Harry Potter succeeded because of its characters and relationships. But Harry Potter did not succeed because of its imagination.
I've spoken in depth in the past about why I don't like the Harry Potter books. All of it can be boiled down to a single statement:
The characters of Harry Potter are unaware of their own universe.
But I stumbled on a more authoritative way to say this, in terms of Brandon Sanderson and his "laws of magic."
The first law is fairly well-known: In order to use magic to resolve conflict in a satisfying way, you need it to be understood. The magic of Harry Potter is very understandable, so that isn't an issue. You always know what Alohamora is going to do.
The second law is: the limitations are more interesting than abilities. The magic in Harry Potter does have concrete limitations, which does create interesting conflicts. You can't use the time turners to change the past, as an example. So that isn't an issue.
Brandon Sanderson's 3rd Law has been stated most simply:
Everything is connected to everything else.
This is where Harry Potter fails as a series. It fails to explore the connections that should exist within the world. It doesn't consider the deeper ramifications of dark lords with million-person-wide global secrets or ten-year-olds with the ability to kill at will. Many of the characters in Harry Potter seem to temporarily forget that magic exists and don't use it for some crucial purpose, or are surprised when someone else uses it.
Consider briefly just some of the means of transportation within the Wizarding World of England:
- In the Wizarding World, everyone is able to get on a broom and fly. This is already an extremely effective form of transportation, far more effective than ground transportation.
- In the Wizarding World, there is a special train with its own rail to carry students to and from Hogwarts, because they aren't allowed to fly there.
- In the Wizarding World, there exists at least one flying car that you aren't allowed to fly, or at least not to Hogwarts.
- In the Wizarding World, there exists at least one flying motorcycle that you don't even have to use magic to fly on. You are allowed to fly this, even to and from Hogwarts.
- In the Wizarding World, there exists a magic powder that allows you to instantaneously teleport between fireplaces anywhere in the world by speaking the name of the desired location.
- In the Wizarding World, there exists a double-decker bus that drives around late at night just in case a wizard gets lost and doesn't have a way home.
- In the Wizarding World, there exists a spell to turn any mundane object at all into a transportation key that instantaneously teleports you to anywhere in the world. This is a different spell from the fireplace one.
- In the Wizarding World, there exists an old wooden boat that travels underwater.
- In the Wizarding World, there exist carriages drawn by invisible death horses.
- In the Wizarding World, there exists a spell that instantaneously teleports you (and a friend) to anywhere in the world, without a mundane object or a fireplace. This is a different instantaneous teleportation spell from the other two.
This is a failure to consider the connections between one kind of magical transportation over here, and another kind of magical transportation over here. The lack of connections between the elements of the world make the world flat and unbelievable.
One of my strongest points about the flat worldbuilding is the Wizarding economy, which is completely one-dimensional. You either work for the government, or you teach at Hogwarts. Or you pretend to be a chair and squat in a Muggle home. Those are basically the only jobs. However, there are all kinds of implications that the existence of magic and magical goods should be having on the economy. Hermione goes to work at the Ministry of Magic doing something with elf rights, when Hermione could have gotten in to Oxford and become top-of-her-field in any subject she wanted to. There are people who know how to fly and transmute matter and cast illusions, and they work retail hours stocking books in a magical bookstore. Wizards just don't do anything, and don't interact with the real world. There is no connection between one an the other. And yet we frequently see wizards connecting with the real world.
Hogwarts itself is flat. There are four houses. There are four houses because traditional boarding schools have four houses. One house is good, the other house is evil. The other house is... I dunno, really smart, and then the last house is... um... all the rest! We just need four houses. All the rest of Hogwarts outside of Harry, his friends and his enemies remains essentially a Potemkin Village. Hermione should be in Ravenclaw and Neville should be in Hufflepuff, except those are the good guys, so they aren't.Slytherins are evil, Griffindors are good, everyone else is whatever. The evil professors are Slytherin, the evil students are Slytherin, the evil founder is Slytherin, the evil dark lord is the heir of Slytherin, the evil wizards who help the dark lord are Slytherin. All of this is to reinforce that Draco = Slytherin = eath Eater = Voldemort = Bad. Even Dolores Umbridge, the goody-two-shoes who should fit right in at Griffindor, later joins the Death Eaters, and while at Hogwarts uses Draco and his goons -- who are known to be trouble makers that start fights -- to act as hallway patrol.
It doesn't make any sense, because the implications and connections of the school and its four houses were never truly worked out. Griffindors just are good, Slytherins just are bad, and Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff just are.
The first book can essentially be summed up as "the most powerful wizards in the world continually forget that magic exists." The most precious treasure in the world, being sought after by a powerful murderous dark wizard, is guarded at least in part by a simple locked door. There exists a spell, Alohamora, that can unlock doors, and there exist doors that cannot be unlocked by Alohamora. But the wizards protecting the philosopher's stone only did not use such a door to guard the entrance to the stone. They did use such a door to guard the stone, just not at the entrance, and then placed the key to the only unopenable door in the same room as the unopenable door, along with a broom to chase it down. Two of the guards for the treasure are living creatures which can immediately and even effortlessly be killed with the death spell. The other puzzles can largely be flown over if only you had a broom, and you do have a broom because we left one in the room back there (where we also left the key to the only door you can't unlock with magic).
The denouement of Philosopher's Stone can basically be summarized as the most powerful and evil wizard in the world tries to hold down a 10-year-old boy with his hands because he forgot there are spells that do it better, and decides to perish in his insistence on not using magic to defeat his nemesis.
The connections between the magic being used to defend the Philosopher's Stone, and the magic we know exists in the world, were never formed.
The issues continue. The characters routinely behave in ways that would only make sense if they did not know that they lived in a world where magic worked.
All of this to say, I now know how to articulate my main complaint against Harry Potter, and have the authority of Brandon Sanderson's name to back me up. The Harry Potter books violate Sanderson's 3rd Law of Magic. They fail to contemplate the way that everything is connected to everything else. They fail to make the connections across the different spells, across the different houses, across the broader world.