It is Ms. Rowlingâ€™s achievement in this series that she manages to make Harry both a familiar adolescent â€” coping with the banal frustrations of school and dating â€” and an epic hero, kin to everyone from the young King Arthur to Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker. This same magpie talent has enabled her to create a narrative that effortlessly mixes up allusions to Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and Kafka, with silly kid jokes about vomit-flavored candies, a narrative that fuses a plethora of genres (from the boarding-school novel to the detective story to the epic quest) into a story that could be Exhibit A in a Joseph Campbell survey of mythic archetypes.
In doing so, J. K. Rowling has created a world as fully detailed as L. Frank Baumâ€™s Oz or J. R. R. Tolkienâ€™s Middle Earth, a world so minutely imagined in terms of its history and rituals and rules that it qualifies as an alternate universe, which may be one reason the â€œPotterâ€ books have spawned such a passionate following and such fervent exegesis. With this volume, the reader realizes that small incidents and asides in earlier installments (hidden among a huge number of red herrings) create a breadcrumb trail of clues to the plot, that Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.
Postscript: Although Kakutani is careful to avoid spoilers, her comments do imply an answer to one of the major questions in the series: does Harry ultimately survive? If you’re planning to read the book soon anyway, you might want to skip this (and other) reviews.