FOR THE INQUIRER

It's over. After 10 years and seven books, it's over. But I'm not sad. I'm too thrilled to be sad. The last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is the best book in the Harry Potter saga - the series ends with a bang and not a whimper. J.K. Rowling gifted her young hero and his followers a spectacular ending, ensuring that the series will have fans for decades to come.

Oh, she put all her magic into this novel - there are more twists and turns in the plot than in Voldemort's beloved snake. But she never lost sight of what makes her books particularly delightful, and I, having just spent 14 uninterrupted hours reading this one (spilling the crumbs and spatters of three meals onto its pages), have finally figured out what her greatest skill is: humor.

No matter how dark the proceedings get - and they get very dark in this book as several major characters die, some quite horribly - Rowling never forgets to leaven the tragedy with laughter. It's her signature gift, and she has even inscribed it on the Ravenclaw House's greatest treasure (a rather important item in this book): "Wit Beyond Measure Is Man's Greatest Treasure."

Wit and deft character development are Rowling's gifts, and it's in these two areas that the Harry Potter series far surpasses J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, a story that has clearly influenced her.

Everywhere there's a similarity to something in those books, she's imprinted her idiosyncratic stamp upon it. Consider Albus Dumbledore, the wizard whose literary antecedent is clearly Tolkien's Gandalf. But would Gandalf ever eat an earwax-flavored jelly bean and laugh about it with Frodo as Dumbledore does with Harry? No, I think not.

And Dumbledore, as he has in all the novels, figures prominently in this one. (OK, OK, I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read the book prior to this one, but let's just say it's odd that the former Headmaster of Hogwarts is still such a presence in Book 7.)

As Harry discovers, however, Dumbledore had a rather wild youth. Readers will doubtless agree with Harry that "the idea of a teenage Dumbledore was simply odd, like trying to imagine a stupid Hermione or a friendly Blast-Ended Skrewt."

Well, Harry has to do some imagining, and people from Dumbledore's past appear to help him get the picture. We also see more of Snape's childhood and youth, and that of Harry's mother and her magic-free sister, Harry's awful Aunt Petunia.

Happily, there aren't pages and pages of characters talking for the benefit of "catching up the reader" - the huge flaw dogging the first quarter of Book 6. Instead, action carries the plot, and there's enough broom-flying, wand-waving, curse-hurling and quest-seeking to rivet even the most easily bored readers.

I flew with it, and yet every time something horrific happened, Rowling poured on some humor. How she managed to change tones like this without ruining the book, I'm not sure, but I knew just how Harry felt when, after one wild scene involving the Death of a Major Character, "he felt a stab of revulsion mixed with a bizarre desire to laugh."

Oh, yes, her other gift: Character development. Harry has been steadily growing from poor orphan boy to angry young man, book by book. Unlike Tolkien's characters, he's never been static, never been an archetype. Although Voldemort is clearly evil, Harry isn't his opposite, a two-dimensional "good" character.

There's much more to him, just as there's much more to Hermione and Ron. Their coming of age in a war zone brings this all home. And, yes - there's love on the ramparts, but also hate; loyalty in the woods, but also betrayal; people's heads get messed with, as well as their bodies.

Finally, you get to see where a number of intriguing relationships have been leading and whether your guesses about the ending were right (several of mine were, though a few were definitely not).

It's a great read. Don't be sad that it's over - to be complete, a finished, fully realized creation, Harry's tale had to end. We had to know what would finally happen to him, and now we do.

I'm satisfied, and I can't wait to see the movie version of this last book. The computer animators are going to have to work like mad to keep up with the inventiveness of J.K. Rowling's imagination.

Frankly, I don't think they will be able to keep up. Only her readers will be able to fully savor this tale - by using their own imaginations.

Susan Balée began reading the Harry Potter books to her children and ended by reading them to herself.