought him off a Greek man he met in a pub. I really like the detail that the cerberus’ owner was Greek, that’s a nice touch.

Hagrid lent Fluffy to Dumbledore to guard the – and he’s about to say it, when Harry interrupts with ‘Yes?‘ at which point Hagrid shuts up. You’re an idiot, Harry. If you’d just let him finish the sentence this would have been over quicker. Hagrid being unable to keep secrets actually works here: he doesn’t see much of most students, most people seem to see him as a dumb animal, he’s probably very lonely and has lost the habit of guarding his speech. The part where it falls down is expecting us to keep swallowing it for the entire series; there’s no handwave, he’s just an utter moron, or being mind-controlled by Dumbles.

Anyway, Harry insists Snape’s trying to steal whatever the object is, and Hagrid repeats that it’s rubbish. Hermione asks, why did he try to kill Harry then? She’s read all about jinxes, and that’s what Snape was doing because he was keeping eye contact and not blinking.

Looking at someone and keeping eye contact with them isn’t the same thing. Also, eye contact will never ever matter for another spell again in the rest of the series (well, excepting Legilimency, but that’s something radically different). And curse and jinx, and later hex, will all be used interchangeably with no attempt to explain what they mean and whether there’s a difference. Besides, if Hermione’s read that about curses, she should also have read that it applies to counter-curses as well.

‘I’m tellin’ yeh, yer wrong!’ said Hagrid hotly. ‘I don’ know why Harry’s broom acted like that, but Snape wouldn’ try an’ kill a student!’

‘Unlike a worryingly high number of your other teachers!’

(Incidentally, Hagrid keeps referring to him as Snape, not Professor Snape, which is totally out of character for him.)

He tells them to keep out of it, that what’s going on is between Dumbledore and Nicholas Flamel. Harry literally says ‘Aha!‘ at this point, which I really didn’t think people actually did, and Rowling gets bored and randomly ends the chapter in mid-sentence with ‘Hagrid looked furious with himself.‘ I feel that should have ended with ‘and refused to say anything else’ or ‘and changed the subject’ or ‘and abruptly said it was time for them to go back to the castle’.

Well, wasn’t that fun. This is probably the worst chapter we’ve covered so far, except perhaps the ones involving horrific child abuse, because it’s just such a mess. The whole thing is a tangle of continuity errors and reads like a very early draft in chronic need of careful editing. This was the first book by a then-unknown author; I would assume Bloomsbury would have been a lot more thorough, unless they weren’t expecting it to do that well and didn’t really care. We understandably can’t find any information on whether Rowling was contracted to produce the full series at this point, or whether the first book was a trial and she was offered a contract afterwards when it did reasonably well; we do know the series didn’t really take off until around Goblet of Fire. The mid-point between early books not mattering and later books selling insanely well no matter what was probably Prisoner of Azkaban; assuming we make it that far it’ll be interesting to see how well the editing was done there (I can already think of several continuity errors, but we’ll see).

I’m not sure they even really bother editing children’s books, though. Young Adult didn’t exist as a genre at this point, and even if it had, this book and the next are both very definitely aimed at pre-teens. It’s entirely possible any publisher wouldn’t bother since they’d know their target audience wouldn’t notice or care.

In conclusion, either the author or the publishers (or both) were very lazy here and really dropped the ball. Which is a shame. Writing is hard, why bother if you’re not going to take the time to make it right? And on that note, see you next time for a full chapter of angsty!Harry several books before he should exist…


Posted by on January 19, 2016 in loten, mitchell


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

RIP Alan Rickman

One of the best actors of several generations. He will be greatly missed.


Posted by on January 14, 2016 in loten


The Silkworm: Part Ten

So being able to do the HP posts more regularly recently has got me thinking. Those books are a mess, and so much about them makes me angry, and a lot is just plain stupid, but I still enjoy it. Partly that’s just down to sharing the spork with Mitchell, of course, but the books are still genuinely fun, at least some of the time. I like some of the characters, and some parts of the plot, and some aspects of the universe. And judging by all the comments and discussion each of those posts get, you all feel the same.

And then there’s the Cormoran Strike books.

There is literally nothing I enjoy about this book any more. I hate all the characters to such an extent that I have no interest in the plot. I don’t care who killed Owen, or why. Every single paragraph just irritates me to the point where I don’t even particularly like writing the posts. And there aren’t many comments for them, so I don’t think you lot really care either.

