So you’re there in the office, and everyone’s talking about Harry Potter. Or perhaps you’ve got a friend who’s busy picking out what she’s wearing to the midnight release party of Deathly Hallows and you want to be able to understand what she’s going on about. There you are, and you are reminded in that brief enthusiastic moment that the books really were good (because the hype is catching), and you think: “hey, I really should reread the books” because you also want to take part in this culture phenomenon – at least just a little.

First step, admit to yourself if you are working full time and have other responsibilities that you are not going to have time to (re)read all the books before Deathly Hallows comes out, nor are you really going to want to. Nor is your odd friend with a stack of theories thicker than Hogwarts, A History (and all too happy to talk for an hour straight on any Potter topic picked at random) able to pause, take a breath to fill you in and refresh your memory with things you may have missed – with the Order of the Phoenix’s movie coming out, the game to play, the soundtrack to listen to – there’s really just no time. So what do you do?

Shortcut #1: Watch the movies.
Pro: You could feasibly watch the first two movies and get everything you need to know out of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets.
Con: Massive time sink, and it won’t help you get through Prisoner of Azkaban or Goblet of Fire, either. Additionally, the movies are somewhat misleading. Being a wizard is not all rainbows and roses, pumpkin pasties and Quidditch. Dark times lie ahead, and the wizarding war is already well underway.

Shortcut #2: Read this guide.
Pro: Written by a hardcore fangirl.
Con: Written by a non-crazy hardcore fangirl. This is practical preparation.

This one is dedicated to all my coworkers (especially Hawkeye over at FMA Warcry) and written for every one who has read the books, or most of them. If you have never read the books and do not wish to read spoilers, head out now!

This guide covers the following books:
Sorcerer’s Stone
Chamber of Secrets
Prisoner of Azkaban
Goblet of Fire
Order of the Phoenix
Half-Blood Prince

There are so many spoilers ahead (that was your last warning) that if you haven’t picked up the first three books at least, you really need to. It’s okay to admit you’re a movie only watcher, or haven’t read all the book, or read the books a couple years ago and you’re fuzzy on anything that happened after Goblet of Fire (which was not the movie directed by the same dude that did Y tu mamá también). This is mostly a refresher course for those that have read the books at some point.

Sorcerer’s Stone/Philosopher’s Stone (“Hang on, I’m a wizard!”)
Absolute short version: Harry Potter learns he’s a wizard, which is a free ticket into a magical world where he’s unknowingly a hero. Fame and adventure follows.

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This book features two titles after Scholastic pointlessly “Americanized” things – it’s the same book, no matter which way you analyze it. As the first book in the series, it lays foundation for Hogwarts, by introducing the staff, the wizarding world at large, Harry’s friends, Quidditch, and all that stuff. After years of living in a cupboard under stairs with a nasty family called the Dursleys, being a wizard is a big lifestyle change for Harry and so the plot is seriously not complicated.

To wizards, Harry is a hero. It turns out a wizard called Voldemort attacked Harry Potter’s real parents years ago. Harry was the only one who survived at the tender age of one, and Voldemort was driven underground as a result. While it would be easy to use all his inherited wealth to ensure a bit of privacy and escape the paparazzi in the muggle (non-wizard) world – Harry’s been marked, dark wizard style with a scar on his forehead. In later years he’d smarten up and grow out his hair a bit, but kids being kids, he hadn’t gotten that wise yet. Harry bonds with two students, goofy sidekick Ron Weasley and typically too smart for her own good bookworm Hermione Granger.

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Ron gets to shine a bit at wizard chess, the trio collectively solves a bunch of puzzles, and Professor Quirrell (Defense Against the Dark Arts) turns out to not just be nutty, but possessed by a dark wizard. That turban he’s been wearing is to hide Lord Voldemort who has been hiking about attached to the back of his head most of the year long. Big dramatics ensue as we learn the stone has been hidden by Dumbledore using the mirror of Erised. It ends up in Harry’s hands before he passes out, the stone vanishes and is presumably destroyed in an “and this is why we can’t have nice things as wizards” sort of way. Harry goes home for the summer, having survived year one as a wizard.

Chamber of Secrets (“I know what you did last semester”)
Absolute short version: Ginny opens the Chamber of Secrets, several students are injured badly, the wrong people get accused of doing stuff, and we learn some more history. Usually connected to Half-Blood Prince (book six).

