If you read my previous Quick Read, you’ll be up to speed on what this book is all about: it’s a script for a sequel to the seven-book Harry Potter series, set nineteen years after the last one ended and starring Harry and Draco Malfoy’s sons. Today we’re going deeper for the full review, so spoiler warning.
By the end of the Quick Read we had discovered that Albus “I have a terrible name” Severus Potter is unhappy at Hogwarts due to being sorted into Slytherin and living in his father’s shadow, and that he’s besties with Scorpius “I also have a terrible name” Malfoy. Following on from that, our two heroes decide to steal a time-turner and use it to go back and prevent the death of Cedric Diggory, partially at the behest of Cedric’s niece, a brand-new character named Delphi who is given a large degree of character development but initially doesn’t seem to be all that important to the plot. Did I mention that Delphi is twenty-one when she’s introduced, i.e. the exact same interval of time that’s passed at that point since the end of Deathly Hallows? I’m sure it’s not relevant.
Anyone who is even remotely familiar with time-travel as a plot device will have guessed that the attempt at saving Cedric doesn’t go very well, as the boys inadvertently shunt themselves into a new timeline that’s somewhat worse than their old one, then try to fix that and end up in yet another timeline that’s way worse than their old one. Throughout all of this Harry’s scar begins to hurt again for the first time in two decades, and he experiences disturbing nightmares that seem to hint at a connection between Albus and Voldemort. Is it just stress caused by the breakdown of their relationship, or is something way more convoluted going on?
There are basically two stories in Cursed Child. One of them is about inter-generational relationships and growing up and fathers and sons and all that jazz, and is very good. The other one is about time travel and plot twists and time travel and mining the previous seven books for material and even more time travel, and is very bad. So let’s start with that.
Rowling infamously wrote herself into a bit of a corner in The Prisoner of Azkaban by giving the characters a device that can rewind time. Introducing time travel in any story– particularly if it’s something the characters have regular access to– is always dangerous, both because it risks creating all sorts of plot holes and because it often feels like a cheap way to resolve the story if said said story isn’t explicitly about time travel to begin with. Prisoner of Azkaban fell into both issues: time travel as a concept felt alien to the Harry Potter universe, and once it was introduced people started asking all sorts of awkward questions like why no one ever used it to go back in time and stop Voldemort while he was still at school.
The time-turner’s inclusion here makes a bit more sense, since there’s only one of them and the mayhem it causes makes it abundantly clear that using it to change anything that happened more than a few hours ago is a really bad idea, but it still results in a lot of plot turns that feel cheap and unearned, as the book uses it to pull all sorts of shocking swerves that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Even worse, it facilitates the exploration of some ideas that seemed interesting when they were only touched on in the main books, but which are revealed to be very much not interesting now that Rowling is able to stretch them out a bit. For example, we get to see what a wizarding world fully under Voldemort’s reign would be like, and it’s cartoonish in the extreme.
Some of these time-travel facilitated twists don’t even make any sense. In order to save Cedric’s life, Harry and Albus decide to humiliate him during the Triwzard tournament so badly that he’ll quit and therefore won’t be present for Voldemort’s resurrection; somehow, this causes him to become a Death Eater, which means he kills Neville during the final battle, which in turn means Neville never destroys the last Horcrux and the good guys lose. I get the “in want of a nail” angle the story is going for, but why does losing in the tournament make Cedric– the Hogwarts equivalent of Ned Flanders and a character who never shows the slightest inclination toward evil– join Voldemort? I guess this really is a story that believes in the “Hitler went bad because he didn’t get into art school” model of moral contingency.
Other parts of the plot indicate that whatever happened to Rowling’s storytelling chops during the writing of Deathly Hallows has yet to be mended, as many of the twisteroos and story machinations feel exactly as lazy and bewildering as the worst aspects of that book. Several of them might even be worse, managing to be not just bad but extremely predictable. Case in point: Delphi turning out to be Voldemort’s daughter, which I worked out the moment she appeared due to a) the repetition of the script hammering home the Scorpius = Voldemort’s child rumor basically guaranteeing it was going to be someone else and b) the fact that she didn’t really have a reason to be in the story.
Actually, while we’re on the subject, Delphi herself would have made for a perfectly good, fairly straightforward hook to hang a sequel on, except that the story spends so long messing around with time travel bollocks that by the time we find out who she is it’s almost over. For 75% of its length, Cursed Child keeps both her and any real connection to Voldemort firmly in the background, which makes the eventual reveal very clumsy– while in the dark alternate timeline Scorpius keeps hearing people talk about some sort of unseen villain figure called the Augury (which in Harry Potter land I guess is a type of mythological creature instead of bird-based fortune telling), and then it turns out that Delphi has an augury tattoo because the Death Eaters who raised her had one in a cage in their house and that’s how Scorpius figures out she’s evil and ??????
Did you spot that Augury is a method of divination, and Delphi was the home of an oracle during ancient roman times? Because, like, do you see.
(Incidentally, the entire last act of the play would have been completely negated if Scorpius had asked anyone who the Augury is, so of course he doesn’t)
Many people have commented that Cursed Child feels like fanfiction. I felt that way too, and it took me a while to figure out why. It’s not just that it borrows specific elements that show up frequently in Harry Potter fanfics– although it does, to a kind of startling degree– but that it spends most of its time revisiting and remixing elements of the previous seven books rather than doing anything new, which is the sort of thing you tend to get from fanfic authors who are basically just keeping themselves occupied until the next canon installment comes out (see for example the Star Wars fandom, which took the original movies apart frame by frame and attached backstories to every single incidental background character). The best example I can think of is this really weird bit where it turns out the witch who pushes the snack trolley on the Hogwarts Express is actually some sort of manifestation of the train itself who can turn into a big spiky monster-thing. If Rowling came up with a backstory for the Hogwarts Express at some point then fair enough, but did we need it crammed into an already over-stuffed narrative?
…wait, I did say I liked the relationship stuff, didn’t I?
In fact, I did. Harry and Albus’ father/son strife is well observed and doesn’t feel like it was watered down at all for a younger audience, and the brotastic friendship between Albus and Scorpius forms a solid emotional core for the story (although I was kind of miffed that it didn’t turn into a romance, since it really feels like it’s heading in that direction). Scorpius may in fact be the best character in the entire franchise, someone who has a lot of the same baggage and complexity as Harry but without his self-important moodiness or forays into Grumpville.
I get the feeling that these emotional components is what Rowling was really interested in, so when it came to the story she just tossed off any old thing that would take the characters through the requisite character moments. The entire thing just feels rushed and clumsy, like a first draft that was cobbled together for a NaNoWriMo project and then never put through any re-writes. Part of this may be due to the format the story is being told in; I very much get the feeling that this general plot outline was originally conceived for a series of novels– there are multiple climaxes followed by lulls that feel like places where individual books were meant to end– and smashing the entire thing into two plays may have mangled the story beyond recognition. But at the end of the day we didn’t get a series of novels, we got this script, and that’s what I’m reviewing, and it’s bad.