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I knew this was not going to be much like the previous seven volumes of the series, starting from its status as a play and only partly written by J.K. Rowling, with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany doing the rest. The fan cartoonists of Harry Potter Comics, which similarly begins with the epilogue of book 7, act like this play is the next Go Set a Watchman. But since they differed significantly from my opinions on the Fantastic Beasts movie, I took their razzing with a grain of salt. Anyway, I got some enjoyment out of The Phantom Menace by knowing from the start that it wouldn't be in the same category as its predecessors, so hard could this be?

My biggest surprise was in how much time the story covers. Apart from the intro to the first book and the aforementioned epilogue, the other books all take place over the course of one year. This one moves rather quickly through more than three before slowing down for the main conflict to settle in. In the first year, Albus Potter, youngest son of Harry, surprises everyone by befriending Scorpius Malfoy, son of Harry's old nemesis Draco, and entering Slytherin House with him. Little apparently happens in the interim, but by their fourth year at Hogwarts, neither boy is at all popular, largely because Albus has been a Neville Longbottom-like underachiever, which is extra embarrassing for the progeny of a hero; and Scorpius is rumored to be a secret son of Dark Lord Voldemort. (Isn't he at least six years too young for that?) Harry does not dismiss the rumor, creating quite some tension with Albus.

The adventure begins when the Ministry of Magic discovers a Time Turner. Not only were those devices thought to be all gone, but this one can take people back decades rather than hours, albeit only for a few minutes. Despite the Ministry's attempt to keep it under wraps, Amos Diggory hears of it and demands that Harry undo the untimely death of his son Cedric (which, while not Harry's fault exactly, does trace to a plot against him). Harry refuses on the grounds that temporal intervention of that magnitude is awfully dangerous, but Albus overhears and schemes with Scorpius and, less directly, Amos's caretaker Delphini to swipe the Time Turner and grant Amos's wish.

As you may imagine, this does not lead to a stable time loop like in The Prisoner of Azkaban. The boys learn the hard way about unforeseen consequences, and each new version of their present is less appealing than the one before it. Thankfully, the story is not all predictable; we still get a Rowling twist.

Of the new characters, Scorpius is my favorite. His first scene displays amiable generosity. He has about the geek level of Hermione with less of a know-it-all demeanor, with some Ron-like snark. And while he doesn't expect good results from recklessness, he'll join in anything Albus does for the sake of having his back. At no point is he remotely tempted to the dark side, tho not for lack of trying on the dark side's part. Way to buck the stereotype of Slytherin more than absolutely any prior character! Anyone who really knew Scorpius would never take him for a son of Voldemort, altho, for the same reason, I could see doubting his bygone mother's fidelity to Draco.

In truth, Draco's not half the jerk he was in school. I actually like him better than Harry much of the time now, if only because the latter has grown stubborn in his distrust of the Malfoys and does some things no father should ever do, however obnoxious the son. And arguably some things no one in law enforcement should do. That said, if anyone in the story learns a lesson applicable to reality, Harry does. With help from a surprisingly emotional portrait of Dumbledore.

The usual suspects are present, of course. Hermione is the Minister for Magic, Ron follows in the footsteps of Fred and George, Ginny provides a voice of reason and care in her household, and McGonagall still runs the school. Time travel gives us another look at some characters we otherwise wouldn't expect to see again. Sometimes new circumstances yield remarkable changes in personalities.

But if you hope to see more of anyone else, you'll probably be disappointed. We barely hear from James, Albus's joshing, enviable brother. Rose Weasley-Granger does little more than coldly spurn Scorpius's hopeless romantic overtures. The other students are hardly worth recalling by name, except maybe Polly Chapman, Scorpius's potential alternative love interest. Some fun, possibly current professors never appear.

Can't say I like the title. It's not catchy. There's no evidence of a magical curse. It's not entirely clear which child the authors had in mind. Other HP titles involve official, repeatedly spoken terms for specific things, except The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Speaking of which, one reason for that volume not being my favorite was the use of a Time Turner. Time travel in general messes with logic enough to render a story sillier, which annoys me all the more when it enters the equation (to my knowledge) late in the game. It gets worse when the school lends such a dangerous device to a 14-year-old just so she can take unneeded extra courses, with only her word to assure them she won't use it for anything else -- and when she breaks her word, the only authority who knows about it doesn't mind.

In some ways, The Cursed Child does better with the premise. It produces a more familiar and thus more acceptable brand of temporal paradox, never making me wonder why something happened as it did. But I remain unconvinced that the heroes make the right final decision on the moral dilemma of time travel. Oddly enough, you could say that they have more conservative values on this score than I have.

Dramatic? In spades. Heartwarming? In good time. Funny? Every so often. Innovative? Not really. Cool? Not in my head. Adventurous? Well...

For a time, I thought of it as one of those rare plays deliberately written not to be performed, only read. Then I got a reminder that it has been performed. Some of the onstage magic would be tricky even for Broadway to make look good. I guess the stage production amounts to a magic show in a nearly traditional sense. Maybe it's considerably more enjoyable in that medium. Or maybe they had to cut out a lot.

If there's one thing I prefer about the play format, it's brevity. You may notice that my last book review wasn't so long ago. I never finished any of the tomes this fast. That factor and the redemption of the Malfoy line are the two main things I like compared to the novels.

It's difficult for me to weigh, but overall, I think I put this volume in seventh place. It didn't feel like a chore -- not for long, anyway -- but neither would it have made me a fan of the franchise if I weren't already. I hadn't been utterly itching for more HP, and this provides only a slight scratch. Nevertheless, I won't dismiss it as quasi-canonical in my heart. It still reads more authentically than any fanfic I've known. If nothing else, it may refresh your memory of past events in the series and give you a new perspective on some.


I have now picked up Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Apparently, this too involves some measure of temporal manipulation. Am I ready for it?

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Stephen Gilberg

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