I’ve already said this is the last book I’m going to do, that I won’t be continuing the series even though the third one is out now. I’m too stubborn to quit this, but I am going to drastically change how I go about it, for my own sanity as much as anything else. Let’s just take it as read that the book sucks; that virtually everything our protagonist thinks or says or does will be terrible, stupid or both; that he’s going to whine endlessly about his knee; that Robin’s going to continue waffling vaguely and being useless; that the plot’s going to be hastily solved right at the very end in some implausible way after a lot of love-triangle garbage. I don’t need to break down every instance of it. I’m going to speed things up a lot, I’m going to skim through and give you summaries, and keep my snark to a minimum except in special cases. I want to finish this crappy book so I can go onto something either genuinely good or at least fun to rip apart. (I don’t know what, yet.)

TL;DR – we’re trying to speed-run through a bunch of chapters per post now because this book sucks.

Chapter 28 fully supports my decision not to read this too closely. Robin whines to herself a lot, mostly about Matthew and slightly about Strike. Strike elects to go without his false leg and whines to himself about women drivers. They drive towards Devon and talk a bit about Owen’s other books and whether he was writing in some kind of weird code.

Strike’s lawyer friend phones; Leonora was taken in for questioning after the police found kinky sex photos of Owen tied up, and something else in a lock-up. Naturally we’re not told what.

They’re suddenly in a car accident, a lorry in front of them goes into a skid and hits a couple of other cars. In another book I’d appreciate this scene – Strike panics, Robin’s totally chilled out about the whole thing and takes some neat evasive manoeuvres to avoid getting involved and then calmly gets out to help other people, miraculously nobody’s killed, bla bla bla. Instead I’m wondering why this scene is even here. The whole thing takes up less than two pages from the start of the skid to the police arriving, taking their details and letting them go, so it seems to exist purely to imply that Robin’s good at stuff. It’s over too quickly to be dramatic and seems like just filler. Turns out Robin took some advanced driving classes once.

End of chapter! I like this new approach.

They get to Devon and find Chard’s house. Robin’s feeling pretty sick by this point for some reason; I think it’s meant to be a combination of delayed shock from the accident and low blood sugar since Strike ate all the snacks she brought for the trip. The Hispanic servants who pissed me off so much in an earlier chapter turn out to be Filipino, if that makes a difference to anyone, and I think are meant to be mother and son. Robin continues feeling sick. Chard has a fucking weird sounding house, full of glass walls and floors – they can see his (leather) bed in the room above them, and a crucifix made of barbed wire – and lots of polished metal. There’s a statue of a ‘partially dissected’ angel in apparently quite gory detail despite being plain white marble; Robin nearly faints and has to be taken to the kitchen while the menfolk talk.

Lots of pointless small talk takes up another couple of pages (Chard says he fell down the shiny glass and metal spiral staircase when he broke his leg, then goes off on a ramble about art) before he gets to the point; he thinks someone else helped Owen write the book and wants someone outside the company he can trust to investigate. He claims Owen didn’t know all the things he put into it, someone must have given him the information. There’s no reason on earth why he’d pick Strike to look into this, but I don’t care any more.

Robin recovers and tries to go back and join the conversation. Chard tells her to fuck off, and Strike nobly says nothing, so she fucks off. Filler, filler, filler.

Chard thinks he knows who helped Owen, and is annoyed that if it turned out to be relevant Strike would tell the police if he found proof. He’s acting very erratic during this conversation. He thinks it’s Jerry, he’s suspected it for a long time because Jerry didn’t apologise for what Owen wrote. Even Strike thinks this is weird, but then, Strike’s continuing to picture Chard naked and aroused and half rotting, so I don’t think he has room to talk.

Anyway, Chard says Jerry’s resented him for a long time. Fancourt flirted a lot with Jerry’s wife before Chard advised him not to and Fancourt threw a tantrum and left for another publisher, so now that Fancourt’s back Jerry’s blaming Chard and trying to undermine him. Chard says Jerry deliberately let all and sundry read the manuscript, was reluctant to join in any talk of legal actions, and has now resigned. Chard also says Jerry wrote his own libellous description of the Cutter in the book without Owen’s knowledge, both to throw off suspicion and to hurt his wife because apparently the stuff with the dwarf and the bloody sack refers to something Chard won’t talk about. Apparently Jerry told Owen the company was going to drop him to keep Fancourt happy, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back because Chard had offended Owen a while ago anyway.