The Dursley hijinks this year include Dobby, the Malfoy house elf, who shows up and goes “Harry Potter must not return to Hogwarts.” Harry of course does not agree, so Dobby then makes sure to drop a dessert on some guests the Dursleys are having over in order to keep Harry from being sent back to school. The Dursleys put bars on the window, and Fred, George, and Ron Weasley come by in a flying car to do a prison break on Harry and he’s out of there.

On a trip to Flourish and Blotts (pretty much the textbook shop for all Hogwarts students) just before school starts, Lucius Malfoy slips a small well-worn blank diary into the stack of Weasley textbooks. Harry and Ron miss the train to Hogwarts, steal the enchanted Weasley family car, fly in, crash into the Whomping Willow, and none of the staff is amused, most of all Snape. The new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is Gilderoy Lockhart, a smug, pretentious and mostly charismatic phony. He loses his mind at the end and is locked up – we don’t see him until a cameo in Phoenix.

Poor Ginny, it’s her first year at Hogwarts and she’s so lonely and not so secretly pining away for Harry Potter. She pours her heart out to this diary like any preteen girl without access to blogging software – but the book is enchanted and therefore replies back. It’s also an evil and creepy relic from Lord Voldemort’s younger days as Tom Riddle. Guess who gets possessed as a result?

Ginny opens the Chamber of Secrets, and the big monster is a basilisk that charges about Hogwarts through the pipes. No one gets killed although a good number of people are taken out of commission in the process (like Hermione). Hagrid is suspected of opening the Chamber and is hauled away, having been framed by Tom Riddle back in the day when things were a bit less PG and a lot more deadly. This opening thing has happened before, you see. Dumbledore gets suspended for a time because Hogwarts shoots to number one on the “Most Dangerous Places in Europe” lists and that’s about the only thing people know how to do – remove the effective people in place and flail around a bit. Harry gets a great action sequence at the end where he gets to rescue the girl (Ginny gets kidnapped and left to die, having served her purpose), meet Tom Riddle, fight the basilisk with Gryffindor’s sword, and stabs the diary with a basilisk tooth to destroy it. Dobby the house elf gets freed because Harry slips a sock into the destroyed diary, gives it to Lucius, who in turn tosses it to Dobby, and the sock falls out. This is interpreted as “master has given me clothes” – the only way to free a house elf. Lucius Malfoy gets annoyed because he just got owned pretty hardcore and stomps out. Hagrid gets to come back, because obviously, he didn’t do anything. Ginny ends up fine and a score of homegrown music videos are made with movie footage set to everything possible by Evanescence.

That’s right, I went there.

Prisoner of Azkaban (“It makes sense in Order of the Phoenix.”)
Absolute short version: Sirius Black escapes from Azkaban and is looking for Harry. Things are not what they seem. Hermione uses a Time-Turner device and we get introduced to people who are more important two books down the line.

While it feels like this book is entirely disconnected from the first two, it’s also where all the action starts. Voldemort also makes no direct appearance, much like in the Half-Blood Prince.

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Everything starts out pretty mild with the obligatory conflict at the Dursley household – Harry blows up “Aunt” Marge at dinner, runs away, ends up in The Leaky Caludron. Ministry of Magic’s annoyed, but not enough to really do something about it – Sirius Black (an old friend of the Potter family, Harry’s godfather, has the ability to turn into a large dog) has escaped from Azkaban (the high security wizard prison) and everyone thinks he’s after Harry to kill him. This couldn’t be further than the truth. Also, Hermione’s got a Time Turner she uses all year to take extra classes but no one knows this until the end, and Ron and Harry just think she’s lost her mind. The kids take Divination, possibly one of the most comedic classes ever. Hagrid adopts a hippogriff named Buckbeak, who ends up attacking Draco.

Harry is taught by Lupin how to summon a Patronus to ward off Dementors, foul evil creatures who get stronger by sucking the happiness out of people. Yes, that is blatant symbolism for depression in your face. The Weasley twins decide to pass on a great relic of the past to Harry to help him out – the Marauder’s Map.

You will never see this point in the movie: The map was made by Harry’s father James, and his three friends Remus (Lupin, aka Moony), Sirius (Black, aka Padfoot), and Peter (Pettigrew, aka Wormtail). They were known as the Marauders back in their school days and for being notorious pranksters. The animal nicknames correspond to everyone’s animal form, as the three boys learned how to turn into animals to keep Lupin company around the full moon (turns out he transforms into a werewolf after being bitten as a youngster). Let’s just say the map comes in handy.

