As Friday became Saturday, thousands of eager hands opened the hefty book with the apricot-colored cover and began to read, under the ominous chapter title "The Dark Lord Ascending":
The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other's chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.
"News?" asked the taller of the two.
"The best," replied Severus Snape.
With those words, readers were plunged midstream into the masterfully plotted and breathtakingly paced final novel in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.
By late Saturday, the most dedicated and fastest readers -- perhaps equipped with Wrackspurt Siphons to remove distractions -- were finishing the 759th page of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" before closing it with a sigh.
Others who preferred to ration their enjoyment of the action-packed, intricate conclusion to the seven-book Harry Potter series were avoiding all conversation about the book lest a secret slip and a plot twist be unraveled before its time.
Impatient fans who immediately flipped to the final page to answer the simple question of whether the hero would live or die underestimated the considerable, complicated genius of author J.K. Rowling. While the final pages could probably give away that answer to anyone who jumped ahead, the outcome of the final, epic clash between Harry Potter and the evil Lord Voldemort can only be understood by absorbing the narrative as it is presented.
Previous books contained plenty of hints and clues that were collected, if not always completely understood, by the main characters -- Harry, the Boy Who Lived when Voldemort killed his parents; and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. The previous book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," left fans gasping in disbelief as the apparently malevolent Snape killed Albus Dumbledore, the strong and courageous headmaster of Hogwarts, the magical school attended by Harry and his friends.
Of course, things are not always as they seem. Impatient with the appeals of stricken readers, Rowling confirmed that Dumbledore was, indeed, dead. But it's no surprise to any Harry Potter fan that in his magical world, there are many levels of absence.
The ultimate quest, which began in the previous book, continues in this one. Voldemort has gathered armies of Death Eaters, Dementors and Inferi, not to mention the occasional werewolf or giant, to wipe out Harry. He has split his soul into six pieces and placed them in ordinary objects so he can never be killed. To defeat Voldemort, Harry must find and destroy these objects, called Horcruxes.
It all sounds grim, but while the book, fitting with the heavy burden on its teenage hero, lacks the wide-eyed whimsy of the first novels, it is leavened with Rowling's usual impish humor.
To escape Voldemort's minions as Harry's 17th birthday nears, when the spell his mother cast to protect him before she died will expire, six of Harry's allies drink a Polyjuice Potion that transforms them into his doubles while he watches. Then they reach into magical bags for exact copies of his eyeglasses and clothing.
The real Harry thought that this might just be the most bizarre thing he had ever seen, and he had seen some extremely odd things. He watched as his six doppelgangers rummaged in the sacks, pulling out sets of clothes, putting on glasses, stuffing their own things away. He felt like asking them to show a little more respect for his privacy as they all began stripping off with impunity, clearly much more at ease with displaying his body than they would have been with their own.
"I knew Ginny was lying about that tattoo," said Ron, looking down at his bare chest.
Harry, Ron and Hermione trek throughout Britain, meeting old friends, gathering snippets of knowledge and battling their own jealousy and insecurity. Ron proves particularly vulnerable to temptation, and the emotional bond among the three is tested, broken and strengthened. Meanwhile, Harry's psychic connection with Voldemort -- through the lightning-bolt scar left on Harry's forehead when Voldemort tried to kill him -- gives Harry glimpses of his archenemy's wormy remorselessness.
Harry had given a cry of pain: His scar had burned again as something flashed across his mind like a bright light on water. He saw a large shadow and felt a fury that was not his own pound through his body, violent and brief as an electric shock.
In Harry's exile and silence after Dumbledore's death, the forces of misinformation rally. His enemies spread the word that the young wizard is suspected of killing Dumbledore, and only his closest allies refuse to question his innocence.
Meanwhile, Harry learns of the Deathly Hallows, a set of objects that offer greater power than the destruction of the Horcruxes. Gossiping reporter Rita Skeeter has churned out a 900-page biography of Dumbledore, and Harry begins to doubt his mentor's character. Did Dumbledore really trust him? If so, why did he keep so much hidden?
This temptation twists the tale of the quest. Will Harry pursue the lure of the power of the Deathly Hallows, or continue his mission to rid the world of the violent and vile Voldemort?
Many loose threads of narrative are picked up here, sometimes books after they were introduced, and woven into a satisfying whole. Characters we haven't seen lately return to play their part in the story. And yes, the body count rises alarmingly in the pivotal battle between good and evil, and readers will gasp at some of the losses.
But this conclusion to the epic tale of Harry Potter's mystical world is nothing if not magic.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
By J.K. RowlingScholastic, 759 pages, $34.99