Chard claims that when Owen brought Orlando to look around, she went to grab a mock-up of a book jacket that was on a desk and Chard grabbed her wrist to stop her and she made a big uncomfortable scene that made Owen furious. I’m frankly astounded this incident was even mentioned again; God knows Strike’s never given it another thought, and he doesn’t pause to add anything here either.

Chard thinks Liz would have been upset at how she’s written in the book, but doesn’t care. He says he warned Fancourt about the contents personally, and that Fancourt was very calm and didn’t seem bothered. Strike asks about Joe North and Chard starts fidgeting and acting uncomfortable and says all he did was turn down North’s book, which Owen also blamed him for, but it wasn’t personal.

Changing the subject, Chard asks how Strike goes about investigating things. Pretty sure he doesn’t, actually, but never mind. Strike says he works quite closely with the police – ha – and adds that the police don’t seem all that bothered by what they’ve found out about Chard so far. Continuing to act like a lunatic, Chard promptly starts helpfully rambling half to himself about all his movements in recent weeks, and does this for half a page before realising this is very stupid and deciding that the interview is over and that Strike should go now. He asks briefly after Leonora, adding an unasked-for description to show he’s never actually met her (he seems to be describing Kathryn but I can’t tell), before Strike collects Robin. She’s meant to have gone to the bathroom, but seems to be gone for a while so presumably was doing some investigating offscreen; she’s also giving Strike the silent treatment for letting her get thrown out of the conversation. Keep that up and stop harping on about men and I might start to like you again, Robin.

As they’re leaving, the young Filipino man – Manny – stops them. He says he never pushed Chard down the stairs and that Chard’s lying. I would say the plot thickens, but it’s going to take more than this.

Next chapter opens with some filler of Strike and Robin stopping at a motorway services to eat. To my absolute joy, they have a row. Strike gets all defensive about not letting Robin join the conversation and Robin loses her temper and asks what the fuck he thought he was hiring her for and why does he keep hinting about training and then talking about hiring someone else? She doesn’t want to sit around answering the phone, she wants to actually do stuff. I really wish she wasn’t trying not to cry while yelling all this at him, but I’ll take what I can get.

Naturally, Strike is utterly bewildered by this and says he never realised she was serious about wanting training and things. He then instantly contradicts himself by saying he did originally hire her to be a part of the business and not just a receptionist, but that he doesn’t see the point in paying for courses etc because he knows Matthew hates her job and assumes she’s going to give in to her master and quit. And of course he invokes Charlotte again, claiming that one of the reasons they kept breaking up was that she hated his job.

This isn’t resolved, of course. Robin doesn’t say whether she plans to quit or not and refuses to even think about it, except for a weird tangent about how Matthew never worries about her doing anything dangerous. Instead she asks for confirmation that Strike thinks she’s useful, then starts crying, then changes the subject to ask about the part of the plot she missed when the menfolk sent her away. This is why I still don’t like you, Robin. You get so close to being a decent character and then fuck up again.

Let us note they’re still sitting in the services. They could talk about this in the car while travelling, in order for Robin to get back in plenty of time to catch her train to her fiancé’s mother’s funeral, but if you think that’s going to happen then you’re reading a different book.

Strike thinks Chard’s a harmless lunatic, but isn’t sure whether Jerry was involved or not. Turns out yes, Robin did go snooping, and there’s an artist’s studio next to the staff bathroom. Translation, Rowling wanted both weird glass floors and for Robin to nose around without being noticed, so fuck common sense. Chard’s got a lot of anatomical studies in the studio, wax models and drawings and all sorts. And a painting of Manny in the nude.

They get back in the car. Strike’s lawyer friend phones again; Leonora’s not been arrested yet, but they’ve finished questioning her and they’re sure it’s her based on opportunity and her attitude under questioning. The thing they found in the lockup was a burned bloodstained rag. And Owen’s missing guts are on the news now since someone leaked it. After the phone call we somehow hear Anstis making a statement to that effect on the radio.