The trio ends up in the Shrieking Shack outside Hogsmeade, where Sirius has been hiding with the help of Lupin. Snape shows up. Betrayal! Ron’s rat is actually Peter Pettigrew, who has spent the last several years shapeshifted into a rat. He ends up getting away in the confusion caused by the full moon appearing. Sirius gets captured right around the same time an executioner shows up to kill Buckbeak for attacking a student, Ron breaks a leg and is taken out of commission for the rest of the story.

In order to let Sirius escape and save Buckbeak, Hermione finally tells the boys what she’s been on about all year. She then busts out the Time Turner with a knowing wink from Dumbledore, Harry and Hermione do a bit of time travel and save the day. Sirius then flies off on Buckbeak, Harry gets the gleeful knowledge that he has a godfather watching out for him, and that’s that.

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Goblet of Fire (“You killed Cedric! You bastard!”)
Absolute short version: Three schools compete in a wizard tournament and face dragons, merpeople and a hedge maze of creatures. Harry gets to compete even though he’s underage and does pretty well. Voldemort returns at the end, Cedric Diggory dies.

Quidditch gets cancelled for the year, but with the Quidditch World Cup at the beginning of the book it is no big deal. Death eaters (Lord Voldemort’s homeboys) show up and cause wacky hijinks. School starts and the TriWizard Tournament is announced. Hogwarts competes with two other magic schools, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang. Those chosen to compete will undergo three tests of extreme skill and danger. While it should be one per school, the Goblet of Fire that picks the contestants picks two students from Hogwarts, Cedric Diggory (Hufflepuff) and Harry Potter. Everyone’s pretty much annoyed at this for various reasons.

Ron spends most of the first part of the book all ticked off at Harry because he’s feeling oversensitive about being Harry’s sidekick and annoyed because he thinks Harry found a way to enter the tournament and not tell him. Teenage moodiness ahoy! There are three tasks – the first involves the TriWizard Champions fighting dragons, the second, rescuing people the school champions care about from merpeople in the big lake, and the third involves a race through the hedge maze to touch the TriWizard Cup and win!

To divert everyone from these dangerous tasks, there’s a ball at Christmas time – the Yule Ball. Ron and Hermione get into a screaming match afterwards because Ron should have asked Hermione, waited too long to do so, and when he did ask, she said no because she already had a date. She also managed to look like a total hottie in the process and that drove Ron temporarily insane, even though he and Harry managed to get dates just fine. This is repressed sexual tension at its finest.

Harry and Cedric are tied at the end of the competition, run into each other in the maze, and they both decide to touch the cup together and split the prize, but more importantly, share the glory for Hogwarts. These are nice kids. Too bad the TriWizard cup is actually a teleporter and leads them straight into Voldemort’s trap where he and a bunch of his followers that managed to escape being thrown in prison are just sort of chilling out, doing what evil sorts do. Now, before you ask what should be a common sense question – “why did they bad guys wait so long when they could have done this much earlier in the year” the answer is simple – it was supposed to look like Harry got killed in an accident during the TriWizard Tournament. Plus the book only would have been about 200 pages and it would have made a boring movie. Totally unacceptable.

Cedric gets killed (see what misplaced nobility gets you?), Harry witnesses the full return of Lord Voldemort, the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher turns out to be a fake – the real one’s been stuffed in a trunk all year, and the book ends on a definite downcast note. Harry gives the prize money to the Weasley twins to start a joke shop and the other schools go home.

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Order of the Phoenix (“Phoenix, not pheonix.”)
Absolute short version: Harry has funny prophetic dreams all year, thanks to Voldemort trying to get in his brain. He spends most of the book angry and mopey, probably due to having a constant migraine from his scar hurting. The students rebel against “the man” and form a secret wizard club. There’s a huge battle at the end and Sirius Black dies.

All summer long between books there’s been a campaign to discredit Harry’s claim that Voldemort has returned. Harry’s brain is still pretty messed up from the end of Goblet of Fire, and on top of that he’s getting increasingly irritable because his friends aren’t writing him back. Indeed, it sucks to be Harry. He’s also having strange dreams. Lack of rest makes young wizards very grouchy, apparently.

