subject: Harry Potter (the books)
overview: The story of how J.K. Rowling was working as a waitress and writing notes about Harry Potter on napkins is well-chronicled. Obviously she went on to far greater success as a writer on the strength of the Boy Who Lived. It was clear from the start that she knew the mythology of the story, which probably any other writer would have begun with the reign of terror under Voldemort in the wizarding community that was only brought to an end when he murdered Harry's parents (a bit like Batman's origins, really, with a far more impressive Crime Alley sequence) but was struck down when he moved on the baby who would grow up with a lightning scar as a result. On his eleventh birthday Harry receives his first visit from the world he has never known, the giant Hagrid, come to deliver an invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
So begins a saga. Since Harry and his friends are all children and spend their days attending school, the initial books were a youthful phenomenon, but in time the appeal became irresistible across the reading spectrum, and became the vanguard to the new blockbuster film renaissance. Harry grows up and learns more of what came before his time, meeting his godfather and forming an intense bond with headmaster Albus Dumbledore, which lasts all the way to Dumbledore's momentous death at the hands of Severus Snape, who has all along appeared to be the villain hiding in plain sight, but instead is the hidden link behind the heroic past and present.
Across seven books Harry, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley mature into the champions capable of finally ending the threat of Voldemort. My favorite remains Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book, in which godfather Sirius Black crystallizes the entire message of the series, requiring a redemption that was thrust upon him by fates worth than death, with the able assistance of unassuming werewolf Remus Lupin, the two of them old friends of Harry's late father and rivals of Snape. It's the moment where Rowling's vision first becomes apparent, where Snape becomes something more than the bogeyman, opening up ample room for his increasingly complicated relationship with Harry, as well as further secrets of Snape's own past, including his surprising relationship with Harry's late mother.
The books became a publishing event starting with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2000, something anyone who loved literature gravitated to bookstores for midnight releases. Goblet of Fire was also the first of Rowling's expanded efforts, the books like the story increasingly elaborate and no less readable. Anyone who remains a holdout is simply being contrarian. These are some of the finest books not simply our age, but any. Like Tolkien's Middle Earth and Lewis's Narnia before her, Rowling's Hogwarts will endure as a fantasy touchstone. It's the standard by which Martin and Jordan will still be compared for years to come. It's not children's literature.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997) Known around the world with the subtitle Philosopher's Stone, this is how it all began, with the curious Professor Quirrell serving not only as the first of many instructors in Defense Against the Dark Arts, but our first look at the returning Voldemort. (309 pages)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999) Rowling begins the expansion of the mythology with Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, a complete charlatan who nonetheless provides readers with stark contrasts between expectation and reality in this wizarding world. (341 pages)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) As described above, this is the definitive expansion of Harry's saga, blowing it wide open and revealing its true depth as well as displaying the first hints as to where it would ultimately go. (435 pages)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) As Harry and his friends meet more of their peers from other schools, Voldemort finalizes his return with a dramatic climax in a graveyard. The whole book is a tour de force for Rowling, displaying her incredible range. (734 pages)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003) This is the only installment where I'd say the overwhelming response to her creation actually got to Rowling. Aside from the far greater amount of time it took to write the book, there's at least one subplot that doesn't resonate the way as the rest of the story (not just in this book, but across the series), Hagrid's mission to enlist the assistance of the giants, coming back with his half-brother. But I have not yet reread the series, much less Order of the Phoenix, so this impression might always change. (870 pages)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) Rowling starts aiming for truly epic fantasy and scores, not only as Harry and Dumbledore begin the search for Horcruxes, but some of the last secrets of Snape are revealed. (652 pages)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) The conclusion that throws all the chips on the table, shattering the formula established in the previous six books, allowing Harry to spend the entire story out in the real world rather than the classroom, as the showdown with Voldemort finally occurs. (759 pages)
Quidditch Through the Ages (2001)
Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them (2001)
Tales of Beedle the Bard (2008) Shorter works that expand on the world of Harry Potter, spotlighting Rowling's considerable imagination. Well worth checking out.