"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is a gleeful, impish descendant of classic fantasies, like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "The Wizard of Oz", and will no doubt join them on the shelf of childhood favorites.
Judging by this first volume, the Harry Potter books are a fine addition to English children's fantasy literature. Harry Potter, orphaned when his parents were killed by the evil wizard Voldemort, is taken in by his aunt and uncle, who are Muggles (ordinary, non-magical people). Harry is rather out of place there, but things improve greatly for him when he goes to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry--except that one of the staff members is in league with Voldemort.
His Aunt and Uncle Dursley, who are about as awful as their name, and their son, Dudley (who's even worse), cringe with embarrassment every time someone discovers that Harry's related to them. So they keep him hidden away in a closet--a rather dark and spidery one under the stairs.
The book starts on an unusual day when Mr. Vernon Dursley wakes up in his home at 4 Privet Drive with a cat watching him from the signpost. He lives there with his wife Petunia and their recently born son, Dudley. Things get stranger as the day goes on and this is the case all over England. Vernon is worried that it has something to do with Petunia's sister, Lily and her family. He's not far from wrong either but the Dursleys don't find that out until morning arrives the next day. During the night, a man called Albus Dumbledore arrives at Privet Drive and we learn that the cat is actually a person, Professor McGonagall. Things get stranger as a giant man, Hagrid arrives with a baby boy, Harry Potter who we learn has survived from the most powerful dark wizard in the world, Lord Voldemort, but Harry's parents have been killed. The little boy is the Dursley's nephew and he has been brought to Privet Drive to live with them far away from knowing the truth of what happened to him that fatal night.
After that we see that Harry Potter has spent the first 11 years of his life been bullied by the Dursleys, his only living relatives. He believes that his parents died in a car crash when he was a baby and he received a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt on his forehead from it. He is forced to sleep under the cupboard under the stairs because the Dursleys are ashamed of him.
Harry receives some a letter addressed to him in his cupboard shortly before his 11th birthday, but his Uncle Vernon gets it before he can read it. He moves Harry to a bedroom but the letters keep on coming. Uncle Vernon starts to lose it and he decides to take the family hide somewhere cut off from postal services.
As the clock strikes 12 midnight and harry turns 11, Hagrid, the friendly giant arrives with the letter and wrenches Harry out of his dreary, Muggle-ridden existence: "We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry." Of course, Uncle Vernon yells most unpleasantly, "I AM NOT PAYING FOR SOME CRACKPOT OLD FOOL TO TEACH HIM MAGIC TRICKS!"
Say you've spent the first 10 years of your life sleeping under the stairs in the house of a family who loathes you. Then, in an absurd, magical twist of fate you find yourself surrounded by wizards, a caged snowy owl, a phoenix-feather wand, and jellybeans that come in every flavor, including strawberry, curry, grass, and sardine. Not only that, but you discover that you are a wizard yourself! This is exactly what happens to young Harry Potter in J. K. Rowling's enchanting, funny debut novel--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. In the non-magical human world--the world of "Muggles"--Harry is a nobody, treated like dirt by the aunt and uncle who begrudgingly inherited him when his parents were killed by the evil Voldemort. But in the world of wizards, small, skinny Harry is famous as a survivor of a deadly attack by the most feared wizard the magical world has ever seen. He is left only with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead, curiously refined sensibilities, and a host of mysterious powers to remind him that he's quite, yes, altogether different from his aunt, uncle, and spoiled, pig-like cousin, Dudley. In fact, he's very different from most wizards teeming the world conjured by Rowling.
Soon enough, however, Harry finds himself at Hogwarts with his owl Hedwig and that's where the real adventure--humorous, haunting, and suspenseful--begins.
Rowling takes childhood rites, like shopping for school supplies and dealing with the class bully, and gives them a magical tweak. For example, the big game at Hogwarts isn't soccer, it's Quidditch--a high-flying combination of dodge-ball, capture the flag, and basketball played on broomsticks.
As soon as he moves into his dorm room, though, Harry realizes there's a mystery involving a sorcerer's stone afoot. It's up to him, along with his friends Ron and Hermione, to uncover the evil stalking their school without falling behind with their homework.
Will Harry lead his Quidditch team to victory? And will the evil Voldemort return to stir up trouble?
Rowling crams the book with inventive details, like jelly beans that come in every flavor, including sardine, and her rollicking style keeps the reader careening along with the plot.
Part of the attraction of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone comes from the familiar but at the same time exotic setting of an English public school, complete with houses and schoolboy adventures, in which Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione struggle to save the world and win the House Cup. Part of it comes from the pleasantly frivolous (verging on spoof) take on the trappings of pop magic, with pointy hats and "Nimbus 2000" series broomsticks. And Rowling adds some delightful novelties of her own, such as Quidditch, a seven-a-side ball game played on broomsticks, with three different kinds of balls. This is all pulled together by some excellent story-telling.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, first published in England as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, continues to win major awards in England. So far it has won the National Book Award, the Smarties Prize, the Children's Book Award.
To highlight the limitations of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, it is instructive to compare it with another children's fantasy novel in which a neophyte wizard attends a school for wizards--Ursula Le Guin's "A Wizard of Earthsea". This works just as well as a story, but it displays invention of a qualitatively different order. Where Rowling reworks superficial popular ideas about magic in an ad hoc fashion, Le Guin constructs a full-fledged, but consistent and coherent, world of her own: dragons in Earthsea, for example, are both an integral part of the imagined world and anchored to mythological precursors; for Rowling they are just a plot device appropriated from common cliché. Le Guin cuts far deeper, too, in dealing with such subjects as coming of age and acceptance of mortality, and her protagonist is rounded in places where Harry Potter is no more than one-dimensional.
So Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone will be a great Christmas present for kids who haven't read it yet--and it is a book that adults (at least those without stunted imaginations) can read as well. But "A Wizard of Earthsea" is all of that and more, and children's fantasy is a reasonably well-populated genre, so don't let the hype surrounding the Harry Potter books hide the other goodies out there.