(Note: All quotes and references to Book 7 are from memory. Dean has the book now, and I can't get it away from him to look up anything. If I get something really wrong, I'll correct it when I've had a chance to check the text.)
My history with Harry Potter is divided into two sections: pre- and post-Order of the Phoenix. Book 5 broke the series for me. The first 4 books followed each other smoothly, and I enjoyed them enormously. OotP was a shocking break in tone and, I thought, in the author's skill. I really hated that book, and I haven't re-read it.
Half-Blood Prince was rather a return to earlier form, and I was relieved that I could enjoy it. It seemed that OotP was an unfortunate interlude, maybe necessary in order to set up the finale, but not indicative of a real dropping-off in quality.
Now, with Book 7, I'm afraid I have to return to my earlier conclusion. HBP was the interlude - a rally of spirits before expiration. The series really DID collapse in the final third.
First of all, a couple of my own predictions came true: I always thought there would be a Harry/Dudley rapprochement before the end. It didn't mean anything, but it was there.
My very elegant theory about the Horcrux in the cave was wrong, but I did get one thing right: Snape and Dumbledore did agree in advance that Snape was to kill him, so his pleading on the tower was for death, not for mercy.
A theme that was a staple of much bad fanfiction also turned out to be true: Snape's undying love for Lily. So all the theories about Snape's complex motives turned out to be wrong - he really wasn't a deep psychological study after all, just a guy whose whole life was based on his first 11-year old crush on a girl. As Oscar Wilde said, "a sphinx without a secret". He'll certainly be less interesting now when (or if) I reread the books.
Overall impression first of all: Rowling was rewriting OotP. So much stuff that I thought we'd left behind was dragged out again: Harry's eternally "prickling" scar; his squalls of bad temper (though she managed to unstick the caps lock key this time); seeing through Voldemort's eyes again; more of put-upon Harry, doubted by his closest friends; pages of nothing - all those months of camping and bickering. (My goodness, mushrooms for dinner AGAIN?!) It was as dull as the process of cleaning 12 Grimauld Place had been, or Hagrid's visit to the giants, and just about as pointless. I think the problem with the formula she adopted for these books was that each one had to cover the space of a year. This worked alright at the beginning, when they were really school stories, because the school year and its seasons provided a structure to fill in. By the end, though, it was less and less about school, so the year-long time period felt artificial. There was very little in the book that HAD to take a long time. The whole story could have been compressed into one month, and it would have been a lot tighter - as it is, there really was way too much time to fill, and nothing to fill it with.
The first half especially went over a lot of previously-covered ground. I felt that Rowling had a long list of details from previous books that she was methodically ticking off, so all sorts of things got mentioned about once, and then disappeared for good: thestrals, Blast-Ended Scroots, Pigwidgeon, Hermione's cat, Buckbeak, Mrs. Norris. And I'm half-convinced she was already thinking of all the cameo roles for the final movie, and writing them in: so Dolores Umbridge has a walk-on role, she's built up as a big threat, then she's easily knocked out and we never hear of her again. Nearly Headless Nick shows up once, as does Professor Trelawney. I guess Kenneth Branagh won't be available in 2009 - no sign of Gilderoy Lockhart.
I thought the story picked up at about the halfway point. Breaking into the Ministry, then getting caught out trying to impersonate people they don't know, was quite suspenseful. It felt as if the net was getting tighter every moment, and I wasn't sure they'd be able to con their way out again. Winding up at the Malfoy's was also good, and when Draco couldn't or wouldn't identify them, I thought things were getting good at last. Finally, we were going to see character development in Draco. But it all had disappeared by the finale, and he was back to his usual one-note mini-villain role.
I thought the most touching part was Dobby's death and burial. I actually got tearful; the little details didn't seem to be there just for cleverness, there was some real affection there. Breaking into Gringott's wasn't too bad - mostly I liked seeing the dragon struggle out of the vault and make it to freedom. But it was a little annoying that the difficulty in this episode was exactly the same as the difficulty during the Ministry break-in - not being able to successfully impersonate a person whose appearance you've taken on. Once again, I was thinking, "We've already seen this."
The "info-dump" methods got really crude this time around. Pages of prose out of Rita Skeeter's book; Aberforth's huge expository lecture; and of course, the Pensieve again
. Voldemort was a bore, too - evil is boring and repetitious, but a book shouldn't be. I really couldn't care less about watching yet another torture scene, or another temper tantrum from the throne.
It would be boring to just enumerate all the little things that annoyed me, since some of them are style, and that's a matter of taste. But I thought there were some plot holes, and unlike the other books, I noticed them at the time I was reading. Usually, I don't think of these things until later.
The locket in the cave: how did the basin refill with potion TWICE? Maybe Regulus refilled it after switching lockets (can't remember, and I can't check right now), but I'm sure Dumbledore didn't after taking the locket, yet when Voldemort checked it, he found the basin full, but with no locket.
And we were told that all the exits from Hogwarts had been blocked, except for the one in the Room of Requirement, yet the tunnel from the Whomping Willow was still open?
Where was Snape's portrait among all the other headmasters? (Oh, and I guessed the silver doe was his Patronus right from the start - process of elimination. We'd seen everyone else's.)
And there was some cheating on the author's part, too. Losing the sword was a serious blow, because it was the one thing they could rely on to destroy a Horcrux. Finding one wasn't much use if they couldn't break it. But when they found the diadem, Crabbe conveniently let loose some super-fire, and guess what? That'll work, too. What a piece of luck! And who knew an idiot like Crabbe could produce magic that powerful?
And we've seen Harry's cloak since Book 1, but now we find out that it's not like any other Invisible Cloak in history. Anton Chekhov said, "If you hang a gun on the wall in Act I, you must use it in Act III." This is like taking down the gun in Act III and suddenly revealing that it's really a nuclear bomb. Not fair.
My main problem was with the finale, which I'm sure was what Rowling worked the hardest on. Sure, I got the "Christian" references, but I thought the way they were used was a cop-out. If you're going to mess around with themes like this, you have to have the guts to go all the way. Tolkien did, and so did C.S. Lewis. In the end, there's no happy ending in this world - the happy ending is on the other side. Rowling won't admit that. She wants Harry to have his reward HERE - so his dying isn't a permanent thing, it's just a temporary stunt, before normal life resumes. That's just so flat and unexciting, I don't even want to think about it. She even dodges the whole question of life after death, by making the whole meeting with Dumbledore something Harry invents in his own mind.
When you get into "destroying death" territory, sacrifice has to be REAL. Not just a physical unpleasantness. Not just upset feelings. It has to take you someplace from where there's no going back. Harry's wasn't like that. So in the end, I found the triumph rather cheap.