When I used to be a member of a swedish Harry Potter fan community, before the website got shut down due to illegal use of the hogwarts name, I was often confounded that pretty much everybody would put Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets at the bottom of their list when asked how they'd rank the various books. The other books had different ranks depending on the person but CoS almost always got ranked last.
As I always thought that it was at least superior to Philosopher's Stone I never quite understood why people ranked CoS as the least great one. It wasn't until my recent read through of it, now that I can see it with more experienced eyes, that I can understand why this is/was the case.
I still don't agree with the assessment that it should ranked last though.
Before I go any further I need to mention one thing. Remember how I said that Philosopher's Stone was well-written, genuinely exiciting and perfectly aimed at it's targeted age-group? The same can be said about Chamber of Secrets, with the minor adding of that the targeted age-group is a bit older now so the writing style has been adjusted accordingly. Honestly, it's just like all the other Harry Potter books. Which is to say that's it's a freaking great read. That said, let's get into what it is, at least what I think it is, that makes people rank CoS below the other books.
First, a very short summary of how the other books affect the series' plot. Philosopher's Stone naturally started things off and introduced everything, world, characters, running themes etc, to the readers. Books three to six all advanced the over-arching plot in their own significant way. Deathly Hallows was the epic and game-changing finale that put an end to it all.
By comparisson Chamber of Secrets was sort of lacking in the whole advancing the series plot-development thing. At least that's what I believe people usually think when they consider CoS' contribution to the series. In the grand scheme of things Harry Potter the second book could fairly easily be regarded as just a mandatoy volume that was needed because Rowling had decided that an education at Hogwarts would take seven years and that each book would take place during one of those years. This way of seeing things is especially easy to see if one, for some reason, only reads up to the fifth book.
You see, Chamber of Secrets isn't a plot-advancing book as much as it is a foundation-laying book. There's so many concepts and plot-points that are important to the story and world that are first introduced and explored in CoS that it easily becomes one of the more central pieces in the puzzle that is the this book series. The thing is that a few of the more important plot points introduced here wouldn't be really explored until the sixth book. So a lot of people, myself included as I just enjoyed the really kickass book, judged the book and its importance without fully knowing what role it would play. Allow me to list a few of things that are introduced and how they will be important to the rest of the series.
First of all is something that is so very easy to miss and/or forget if you don't think about it. The whole deal with muggle-born wizard or wizard with one muggle parent being descriminated against is first introduced in this book as soon as Draco Malfoy calls Hermione the derogatory term 'mudblood'. This of course is important not only because it shows how wizards and muggles can be quite similar all things considered, but it's also one of the main differences between Voldemort's side and the opposition. Rowling doesn't hold back on this message in her books. Racist thinking like that is cruel and evil. No two ways about it. Personally I can appreciate bluntness on this kind of issue. So yeah, a moral theme established.
Following that we the very representation of evil in the series, Voldemort. CoS is where we first get a closer look at the person he was before becoming a lord of darkness. We're told his motivations for becoming Voldemort and some of his family history is revealed. In short, we're informed that he used to be a human being before actually becoming something more aching to a monster and we're told that this human isn't all too different from Harry Potter himself. This makes the conflict between the two even more personal than it already is, making it more than just a generic struggle beween a hero and his arch-nemesis. In the end Voldemort's past more or less becomes a weapon used to defeat him in the end. Which brings us to one of the points that wouldn't be revealed until later in the series.
As we get to know just a little about Voldemort's past the first of his horcruxes, the items he's spliced his soul into, is destroyed. We, the readers, just didn't know how very important the destruction of that diary was or that it was a clue to what Voldemort had done himself. Hell, we're even shown how the things are supposed to be destroyed without knowing it. But Rowling knew. Rowling had it all planned out even at this stage. I don't know about you but I find that very impressive.
So yeah, Chamber of Secrets may not move the over-arching plot of series forward very much but it is still a vital part of it all because it plants story seeds that either will become important later on or will play a part throughout the entire series. And all this is without mentioning all the characters that will have greater roles to play in future installements that're properly introduced here.
All that said, it might now appear that CoS is mainly a set-up book. While that is true it is also a thrilling adventure and fantasy book. The stakes are much higher than in the previous book. In that one there's was just one guy targeting Harry when he was certain that Dumbledore wasn't there to kick his ass. In this one there's a mysterious and unseen evil that is targeting what must be the majority of the students right under Dumbledore's nose. Besides that there's evidence pointing towards that Harry might be going crazy and to top it all off the big and gentle Hagrid might be behind it all. Then there's the plot twist to mystery of who it is that's opened the chamber of secrets. It's not as awe-inspiring as the twist in the first and third books but it's a good one and I didn't see it coming. All this combined with the aforementioned quality of Rowling's story-telling makes Chamber of Secrets' story strong enough to stand on its own.
Before I end this there're two things I'd like to mention.
First of all is that Arthur Weasley, Ron's dad, is introduced in this book and thus so is his marriage with Molly Weasley. As a couple I love these two characters. Mainly because they're a perfectly happy and fairly normal couple. It's often said that if a couple is happy then they're not interesting to read about. There's to be some drama in the relationship for readers to latch on to it. But Arthur and Molly don't need stuff like that to be interesting. They're fun and interesting characters that play well of each other. Sometimes they bicker and sometimes they are lovey dovey with one another and a lot of times they're everything inbetween. As a reader you come to care about them and their fates. The drama doesn't take place in their relationship because they don't need it to be interesting and engaging characters, they already are that on their own. And as far as I can see they're fairly normal as far as people go, besides being wizards of course. I just wanted to highlight them to show that it is totally possible to write a happy couple and keep them interesting.
Secondly is an example of Lena Fries-Gedin's awesome translation skills.
Here's Voldemort's given name in english. Tom Marvolo Riddle.
And here's the swedish version of it. Tom Gus Mervolo Dolder.
The reason for the change is that is of course that Voldemort anagrams his given name into I am Lord Voldemort. If one tried to do that exact same thing in swedish you'd have work a j, a g and the horribly awkward letter ä into the anagram. What Fries-Gedin is to replace 'I am' with the latin words 'Ego Sum' and then altered/added the name as you see above. So in swedish the anagram spels out "Ego Sum Lord Voldemort". If you ask me that is exceedingly clever and just proof that the swedish translations rock.
And that is all for this time. Join in the next retrospective as Harry and his friends take on the Prisoner of Azkaban.