Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

cursed child

Harry Potter side story, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2016, 327 pgs.

Nineteen years later, Harry Potter stands again on Platform 9 ¾ watching two of his children board the train to Hogwarts, to the best years of their lives, and to their own adventures. To, presumably, safer adventures than he and his friends had; his scar has never acted up since the Battle of Hogwarts, and life has been peaceful since the war, minus some rumors about time-turners and crazy Death Eater plans. In fact, his biggest worry anymore seems to be his strained relationship with his middle child, Al. Unfortunately for Harry, that’s all about to change, with both of his minor worries coming together in the worst way possible. Children will go missing, timelines will change, and the threatened return of an enemy long defeated will once again throw Harry’s world into chaos.

Well, this was a long time coming. I read this ages ago and have been wanting to talk about it since I finished it.

I’ve been putting it off for two reasons, really. The first is that I wanted to finish my reread notes first, but, well, those are pretty firmly on the back-burner indefinitely, which I’ve known for a while now. Then there’s the other reason, which is that I’m not really sure how novel what I have to say about Cursed Child is. I really do agree with the consensus here: there’s just something about this that’s a little off for a Harry Potter story.

I also agree with the consensus that a lot of that has to do with the way the characters were written. Funnily enough, for that, the couple of big things that I’ve seen most people complaining about didn’t bother me all that much. I didn’t have much problem with the way Hermione was written, and the parts I did take issue with, like the complete lack of protection for a very important artifact in her office, I haven’t seen much discussion about.

But I had no problem with her being a complete jerk in the first alternate future, where she’s just very uptight and kind of mean. Do you remember eleven-year-old Hermione? Who was very uptight and kind of mean? She only chills out when she becomes friends with Harry and Ron, and, while this decision would have made more sense in an alternate timeline where that never happened instead of in one where she and Ron never got together, it’s not out of keeping for the character. I had no problem either with the dystopian future, where her personal life gets put on hold to fight the rebellion. That just makes sense, right? Apparently I can deal with cruel, emotionally-constipated Hermione, but stupid Hermione breaks me.

Ditto Harry telling Al that he wished he weren’t his son. I mean, it was an awful thing to do, but by the point it happened it was implied that Harry had been trying to be patient with an increasingly distant and angry kid for years. And it happened after Al had a) spit on a gift that was one of the last things Harry had of his parents and b) started in with that sentiment in the first place. Everyone has their breaking point in those situations, and Harry’s always had a temper. Snapping and then immediately regretting it seems exactly like what he’d do, to me.

On the other hand, I can’t ever see him trying to get his child to do something by saying “I need you to obey.” That’s never how he was won over by authority, and in turn that was never his method to try to win other people over. The demand to obey without question seems farther away from the spirit of the character and, really, of the series, than any awful comment made in anger ever could.

Mostly, though, my issue with the characterization comes from other people. I can’t see Cedric ever becoming a Death Eater; people that decent just don’t go that way because of a single, humiliating event. I can’t see spitfire fighter Ginny Weasley in the role of kind, forgiving saint who is trying to get everyone to accept Draco Malfoy as a friend. And at some point during the writing process, someone seems to have confused Ron with either Fred or George.

Again, it’s all just a little bit off.

That feeling has roots in everything, too. It’s in the framing: if this is supposed to be the second generation’s story, then why is it left to Harry and company to save the day again? It’s in the plotting: bringing Voldemort back seems too much like an attempt to return to a story that’s already firmly ended. It’s in the small mistakes of the world details. Hell, it’s in the overall feel of the piece: the seemingly too-fast pace is probably down to medium, but even considering that it’s still missing some sort of essential cleverness or intrigue necessary for a Harry Potter story.

And this may be a small detail and a non sequitur, but it really does bother me that, after all these years, nobody’s learned to go on high alert whenever boomslang skin goes missing from Hogwarts potion’s cupboard.

I’ve seen people talk about Cursed Child as fan-ficcy, and yeah, from the weird characterization to the recycled story elements.

For all the faults that causes, though, that’s also a lot of what I loved about it. The analytical side of my brain might have spent most of its reading time raising its eyebrows, but the lizard brain was definitely jumping for joy at a lot of this.

I don’t think it was just being able to return to this world, either. For all the weirdness and rehash, there were parts of this that made me genuinely happy to see, and those parts were also elements that could be considered fan-ficcy.

Some of that comes from its looking into the untold stories of the world, the alternate universes, the ways things could have gone, the things the second generation gets up to. Some of that is in the parts that are straight wish fulfillment. Getting to see Snape be openly funny and helpful, or to see Malfoy getting to go on an adventure with the leads are dreams long deferred for certain parts of the fandom; parts which generally include me.

And the best of these aspects comes from what is possibly the most fan-ficcy: the fact that the characters actually sit down and talk about their various traumas rather than just silently dealing on their own, and use them to relate to each other. This is a far more human happily ever after than the perfect, golden vision of the epilogue.

Arguably, part of the problem with this script was that they didn’t push the fanfic aspects far enough, or pulled too much from what fandom does wrong instead of what fandom does right. Instead of creating a new villain and storyline, they stuck too close to what had already been done. Instead of meticulously working out character traits, they inserted a bland original character. Instead of picking through every detail of how this world works, they just did what they wanted to make their plot easy. Where every fan writer worth their salt would have done the former every time.

