Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)
Where Everything Began
I can remember my father reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to me when I was maybe eight or nine—way back when it was still a new release and before what we now know as "Pottermania" had taken hold. I was immediately drawn into the story's fascinating world, and little time passed before I had been made into a lifelong fan. I devoured every new novel in the series as it came out and attended my local movie theater to see every film adaptation. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is also my all-time favourite novel. That's gotta count for something, right?
Deathly Hallows always seemed to me like it would be the last Harry Potter book we'd ever get. And rightly so. It was as spectacular a finale as I could have asked for, with every loose end tied up, and J.K. Rowling herself seemed pretty adamant that the story was over and done with. Up until nine years later, when we were presented with a brand new novel in the series after all, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Only, it wasn't really a novel. It was a play, and one that was having its script published into book format. It seemed, then, like a bit of a strange choice to advertise it as "The Eighth Story". I think most people, myself included, would have expected a sequel to Deathly Hallows to come in the form of a traditional novel. Still, I loved Harry Potter as much as I always had, so naturally I was curious to give it a read. Despite the finality of Deathly Hallows, the idea of any sort of continuation was an exciting one.
As a disclaimer, I haven't seen the actual Cursed Child play. This is just a review of the published script book.
A New Beginning for Harry Potter?
I thought it was an unusual decision to do Cursed Child as a play, but an interesting idea nonetheless. Still, it was sort of awkward for me to read this eighth story in play format. That might be because I don't have a lot of familiarity with plays. I've read them before, but not very often, and on the occasions when I have, it's usually been for a high school or college assignment.
In fact, Cursed Child is the only time I can remember reading a play strictly for pleasure and not for the purpose of a class setting or a homework assignment. It was a unique experience for sure.
But anyways, onto the story itself.
(A warning that there will be moderate plot spoilers ahead!! If you're not already familiar with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, it's actually one of those things that I'd recommend just checking out for yourself without reading too much about it. The less you know going into it, the better, I think. It does contain a lot of neat surprises. For the sake of this review, however, I just don't know how to talk about the script without discussing its unusual plot.)
Let's Talk Characters
One of the strengths of Harry Potter is how, in spite of having so many characters, they're all so distinct and memorable. It's a tradition that thankfully continues in Cursed Child. I can't think of anyone who didn't stand out in some way. Unfortunately, there are some other issues with the characters' portrayal, and it's much more of a mixed bag this time around.
On one hand, it's neat to see what some of the characters from the first seven books are like, now that they're much older. Harry and Draco are nicely written. Unfortunately, some of the other characters' personalities felt very inconsistent with the original books. Ron in particular felt like a different person altogether.
The new characters are also hit and miss. Despite being the main protagonist, Albus was probably the character I was the most neutral about. I didn't like or dislike him either way. He was just there. I also wish Rose had been handled differently, and been given a larger role (more on her below).
I was especially baffled by *spoiler* becoming a Death Eater. Just, whaa? Really?
Scorpius was the best part. He's actually an endearing and really well-developed character. I like the implication that Draco deliberately raised his son to be a better person than how he himself was raised. As for Delphini, I don't want to give the details away, but I will say that she was a good example of "interesting idea, flawed execution".
Let's Talk Plot
Despite the foreboding title, Cursed Child has a noticeably more light-hearted feel to it. It's often pointed out how the Harry Potter books and films got darker and darker as they progressed. Cursed Child actually goes in the opposite direction. It's not what I would have expected, but it’s kind of refreshing in a way. It brings the tone back to the more jovial feel of the earlier novels.
The storyline, however, is a beast of a different breed.
It starts off as a straightforward continuation of where the previous story ended. Albus Potter, Rose Granger-Weasley, and Scorpius Malfoy are riding the Hogwarts Express, on their way to begin a new era of their lives as Hogwarts students, the same position their parents were in nineteen years before. From there, I would've expected Albus, Rose, and Scorpius to become the new main characters, and to have a retelling of the first year story from their perspective.
Instead, we're thrown one heck of a curveball. Rose turns out to be a jerk and more or less becomes irrelevant to the plot, Albus' first three years at Hogwarts are completely glossed over, the Trolley Witch reveals herself to be 190-years-old and has exploding pumpkin pasties and spiked hands, and the story subsequently veers off into an almost sci-fi direction with time travel and alternate universes.
I do like the twist of Albus being sorted into Slytherin, and of him forming an unexpected friendship with Scorpius. That was well done. It's everything else I have mixed feelings about.
I can see how the wacky, time travel-oriented, Back to the Future-esque storyline was off-putting to a lot of fans. I appreciate what the script was trying to do, however, and I'm fine with the fact that it did something different. It just needed better execution. Related to that, I really like the idea of a next-generation Hogwarts story. Again, it just wasn't as well-realized as it could've been.
It also needed to be longer. The story felt crammed and rushed in places. I would've enjoyed seeing more of Albus' first three years and of the alternate timelines.
While I'm not against the play format in itself, I do wish Cursed Child could've been a proper novel written by J.K. Rowling, or at least been novelized from the play's script. Or, failing that, if it had been a play that J.K. herself had written. The fact that she didn't write in explains why some of the characterization feels off, I think.
It's neat that they published the script though. It was a nice way to allow us Potterheads who haven't seen the play to still be able to enjoy the story. And, even if I had issues with the plot, it was still really cool to be able to buy a brand new Harry Potter novel from the book store after all these years.
So What Did I Think Overall?
It was okay. There were some things I liked, and some things I didn't, which overall balances it out to an "eh". One positive thing I can say is that it was never boring. It was definitely an entertaining read, with a lot of interesting ideas in it. But there were too many oddities and other things dragging it down and keeping it from being a truly great story.
Despite my overall lukewarm reaction, I'd be interested to see if they ever do a film adaptation of it someday. Maybe they could improve on some of the original script's flaws. And/or maybe they could get the original actors back. It'd be great to see Daniel Radcliffe and Tom Felton and the others again. A fan can dream.
© 2017 Ian Rideout