This review contains spoilers.
This book is a mixed bag to me, because there are some really good parts, and then there are parts which seem under-developed or otherwise rushed.
First, onto the good parts. The narrative is much better this time because taking the narrative action out of Hogwarts really frees Rowling from the structured imposed on her by the schedule of the school. It’s true that you miss out on Quidditch, but I’ve always felt that it was superfluous anyways. Setting the plot in a new, more adult, more realistic (to the extent that realism is possible in a fantasy setting) context makes the action much more exciting and free.
Second, there is much more moral nuances and complexities in this book than ever before, especially Rowling’s decision to challenge the ethical nature of Dumbledore’s past actions. But given the good-vs-evil theme of the book, moral complexities are not as rich as they could be, but that sort of complaint is to miss the point of the series in general. Given that the audiences are mostly children and teenagers, more ethical complexity and shades-of-gray would be inappropriate. After all, this is not a series about challenging traditional moral conventions.
Third, the plot picks up in intensity as it should, since it is the last book after all. A sense of urgency is established right from the beginning, and it rarely lets off save some slower stretches during the middle of the book. A lot gets packed into the pages, and it makes for a much more exciting and tense read. But this accelerated pace does not come at the expense of intricacy, since long-time readers are rewarded with a number of conclusions to various sub-plots running throughout the series.
Finally, the book achieves moments of poignancy that goes beyond what the series has produced in the past, such as Harry’s burial of Dobby, the ghosts of his loved ones accompanying him on his journey to self-sacrifice, the death of Fred, etc. And the poignancy is not of the mawkish, overly-sentimental variety but of the genuinely cathartic sort.
And here comes the not-so-good parts.
First, because the book is so plot-driven this time, I felt that it short-changed some really interesting characters. Given that the narrative takes place predominantly outside of Hogwarts, it’s inevitable that the students (other than the three main protagonists) are given much less face-time so to speak. Even admitting this, I felt that characters like Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood, and even Draco Malfoy should have received more development, since each of them have back-stories that could yield huge dividends dramatically: Neville’s vengeance for his parents, Lovegood for her father, and Draco’s vacilitating between good and evil, etc.
But the character that really got the shaft, in my opinion, is Snape. Rowling (in)famously posed the question of Snape’s loyalities, and given his back-story, a confrontation between Harry and Snape would have been extremely dramatic on so many levels. Yet their one encounter yields a scene in which Snape says virtually nothing, and the big revelation that Snape has been loyal to Dumbledore after all is revealed passively in the form of a Pensieve memory. As the character with the most complex morality, Snape gets an extremely short-shrift from Rowling. I was extremely disappointed in this particular encounter, which to me had the most dramatic potential.
The ending is also anti-climatic because what precedes immediately–Harry’s voluntary resignation and self-sacrifice–is so much more poignant than his final confrontation with Voldermort. The entire “dream” or “ghostly” encounter with Dumbledore after Harry dies seems like a deus-ex-machina device to me. All that part does is to come up with a lengthy exposition of why Harry can still live with no real continuity with the rest of the book. Sure, it ties up a lot of loose ends with Dumbledore and the Deathly Hallows, but its only real purpose is to make sure that Harry survives.
The confrontation between Harry and Voldermort itself is underwhelming, becoming little more than cliched Hollywood-style exchanges between Hero and Villain. Would the ending be better had Harry died? My immediate answer would be yes, but I think that even if one wanted Harry to survive, there are better ways to do so than this anti-climatic confrontation.
But even with these flaws, I still found the book to be the best in the series, because it achieves a level of intensity that is not found in all previous books. It brings a satisfying conclusion, albeit not a completely satisfying one, to the series. Like the series as a whole, the book is not terribly original, with influences of Arthurian legends and Tolkien easily perceivable, but that in itself is not detrimental because in some ways the line between homage and direct-quotation is a blurry one. The thematic qualities of the book do not reach the level of richness that is characteristic of first-rate literature, but there is an appropriate amount given the audience.
So as far as literature aimed at children and teenagers go, this is not a bad series at all, with terrific entertainment value. But no one should pretend that this stuff compares to Doestoyvesky or Proust. Will it become a classic of the genre? On commercial popularity alone, it is all but done. But only time can tell whether its artistic influences are long-lasting or not.