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the traffic’s very bad, there was another accident, and Robin’s now very late and is going to struggle to catch her train. Rowling chooses to resolve this by magically making Strike an expert on driving in London, and thanks to him yelling instructions constantly Robin violates lots of traffic laws – going the wrong way down one-way streets, ignoring speed limits, that sort of unbelievably dangerous thing – before finally pulling over, abandoning the one-legged Strike in a car he can’t drive in the middle of a snowstorm, and running for the station without a change of clothes or anything else. I will concede that I’m surprised she actually makes the train, I just assumed that of course she wouldn’t.

In time-honoured Rowling fashion, we’re not told what Strike did with the hire car, or how he made it home. Next morning he’s brooding about the case and the lack of leads and spends several pages rehashing what we already know yet again, before seguing into a pointless story about a childhood friend. When they were eighteen they went to Australia to visit this friend’s uncle, and they went surfing and saw sharks, and the friend was a total moron and paddled up to touch it and lost a chunk of his forearm and most of the use of his thumb.

This has nothing to do with anything but leads to a pseudo-profound bit of bullshit about murderers being like sharks and another page or so of filler about what drives people to kill. Finally Strike decides he knows someone he can call for information – his half-brother Alexander who has never been mentioned before. Alexander, or Al, is Jonny Rokeby’s legitimate son and nine years younger than Strike, but they’ve always got along tolerably well even though all Strike’s other half-siblings on his father’s side hate him, bla bla bla. Pointless story about how Rokeby offered Strike money, via Al, to get his business started, Strike saw it as a bribe to stop him selling his story (what story? you’re not fucking famous you dick) and refused, suddenly no bank anywhere would give him a loan, he had to borrow the money from Rokeby (also via Al) and that’s why he’s always going on about not having any money, because he’s paying back that debt. If this had been mentioned at any point in the book and a half of this crap that I’ve ploughed through thus far I’d be a lot more forgiving.

It’s entirely academic anyway since Al isn’t answering his phone, so Strike just leaves him a voicemail. We haven’t been told what Al does for a living or what help he could possibly be.

Strike spends yet another page rehashing things the reader’s had repeated to them a billion times by now, in this case the suspect list, then calls Nina. She’s happy for him to come round, she’ll cook, that’s fine. Poor, deluded woman. Strike’s planning to get information out of her, stay the night, then bugger off in the morning. He makes a point of specifying that it’ll be next morning when he has to try to get away from her.

The chapter ends by telling us there’s someone tall and willowy with long fingers playing with a Stanley knife in the street outside and watching his flat. Oh, book, don’t get my hopes up.

I’m already regressing and losing sight of my new speed-running goal, aren’t I.  Robin makes it to the funeral and spends the whole time thinking about random irrelevant shit and hating herself for it.

Her phone rings during the wake and she nobly ignores it for a while, and during the cleanup checks her messages to find a super-dramatic voicemail from Strike. Crackling interference, him not talking, a couple of crashes and him yelling in pain, then some noises and the call dropping. She tries to call back and it goes to voicemail.

Chapter ends with Matthew scowling and looking annoyed, because that’s apparently more important.


Oh, damn. Strike’s fine. Rowling couldn’t even drag the suspense out for more than half a page. Yeah, he was attacked, but nothing actually happened – a woman lunged at him with a knife, he dodged, he twisted his knee and yelled, she panicked and ran away. And somehow his phone just got knocked onto silent in the middle of the call without him realising, so now he doesn’t know Robin’s trying to call him. Stupidly contrived plot device is stupidly contrived, and also probably not actually possible unless he’s got a fucking weird phone. Anyway, we don’t get any kind of description of the woman, but he thinks it’s the young round-shouldered girl who was following him earlier in the book when he tried to ambush her and fell over.

He’s on his way to Nina’s and sulking about not being able to chase the woman – and utterly failing to consider that he probably should be calling the police to tell them someone’s just tried to stab him – and can’t feel his phone vibrating because it’s in his coat pocket. And he can’t hear it buzzing because reasons. If you really must have this stupid source of ‘drama’, Rowling, at least say the battery died; I’ll happily believe he’s too much of an idiot to remember to charge the thing. Or say it broke when he dropped it, or that he dropped it in a drain, or that he nver picked it up again after the attack. Or if you let him take the Underground and not endless taxis I’d have believed he doesn’t have a signal. You had more plausible options here.

