It's hard to imagine the kind of pressure J.K. Rowling must have been feeling when putting together the final book in the best selling fantasy series of all time. With a fan base much broader than the young adult audience the books were marketed for and a worldwide community that had been poring over the previous six volumes and speculating endlessly about the finale, it's safe to say that she had to tread very, very carefully.
Luckily for that audience (which I am obviously a member of), she has mostly succeeded.
While every Potter reader will likely have some quibble with the fates of their beloved characters, Rowling has definitely pulled out all the stops, here. There is tragedy, not only in the deaths of a few beloved characters, but also in the circumstances of those deaths. There is triumph, and, for once, Harry is not the only character to make a heroic stand (though, of course, Harry gets the big showdown that everyone knows he can't avoid).
Snape's backstory is finally revealed, and though it is a bit exposition-heavy, it is possibly the best part of the book. The other major character whose early life is explored is, most surprisingly, Dumbledore. Easily the most unexpected element of the book, the humanizing of the late, previously saintly headmaster of Hogwarts will probably raise some eyebrows among the faithful.
Though it features virtually every major and minor character from the series in some form, the book focuses mainly on Harry, Ron, and Hermione, as they are on the run from the bulk of the wizarding world. Largely on their own for a surprisingly long time, and plagued by setbacks and frustration, the trio's friendship is pushed to the breaking point. During their journey, they encounter a few characters who are either entirely new to this volume, or have had only minor roles thus far, including Luna Lovegood's father, Xenophilius Lovegood, Griphook the goblin, and Olivander the master wandmaker.
Through an interesting "shared consciousness" lens, Rowling is also able to show us the vile deeds of Voldemort and his minions. Harry periodically "becomes" Voldemort, and witnesses his frustration at his continuing failure to destroy him. This actually serves to lend a lot of tension to the story. At times, Harry will be in the midst of some difficulty only to learn, suddenly, that Voldemort knows where he is and is coming with terrible speed. This is particularly effective toward the end of the book, when Harry & Co. are racing to find something before the Dark Lord realizes what they are up to.
This volume is a very suitable addition to the Potter series, and a fine conclusion. While it does leave a few minor questions unanswered, it brings a definite climax and close to the story.
And now, some spoilers.
DO NOT READ PAST THIS POINT
I warned you. Don't say I didn't.
Okay. Random thoughts.
First, the good:
If I had been less manly, I might have teared up a little when Dudley finally treated Harry with a little kindness. Or when Hedwig died. Or when Harry saw the bodies of Lupin and Tonks lying next to each other. Or when Fred died. Or when Snape revealed the form of his Patronus. Or when Percy came back. (Hang on a minute, I have something in my eye...)
Really, the book had too many nifty bits to list. So here's a list: Percy's return to the fold, Neville's moment of triumph, Trelawney kicking ass, Kreacher's transformation, Snape's history revealed, the whole damn Battle of Hogwarts, Mrs. Weasley getting medieval on Bellatrix Lestrange's ass, the side trip to the Chamber of Secrets, Ron's book on how to be a ladies man, "Harry, if we die saving them, I'm going to KILL you!" ...
Dumbledore's explanation of why he had to make things so hard to figure out actually worked for me: "So you wouldn't be able to charge in like an idiot without having people help you."
Now, the not-so-great:
Snape's death is a bit weak. His backstory is very well done, but I still wished he'd had some kind of meaningful interaction with Harry before he died. His secret was pretty much what I'd expected, but it was handled very well.
I really wish there had been a bit more with Draco Malfoy. I had hoped to see him change a bit, but any changing he did was pretty much off-screen, indicated only by the fact that he acknowledges Harry on the platform at the end. In fact, Rowling misses a fantastic opportunity to justify Slytherin's existence even a little by having somebody, anybody from Slytherin fight the good fight. But, no. They're all toerags, after all.
How did Fred even die? There was an explosion and, boom, he's dead. No indication of what really happened.
Harry's dead. No, he's not, because he's a Horcrux! Surprise! Yeah, not really that surprising.
Why did Voldemort's curse reflect back on him? It didn't make a lot of sense.
No info on what Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione are doing with themselves, "19 Years Later"? Apart from pumping out the kids, that is. The only person whose career we learn anything about is Neville, who has apparently (and unsurprisingly), become the professor of magical plants at Hogwarts. No mention at all of Luna, Hagrid, or George. No mention of who became headmaster of Hogwarts. No mention of the fates of Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy. No mention of what has happened to the Ministry. No mention of Umbridge being sent to Azkaban. No mention of a LOT of things, all of which I'd really like to know.
Oh well. It was still a good book.