How do you talk about "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" to someone who may not have finished it yet?
After all, J.K. Rowling's book is 759 pages long and it just came out — officially, anyway — on Friday night. Amid all the pre-publication theories and plot mysteries, I'd love to be able to say, "I was right! I told you so!" (See " 'Harry Potter' Cast, Adam Sandler, Queen Latifah Share 'Deathly Hallows' Theories," "Why Harry Potter Has To Die In Book Seven," and " 'Harry Potter' Roundtable: Experts Battle Over Theories On How Series Will End.") But I hate spoilers, and I'm not going to spoil this for anyone.
What I will say is this: The book is not about the plot, it's about the execution. Hard-core fans have already made their guesses about what happens in "Deathly Hallows," and some have even guessed (or been told) correctly. But oddly, that doesn't spoil the experience. I'd thought it would. When I read scenes from the leaked "carpet" version of the book (see " 'Harry Potter' Spoiler Deluge Continues: Newspapers Publish Book Reviews"), they felt flat. But when I read the book straight through, I realized the little things the reader learns from so-called spoilers are misleading. The identity of the mysterious R.A.B., for instance, isn't as important as how R.A.B. stole the locket horcrux. Where double-agent Snape's true allegiance lies doesn't mean quite as much as why it lies there. (And even if you guessed why in advance, learning the reason via a trip through the Pensieve makes all the difference.)
"Deathly Hallows" isn't so much about the major mysteries as the minor ones: Everything from the previous volumes starts to come together in it. Half-forgotten moments from the first book that seemed to have little significance are now seen to play an important part in the story; the levels of foreshadowing are staggering. So is the list of deaths, although they come so quickly and frequently that the reader barely has time to grieve for a character.
The level of danger has never been so high in Harry's world — which is now openly at war. Voldemort, who returned in "Goblet of Fire," worked quietly behind the scenes in "Order of the Phoenix" (trying to retrieve a prophecy) and "Half-Blood Prince" (ordering Draco Malfoy to kill Dumbledore). But by "Deathly Hallows," his plan to take over is in full effect. The Dark Lord has seized control of the government, the media and the schools — and it was so quick and easy, you almost wonder why he didn't do it sooner. After a propaganda campaign warning wizards about so-called undesirables in their midst, the Ministry of Magic rounds up Muggle-born and "blood-traitor" wizards, who it is claimed "stole" their magic from the purebloods. They're brought in for questioning; some have their wands taken, some have their souls taken, too, in the Dementor chambers — the World War II parallels are no doubt intentional.
Those in the anti-Voldemort movement rally around Harry as a symbol of hope — but it's dangerous. The publisher of The Quibbler, an alternative paper that dares to print the truth, is punished by the Death Eaters, who kidnap his daughter, Luna Lovegood, as retribution. Potterwatch, a wizard radio program, is password-protected and spoken in code, so its staff can avoid capture. No one else dares to rebel openly against the new regime except for the outnumbered resistance movement, the Order of the Phoenix. It's up to Harry, Ron and Hermione, who've had to take measures to protect their families (yes, even the Dursleys) should they too become targets. There'll be no going to Hogwarts for them this year — except to fight.
Before they can do that, though, Harry and his friends have a quest to fulfill: finding the remaining horcruxes that contain fragments of Voldemort's soul so they can destroy them and, in turn, destroy Voldemort. And they have to solve another mystery regarding the Deathly Hallows at the same time. (First of all, what are the Deathly Hallows?). It's a lonely quest, since they can't share the things they learn with anyone. But that doesn't mean they can't seek help during their many daring infiltrations and thrilling escapes. It's this burden — of secrecy and responsibility that forces Harry, who was just a child when readers first met him 10 years ago, to finally grow up. Hermione and Ron share the burden of finding and destroying horcruxes — which have a dangerously corrupting influence, not unlike the ring in "Lord of the Rings"; but when it comes to the crucial one, only Harry can dispose of it. And the result is heartbreaking.
Readers may have suspected that this moment was coming for Harry — where he'd have to sacrifice something to save the world. But there's an unexpected twist. And in the end, while the big questions are answered, there are little ones that remain. Some will be disappointed by that, and will want to know every character's fate. Rowling does provide an epilogue, but it seems flat compared to all the quick wit and fast-paced action that has preceded it.
My advice would be to read the book but skip the epilogue — because anyone who's read the series can probably imagine an ending that is more personally meaningful than the one Rowling provides. As one wise old wizard points out in "Deathly Hallows," just because something happens only in your head doesn't make it any less real.