He gets to Nina’s and lies about why he’s late, then lies about ‘forgetting’ to bring her a bottle of wine he never had, then finally notices his phone ringing and blows Nina off to answer it. He’s utterly surprised by Robin panicking because he didn’t even realise he’d called her during the attack. Oh, come on. He didn’t even fall over; how on earth did he manage to unlock his phone, call her number, end the call at the most dramatic moment, then turn the phone onto silent, then lock it again? And this entire saga has barely lasted two pages – if you’re not going to actually expand on the drama, why bother including it at all?

Nina’s laid on a romantic candlelit dinner, though the food’s burned because he was late. Strike decides to forgive her obvious irritation by telling himself that if he’d pulled this shit with Charlotte she’d have thrown the plates at him. Yawn. While they eat Nina tells him she had a nightmare about the two of them finding Owen’s guts in the bottom drawer of Jerry’s desk. She’s coming across as very upset, because until she saw the news she hadn’t known Owen died so horribly, and she wishes Strike had told her, and everyone at work’s feeling and acting weirdly now they know, and Jerry started drinking heavily again and was really angry all the time before he resigned… Naturally Strike gives no fucks and just pities himself because chicks are never quite as into him after they hear about him encountering gross stuff.

She carries on talking about Jerry; she’s not eating and keeps drinking a lot of wine. He was acting really oddly, kept insisting that Owen was mentally ill and couldn’t be blamed for the book, and was blaming Liz for most of it. Liz came to the office to talk about another author and Jerry slammed his door so hard he nearly broke the glass. And Liz looked really ill, normally she’d have yelled at him for that but she barely reacted. Nina mentions there’s an interview with Fancourt on TV tonight; Strike says he’d like to watch it and she stares at him. He thinks she’s trying to work out whether he just wants more information or whether he actually wants to sleep with her, but then his phone rings again and he answers without apologising to her (again) and she walks out.

It’s his half-brother Al, and they arrange to meet for dinner later this week.

Robin’s watching the Fancourt interview too, in the company of Matthew and her parents. Her father’s asleep, her mother’s taking notes because she’s doing some sort of literature course, and Matthew’s reading the paper. Fancourt’s rambling about how love doesn’t exist and saying some pretty terrible things about women and relationships that make it quite clear he’s a card-carrying MRA.

She looks at the paper Matthew’s reading and sees a photo of the random car crash, and says she was nearly in it. Matthew asks what the hell she was doing on the M4 yesterday and she confesses that she was driving her boss to an interview that he could have taken a train for instead of coming up to see him and help him prepare for his mother’s funeral. Understandably he’s really, really pissed, and walks out.

Robin tries to defend herself to her mother, who isn’t listening, then listens to some more awful Red Pill crap from Fancourt before he starts faking tears as he talks about his wife’s suicide. Finally she decides that maybe she might actually be in the wrong here and follows Matthew out.

Rowling’s losing interest in her side characters; we don’t see if Strike bothers to try to be nice to Nina before leaving, nor do we see Robin attempting to apologise to Matthew, but jump ahead to the next day. Robin’s back at work, she’s been crying, and she’s angry with Matthew. No, you are one hundred per cent in the wrong here, and Matthew might be a jerk but I’ve spent most of this book on his side. She makes the tea again. Strike’s got Caroline Ingles – who may or may not be the ‘brunette woman’ constantly being referred to endlessly in the early chapters – coming to talk to him soon, and wants Robin to try to track down the old guy who says he saw Owen in a bookstore a couple of days after his disappearance; he’s also having lunch with Jerry later. And he wants Robin to find out when the Fancourt interview was taped.

Turns out Caroline Ingles is actually blonde, so it’s not her, if anyone cares.

Robin says the Fancourt interview was recorded November 7th – two days after Owen disappeared, I think? I don’t remember. She wants to know why it matters and Strike says he saw something, she really ought to have spotted it first time and should rewatch it on Youtube or something. Fuck off, Strike.

Of course, now we actually get to see Robin doing stuff, now I’ve decided I hate her. The witness actually owns a second-hand bookstore, and he’s very old and shaky and has poor hygiene and first saw Owen about twenty years ago. Robin thinks this means the recent sighting was rubbish and implies that he recognised the cloak Owen usually wears, and he replies calmly that no, actually he recognised the heterochromatic eyes, he’s more observant than he seems and was in intelligence in the war. The ‘so fuck you, you patronising bint’ is unsaid but heavily implied.

