NEW YORK (AP): The books are out; the word is spreading.
"The last Potter is amazing. It has definitely gone way beyond what I expected,'' Deb Kiehlmeier, 16, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, said of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,'' which was released Saturday to worldwide ecstasy.
"Harry Potter fans are always trying to predict what will happen next, and J.K. Rowling always gives them something different,'' Kiehlmeier told The Associated Press.
On Day 1 of the A.H. (After Harry) Era, reviewers and readers mourned the end of a historic series that proved young people can still crave the written word like the crispiest French fry. It was a day for the sleepless and the sleepy to enjoy and to recall one last, fresh taste of Potter.
Critics bowed before Rowling's achievement. She was compared to the greats of children's and fantasy authors -- J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, Roald Dahl -- and held in awe for living up to the most intimidating standards.
"To create such an extraordinary world, fill it with complicated characters and convergent back stories is beyond the reach of most writers,'' wrote the Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara.
"To sustain that world and grow those characters over seven books filled with plot twists, folklore and even a magical curriculum and then bring it all to an articulate, emotionally wrenching conclusion -- that is a truly epic quest.''
On Saturday, bookstores around the world welcomed eager readers, young and old, in glasses and capes, some shivering, some sweaty, all joined by the thick hardback book with the opening words: "The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane.''
Some fans, warned by Rowling that two major characters would die, one of them maybe Harry, could not bear to start at the beginning. After receiving her copy at a Singapore bookstore, Adela Lim, 16, flipped right to the end of the book, scanned the text furiously and exclaimed to her friends, "Oh my god! Oh my god!''
"I am aghast at the ending,'' she said. "I've waited since the first book all the way until now, so I can't wait anymore, I just want to find out the ending.''
Rowling, an unknown a decade ago when she introduced her magical character in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,'' gave a midnight reading to 500 competition-winning children in the grand Victorian surroundings of London's Natural History Museum. Now richer than the queen, she sat in a large wing-backed chair and read the opening pages -- description of a mysterious assignation, a clandestine meeting and important news for Voldemort.
For many of the hardcore Potter-maniacs, the place to be was Waterstone's bookstore on Piccadilly in central London. More than 5,000 people lined up for hours before the midnight opening, in a festive, colorful line stretching around the block. Among the fans from as far away as Finland and Mexico were dozens of witches and wizards, a couple of house elves, a pair of owls and a woman dressed as Hogwarts castle.
About 100 devoted readers donned witches' hats, wizards' robes and other costumes at a party early Saturday in the courtyard of Berlin's oldest castle, the Zitadelle. As the book was finally released, a shower of sparks lit up the castle's stone walls and a man dressed as Hagrid, the half-giant game and grounds keeper at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, pulled a copy of "Dark Hallows'' from a golden kettle.
Even people in war zones are reading Harry Potter. About 50 foreigners working in Afghanistan got their hands on a copy of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows'' on its release date, beating many of their friends back home.
John Connolly, an executive with Paxton International, a logistics and moving company, bought 50 copies of the book in Dubai at 3:01 a.m. Saturday, the exact time of the book's release in London. He boarded a plane to Kabul a couple hours later with the books on board.
"Harry Potter is released worldwide at the same time. As a logistics company based in Afghanistan for five years, we saw every reason to include Afghanistan,'' said Connolly, who asked customers to donate a book to the American University in Kabul in exchange for the free shipping on the book. "It was not on the publisher's list, that's for sure.''
Some readers, ironically, were tougher than the critics, especially about the 759-page book's brief epilogue. One reader on the Potter fan site www.mugglenet.com even suggested skipping the last chapter, or at least reading it later so the rest of the book could be thoroughly enjoyed first.
For those who cannot wait to find out whether Harry lives, