Of all the zeitgeist-defining fiction to come out of the past twenty years, perhaps none has been more universally beloved than the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. An incredibly imagined fantasy bildungsroman, it follows the eponymous boy wizard as he attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and contends with his destiny to fight the Dark Lord, Voldemort. Fortunately, he always has clever, loyal friends Ron and Hermione by his side — plus the invaluable mentorship of eccentric but wise Hogwarts headmaster, Dumbledore.
As fellow Potterheads will know, it’s virtually impossible to rank these books from best to worst, since each one is brilliant in its own way. That’s why we’ve decided to simply present all the Harry Potter books in order of chronology/publication, hitting the highlights for longtime fans to happily reminisce… and to help budding fans get a taste of the series’ genuine magic.
Here’s a quick catalog of the series so you know what you’re in for:
1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997)
2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)
7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)
8. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)
And we won’t be covering them here, but accompanying “Hogwarts library” texts include:
In the book that started it all (understatement of the century), Harry Potter discovers his true identity in the wee hours of his eleventh birthday: he is a wizard, famous in the magical world for having vanquished the evil Lord Voldemort when he was only a baby. This revelation, delivered by a gruff, hairy giant named Hagrid, sets Harry on a fantastical (if also often frightening) journey of a lifetime.
He meets bosom buddies Ron and Hermione aboard the Hogwarts Express, and is soon sorted with them into Gryffindor: the house of the intrepid and brave. However, Harry also makes plenty of enemies at Hogwarts, most notably the arrogant Draco Malfoy and the nasty potions master, Snape (both affiliated with Slytherin house). And from battling a troll on Halloween to his first exhilarating Quidditch match — not to mention the novel’s climax, in which Harry goes up against Voldemort for the second time in his young life — there’s never a dull moment in the first year of his new adventure.
Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, as it’s titled outside of the US) also perfectly balances exciting action with touching emotion, as Harry finds a true family in Ron and Hermione after years of misery with the Dursleys. Indeed, the book’s small, moving moments — such as Harry being floored by a gift from Ron’s mother, or Hermione’s tearful declaration at the end about “books and cleverness” — are just as magical as the spells themselves.
In Chamber of Secrets, Harry and friends return to Hogwarts with a bang — the bang of a flying Ford Anglia as it crashes into the Whomping Willow, that is. After being spotted by Muggles and narrowly avoiding expulsion, you’d think that the rest of Harry’s second year would be smooth sailing in comparison… right?
Wrong. When the school caretaker’s cat is found petrified (essentially paralyzed and comatose, but technically still alive) along with a bone-chilling message that “the Chamber of Secrets has been opened,” fear and suspicions start to arise — and of course, only worsen when students start getting petrified too. Nobody can figure out who the culprit is, only that he refers to himself as “the Heir” and seems to be on the warpath.
But as our young heroes know well by now, if you want a mystery solved right, you have to do it yourself. Which they do — through a combination of Polyjuice potion brewing, mysterious flashbacks provided by a sentient journal, and a truly horrific excursion to see a giant spider called Aragog. The book culminates in a visit to the titular chamber, which lies underneath Hogwarts and contains yet another deadly threat that Harry must face.
But of course, this being an early Potter book, it’s not all din and danger. Comic relief comes in the form of moronic, egocentric professor Gilderoy Lockhart, and toilet ghost Moaning Myrtle — who, in true Rowling fashion, ends up being key to the central plot twist of the story.
The third book in the series introduces Sirius Black, a deranged mass murderer who’s just escaped from the wizard prison of Azkaban. As a result, swarms of Dementors — dark, faceless beings that “suck the soul” out of their victims and serve as the guards of Azkaban — infiltrate Hogwarts to patrol for Black, who’s supposedly after Harry next. To make matters worse, our normally steadfast hero has a bad reaction to the Dementors, which cause him to faint on a train and even lose a critical Quidditch match.
Again, though, it’s not all doom and gloom. Prisoner of Azkaban also features Professor Remus Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and a school friend of Harry’s late father. Lupin and Harry quickly forge a father-son-like relationship themselves, and Lupin teaches Harry the Patronus Charm (powered by one’s happiest memories) to protect himself from Dementors.
Meanwhile, Ron and Hermione are squabbling even more than usual over their respective pets, Crookshanks the cat and Scabbers the rat. But what seems like a lighthearted subplot turns out to be a major factor in one of the biggest twists of the series, revealed in the last few chapters… and which naturally involves Black and Lupin as well. Oh, and hippogriffs and time traveling, in case that wasn’t enough to sell you on it.
Besides the sheer brilliance of plotting in this book, Rowling also presents some interesting commentary with the Dementors, which symbolize depression and force Harry to grapple with his past trauma. Indeed, though Goblet of Fire is widely identified as the “transition point” into the darker themes of the series’ latter half, Prisoner of Azkaban is definitely where those themes begin to take root.
There’s quite a bit to unpack in Goblet of Fire, so we’ll dive right in: after attending an eventful Quidditch World Cup with Hermione and the Weasley family, Harry returns to Hogwarts for his fourth year of school. It’s bound to be an exciting one, as Hogwarts is hosting the Triwizard Tournament, in which students from three major wizarding academies will compete. However, only students aged seventeen or older are eligible for the competition, which means Harry is safe for once… or so he thinks, until the ceremonial Goblet of Fire selects him as the fourth Triwizard Champion for no discernible reason.
What follows is a nonstop sequence of thrills, landmarked by the challenges of the tournament — in which the contestants must tackle menacing dragons, malevolent mermaids, and a maze full of potentially fatal tricks and traps. But even between the challenges themselves is plenty of riveting drama, especially with Rita Skeeter (a slimy reporter trying defame Harry and friends), Mad-Eye Moody (the kids’ new D.A.D.A. teacher), and Hermione’s most recent social justice cause (rights for house elves, naturally). And as anyone who’s read it will know, the GoF finale is unprecedented in terms of dark, difficult material, signaling a definitive shift for the series in a more mature direction.
Indeed, for all those wondering whether Rowling could change gears from the relatively lighthearted adventures of the previous three books into a darker and even more elaborate fantasy-thriller, this book proved her undeniably capable. But once again, GoF is not devoid of laughs and simple charm. The Yule Ball is a hilarious glimpse into the all-too-familiar teenage angst of dating and school dances, and the subplot with Ron being jealous of Harry’s constant spotlight is particularly well done. Yes, even in all the grandeur, Rowling never loses sight of what’s true to life — Goblet of Fire demonstrates this most aptly.
Order of the Phoenix gets political in big way: despite Voldemort’s revival at the end of GoF, the Ministry of Magic continues to deny all rumors and refuse to take action, worried that they’ll upset the public. This means the real adults have to take a leaf out of Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s book and start fighting him themselves, through an underground vigilante group called the Order of the Phoenix.
But the Order can’t do much about Dolores Umbridge, the newly instated and highly sadistic Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, who perpetuates the Ministry’s lies about Voldemort. When Harry openly defies her in class, she retaliates by giving him chronic detention — during which he must write lines with a “blood quill” that carves the words into the back of his hand. Despite this torment, he and the rest of the class do not acquiesce to Umbridge, and establish a secret defense organization for themselves called “Dumbledore’s Army.”
On top of all that, Harry keeps having frequent, harrowing visions of Voldemort when he’s asleep, and must take Occlumency lessons with Professor Snape to prevent them. This is a different kind of torture, with Snape forcing entry into Harry’s private memories at every lesson and relishing the opportunity to cause him pain. Of course, Snape’s own twisted motivations are revealed when Harry gains access to his memories — one of which is a bitter altercation with Harry’s father.
Even the most diehard HP fan will admit that Order of the Phoenix is a hard one to get through. From watching Harry suffer in such a myriad of ways, to that devastating climax in which he loses one of the few people he’s come to love and trust, OotP is no walk in the park. Yet it’s this strife and despair that makes it such an authentic, powerful narrative — and, trite as it sounds, Harry’s pain ultimately makes him stronger and more determined to defeat Voldemort than ever.
Things take a turn for the expository in this penultimate installment, which sees Harry learn all about Voldemort’s family and “origin story,” so to speak. Dumbledore gives Harry these lessons to prepare him for a grand future battle with Voldemort, presumably in the vein of keeping his enemies closer. What Harry doesn’t know is that Dumbledore is planning something even bigger — a plan that he, Harry, becomes more inexorably entangled in with each passing day.
At the same time, Harry suspects Malfoy (always a nefarious character) to be colluding with Voldemort, and begins obsessively tracking him on the Marauder’s Map. But each new lead just seems to be a wrong turn, and Harry grows increasingly frustrated with the lack of evidence when he knows that Malfoy is guilty. His only good luck, funnily enough, is in potions class. After receiving a secondhand textbook filled with tips and tricks from the mysterious “Half-Blood Prince,” Harry shines under the tutelage of their new potions professor Slughorn. Hermione, meanwhile, is jealous of Harry’s newfound academic success, and attempts to uncover the Prince’s identity to prove he’s crooked.
Speaking of petty drama, Half-Blood Prince also gives the fun, silly sixteen-year-old stuff its due. Ron and Hermione’s chemistry amps up to eleven, with constant bickering over their respective romances. (Ron memorably snogs Lavender Brown with such gusto that it “looks like he’s eating her face.”) Meanwhile Harry’s falling for Ginny, Ron’s sister, and battling his inner demons about whether to ask her out. All this falls to the wayside after yet another epic finale, but it’s another nice reminder of how human and relatable the characters are.
Or as it’s known colloquially, “Harry Potter and the Worst Camping Trip Ever.” After the events of the previous book — culminating in another major character’s heartbreaking death — Harry vows to personally destroy every one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes. These Horcruxes (as we learned in Half-Blood Prince) are objects containing pieces of Voldemort’s soul, rendering him effectively immortal. Which means that if Harry wants even a chance at killing Voldemort face-to-face, he’ll need to locate and eliminate the Horcruxes first. It’s this daunting prospect that leads to the Worst Camping Trip — though of course, it’s brightened somewhat by the presence of the ever-faithful Ron and Hermione.
To be fair, the events of Deathly Hallows aren’t as quotidianly miserable as the events of OotP — at least we know the characters are suffering for a greater purpose. But that doesn’t stop this from being, as you might expect, the darkest book in the series. From the corrupting influence of a locket that causes Ron to abandon his friends, to the tragic prophecy that Harry uncovers through more of Snape’s past memories, this book truly tests the reader’s tolerance for beloved characters in distress. (Don’t even get us started on the Battle of Hogwarts bloodbath.)
But Deathly Hallows is also a masterpiece, wrapping up thousands of pages’ worth of deeply intricate story plotting, character development, and booming thematic resonance in a satisfying manner. Indeed, J.K. Rowling has said she wrote the last pages of Deathly Hallows before Sorcerer’s Stone was even completed — evidence of just how carefully the series was planned.
While not part of the original seven-book series, Cursed Child and the accompanying stage play have become a generally accepted addition to the Harry Potter canon. This 336-page text picks up where the Deathly Hallows epilogue left off, with Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Malfoy sending their unfortunately named kids off to Hogwarts — Harry’s son Albus and Malfoy’s son Scorpius serve as our protagonists this time around. Upon arrival at Hogwarts, the boys are both sorted into Slytherin and forge an unlikely friendship, which naturally causes tension between Albus and Harry over the next few years.
After a fight with his father, Albus overhears Cedric Diggory’s father Amos asking Harry to use a more powerful version of a Time Turner (which features prominently in PoA) to go back in time and rescue his son. When Harry refuses, Albus enlists Scorpius to help him save Cedric, with the aid of Diggory’s niece Delphi. However, as anyone who’s seen Back to the Future can attest, messing with timelines is never a good idea… especially in the wizarding world. Things are further complicated by the fact that Delphi is not who she says she is, and may have sinister ulterior motives when it comes to rewriting history.
Between the multiple timelines and various versions of the same characters, Cursed Child can definitely be a bit confusing at times — and its somewhat far-fetched plot twists and questionable consistency with Rowling’s established world have led some Potter fans to decry it. But at the end of the day, it’s still another piece of the magical puzzle that we’ve all enjoyed putting together so much: this once-in-a-lifetime literary experience that transcends culture and generations. If you still haven’t read Harry Potter, just know that it’s never too late to start — and even for those who have, you’re never too old to go back and relive the magic. ⚡