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Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Books 2020, 3)

Harry Potter fan fiction, by Merlin’s beard! I heard of this book — HPMOR, as it’s known — from my son, a couple of years ago. Didn’t think about it for a while, and then recently I saw a tweet from a friend-of-friends, @ciphergoth:

The fact that it was a quote from Harry Potter, and that I didn’t recognise it — indeed, it didn’t seem like something Harry would say — intrigued me, so I clicked through.

And then I shortly found myself downloading the ebook and reading it for the next… actually, month or so.

Because this book is looooooong! It’s a retelling of just the first Harry Potter book, along with much more, and it’s about half as long as all seven of the JKR originals.

In fact, it could have done with an editor. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it has some weaknesses.

First, the strengths, though. Yudkowsky can write a page-turner almost as well as Rowling. What we have here is an alternative universe in which Petunia Evans marries someone else, not Vernon Dursley. They adopt Harry, and bring him up in a loving home. Harry’s adoptive father is a scientist, which is where he learns his rationality. So his first thought when he discovers that magic exists is to try experiments to understand its capabilities and limits. Experimentation soon gets overwhelmed by events, though, as the plot gets going.

There are other differences from the original, of course, and the end result is very different.

Part of what Yudkowsky does is takes the literal translation of Voldemort’s name — “flees from death,” essentially — recognises the rationality of that feeling — who wouldn’t prefer going on living, to dying? — and builds from there.

The major flaws are wordiness and couple of authorial tics that get repetitive and mildly annoying. He has a tendency to refer to people by their role, rather than their name: “The Defence Professor,” rather than “Quirrell,” for example. Which is fine if used sparingly, for variety. But he has people referring to other people like that, when they just wouldn’t.

There’s also overuse of scenes that start like, “The boy stood in the forest…” and only slowly revealing which boy. Again, fine occasionally, but he overdoes it.

And a few Americanisms creep in: like calling the staff of Hogwarts the “faculty.” And anachronisms: nobody apologised for their snarkiness in 1992, since the word hadn’t been coined yet. Well, I could be wrong there: this site says it goes back to 1906 or earlier. No-one in Britain, then.

But I shouldn’t complain. It’s an astonishingly well-constructed work, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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