After dementors appear in his neighborhood and Harry uses a Patronus to save himself and Dudley Dursley on the way home one night, he is whisked away by a group called the Order of the Phoenix. The Order of the Phoenix is a group of adult wizards fighting Voldemort and was formed before his first major defeat at the hands of baby Harry Potter. They’ve reassembled like the pack of crime fighting super wizards they are to keep an eye on and stop Voldemort, plus anyone aiding his return whenever possible. Harry goes through a hearing for using magic outside of school but gets to return to Hogwarts, where the Ministry is stepping up efforts to make sure as little progress as possible happens. There’s a lot here to be said about government oppression, the continuing theme of mistrust of the press and other heady topics, but remember these are supposed to be children’s books.

Frustrated at the lack of practical magic being taught, Hermione and Ron gather a group of students who collectively pressure Harry into teaching them advanced practical magic. This secret club is called Dumbledore’s Army, and it goes pretty well. Voldemort decides his current gang lacks some numbers and before anyone can say “what happened” a few more people escape out of Azkaban.

Harry also gets to smooch Cedric’s ex-girlfriend Cho, who isn’t over Cedric dying anyway (too soon! too soon!). They get together and break up pretty fast because she’s got Issues, Harry’s a total rebound relationship, and no one really cares. It’s only a big deal because the movie makes it so.

There’s a huge battle at the Ministry of Magic as Dumbledore’s Army is lured there through some evil trickery. While they’re there, they attempt to get the prophecy before the Death Eaters do. Bellatrix (Sirius’ cousin) ends up killing him during the battle. Voldemort shows up and escapes, Dumbledore shows up and kicks some major butt. There are a lot of minor injuries, but that’s the big death for this book. The prophecy is smashed and lost, and so no one really knows what it said. Or do they? Of course someone else knows.

At the end, Harry smashes up Dumbledore’s office in a fit of rage and Dumbledore pretty much says, “sorry dude” in private and admits he made a few mistakes in trying to protect Harry from everything. The full prophecy is revealed because Dumbledore actually knows what’s up. Simply put, someone’s got to die, either Harry or Voldemort. Or both.

Harry decides to keep quiet about the prophecy for now. No sense worrying everyone.

Half-Blood Prince (“I can’t leave you kids alone for a minute.”)
Absolute short version: Yes, Snape killed Dumbledore. We know. What is wrong with you people?

A lot of this story is told flashback style, as Dumbledore attempts to tell Harry everything by subjecting him to selected scenes from Voldemort’s past. Along the way we learn about Horcruxes – part of why Voldemort’s managed as long as he has is because he divided up his soul and put them into various objects. Turns out that diary in Chamber of Secrets that didn’t seem connected to much of anything? It was a horcrux!

In the present, Snape gets his and finally gets to be Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and there’s a new Potions master. Harry uses an old book for potions previously owned by the “Half-Blood Prince”. He uses all the notes in the margins to get by and it’s no wonder he does so well, since the book used to be owned by Snape.

Finally after a lot of history lessons, Harry and Dumbledore trudge off to a cave to destroy a horcrux, except the the locket they go after ends up being a fake. Inside is a note to Voldemort from a mysterious “R.A.B.” (which 9/10s of the world believe is Regulus Black, Sirius’ brother) saying he stole the real one and is off to destroy it.

When Harry and Dumbledore return, Hogwarts is under attack. Seems that Draco Malfoy’s let some Death Eaters in!

Harry’s dead certain Draco is up to something over the course of the year, and everyone thinks Harry’s nuts because there isn’t enough proof. Harry was right, Draco was up to something (he was told to kill Dumbledore), but couldn’t follow through at the very end. Since Snape promised Draco’s mother he would take care of things if Draco couldn’t, he steps in and kills Dumbledore. In another dramatic moment, Snape is revealed to be the Half-Blood Prince. There are a lot of injuries but that’s the big death for this book.

Harry gets jealous over Ginny going out with all these other guys yet somehow does not connect the dots in order to ask her to the Christmas party held by the new Potions master. Ron gets to snog around with Lavender Brown, Hermione stomps around jealously, and you can bet the words “I read a fanfic like this once” crossed many people’s minds. Harry and Ginny date for a while but break up after Dumbledore’s funeral, and Harry vows to go on alone. That’d work in a déjà vu nod to a certain pop culture comic book movie, except Hermione and Ron are right there beside him going “oh no you don’t” right afterwards.

In the meantime the staff debates shutting Hogwarts down. There’s also questions of what are the other Horcruxes and where are they? Is Snape evil? Will Hogwarts reopen?

This is where things stand… until the 21st!

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