As much as I can’t hate this, and even really loved some of it, those former examples were what I wanted. I wanted that attention to detail. I wanted a new story. I wanted to see the second generation come into their own.

And that’s really the problem here. They needed to move to the future, they needed to do it by paying close attention to the past, and they only halfway accomplished either.

The Ruining by Anna Collomore

the ruining

Standalone, Razorbill, 2013, 313 pgs.

Annie finally feels like her life is beginning. She’s moving away from her run-down, broken home in Detroit to go to college in California and make something of herself. Moreover, she’s moving away from her awful past and into a taste of what she hopes is her future; she’ll be working as a nanny for and living with a rich couple who have the sort of life she’s always dreamed of. Life in California seems wonderful, too. Walker, the father of the family she’s staying with, is funny and easygoing, Zoe, the little girl she’s watching, is sweet and adorable, and their house is beautiful, like something out of a magazine. There’s even a cute boy next door and the excitement of finding herself in her classes to round things out for Annie. So if the mother, Libby, is a little nit-picky and gets worked up over tiny things, that’s fine, right? She’s still fun to be around, and attentive, and seems to think of Annie as a little sister, even if she sometimes does strange things. Ok, so maybe it’ll be a little tougher than she thought it would, but Annie can’t throw this chance away. She just can’t.

I’ve read quite a lot of smart books; it always brings me a little pang of joy when an author does something clever with the characters or plotting or references. I’ve read quite a lot of stupid books as well, sometimes unintentionally, but also because sometimes everyone needs to relax with something fun and light.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read something that is somehow both at the same time.

I realize that’s sort of an odd statement to make, but this book is pretty clearly split on how well it was thought out. There are parts of this that are done beautifully, where the author obviously did detailed, studious research, and there are parts of this where things seemingly happen only because it’s convenient to the narrative.

To start, though, I will say this to the book’s credit: the parts that don’t really fall into either of those categories are generally good. The characters are engaging and decently three dimensional, and the prose is pretty evocative and beautiful. If you’re not going to be bothered by some plot contrivance then you’ll probably be perfectly fine with this.

Similarly, the major driving theme is really well-researched, especially for a YA novel.

A novel about the way abuse can work its way into your brain and make you think that the only problem in a situation is you could have easily been hackneyed and melodramatic, but here nearly every part of the novel that works toward exploring that side of things is well drawn.

What our villain, Libby, is doing to Annie isn’t exactly subtle, but you do really get the sense of her deliberately fishing out another person’s weaknesses and using them. You do really get the feel of Annie blaming every little thing on herself, because obviously no one would react that strongly if she hadn’t done something wrong. You are confused along with her as she begins to doubt her own senses and memories. It’s clear Collomore looked into how an abusive situation works and tried to do as much justice to it as she could.

And Annie herself is set up very well, with regards to that. It’s made clear at the beginning of the novel that she comes from a sort of neglectful background anyway and has some mental issues along the lines of PTSD and self hatred from her sister’s death when she was younger. She’s fresh from escaping the first and has never really dealt with the second. These are all things that make her susceptible to Libby’s manipulation in the first place, and, when she trusts Libby with them towards the beginning of the novel, they become hinge points for Libby to work her way in.

Again, this is all set up fairly cleverly. There are parts of this book that are smart.

Also again, there are unfortunately parts of this book that are stone-cold stupid.

Like Collomore’s tendency to make her lead behave in irredeemably dumb ways when the plot calls for it. I never expected Annie to see through the abusive behavior of someone she trusted and liked, especially when she saw this job as her one chance to get away from her awful life and Libby’s craziness and impositions were introduced slowly. I did, on the other hand, expect her to be a reasonably intelligent person who could put two and two together from easily offered pieces of information.

There were several key points along the way that Annie really should have figured out sooner. For at least one of them I’m not even sure if you could rightfully call it plot contrivance, because knowing it wouldn’t have broken Annie’s mindset of “Libby is good and giving me far more chances than I deserve,” so it wouldn’t have really affected how things played out. Knowing it might have even given her more sympathy for Libby.

I’m not sure why Collomore decided to dumb down here character there, except as for a cheap twist that didn’t work because it was too obvious. I suppose that’s a sort plot contrivance too, though.

And in some ways this tendency toward plot contrivance breaks the typically good characters. Annie’s supposed to be a smart person, and fairly fighty. She spends most of the novel trying to keep herself up out of the swamp of manipulation, even as she’s slowly slipping down. Then, at the end, the author completely throws out what has been some careful work with this character’s arc in order to have her break down completely, seemingly overnight.

And this example is plot contrivance in a way that the former might not be: this needed to happen for the love interest to have motivation to actually interfere in the situation. So, complete breakdown from a character who really didn’t seem that far gone.

It’s just little pieces of sloppiness that destroy something that could have been really interesting. Like some other things I’ve read, Collomore really needed to take the careful thought she put into taking apart an abusive situation and seeing how it worked, and expand it out to the other pieces of her novel.