For her next trick Robin decides to imply that he gets his dates confused and was he really, really sure it was the 8th? Yes, because he keeps to a regular routine and Mondays are the days he buys milk from the corner shop, which he’d just done when Owen came into the shop, and he knows it was that Monday in particular because he also visits a friend of his on Mondays and remembered telling him about Owen’s visit, and they also talked about a sinkhole appearing in Germany in the same conversation. Robin Googles this and tells him that the sinkhole appeared on the 1st, not the 8th, and for some reason this flusters him and he throws her out. Because apparently you can only discuss news articles on the day they air and it’s utterly impossible for them to have talked about it a week after it happened.

I’d like to point out that Owen bought three books, and the store owner – who Rowling didn’t bother to give a name to – remembers two of them. Why on earth nobody’s suggested just looking at the till records is beyond me.

Strike gives us two pages of the now-typical Rowling filler in describing the restaurant he’s meeting Jerry at. Jerry shows up on time but his breath smells of alcohol. He says he chose this restaurant because nobody from work comes here; he likes his former co-workers well enough but the atmosphere there is poisonous now. Jerry’s nervous, he’s babbling and keeps pushing his glasses up his nose a lot.

He thinks maybe Owen might have somehow done it himself. He knows it’s impossible, but it was so theatrical and grotesque and got so much weird publicity that it’s the kind of thing Owen would have loved. And he blames Liz, says she wound Owen up about various wrongs Fancourt allegedly did them, though Fancourt does hate them both. He describes Liz as a bitch, twisted, angry, bitter, and a bully with a scary temper. Don’t hold back, eh, Jerry.

Jerry’s pretty drunk by this point, rambling about how Owen turned on everyone. He implies that Owen knew something bad about Fancourt, not the thing with his wife’s suicide but something else, then changes the subject to talk about how Owen liked him really. Strike asks about the Cutter and Jerry says it’s just referring to some idea or bit of prose he must have cut that Owen objected to; Strike thinks the answer sounds rehearsed, but because Jerry’s drunk he can’t be sure.

Strike asks if Jerry knew anything about the book while Owen was working on it. Only the title; Owen said it was a metaphor for the agonies a writer has to go through to get to the good stuff. Was that normal for Owen, keeping everything secret? Yes. What about Jerry’s movements around the time of the disappearance? He’s been through all that with the police already, he was meant to be going away with his wife for their anniversary but they had a massive row on the way to the airport and abandoned the trip. Their marriage has been a mess for years, and now their daughter’s grown up they’re getting a divorce. Anyway, he read the book, yelled at Liz, then got on with his life; Owen wasn’t answering his calls, but he had problems of his own at work.

Chard blames Jerry for gossiping about his sexuality with Owen. Jerry says everyone’s known for years that Chard likes paintings of nude young men, that he once asked Joe North to pose for him and North refused; it’s been common knowledge for ages but Chard thinks it’s all Jerry’s fault, and he resigned because the accusations were too much.

The drunken rambling is interrupted when Jerry’s phone rings. It’s his daughter’s number, so he answers, but it turns out to be his wife; he starts screaming abuse at her and leaves the restaurant (leaving Strike with quite a high bill. Good for you, Jerry). Strike pays up and chases him outside, where he’s still yelling obscenities down the phone in quite graphic detail concerning his wife’s infidelity; he ends the call when he sees Strike, starts crying, mumbles something about how he thought Owen at least held the father-daughter bond sacred, and stumbles off.

So… the scene with the sack and the bloody dwarf, plus this, leads me to think that either his wife or his daughter got pregnant and he forced her to have an abortion? Or possibly forced a miscarriage? Or something else horrible? I’m guessing the wife, and that he thought/knew the baby wasn’t his. Or given the daughter references, maybe she had the baby, and he knew it wasn’t his, and the baby died? I don’t know but it’s likely to be awful.

Strike gives no fucks about whether or not Jerry gets home safely, because being drunk outside in a very bad winter isn’t a big deal and has never killed anyone ever; Jerry’s too drunk to talk to him any more, so that’s all that matters.

I think that will do quite nicely. Nine chapters in around the same length of time and number of words I’d usually have wasted on one. Next week should hopefully see another HP post, but no promises.


Posted by on January 8, 2016 in loten


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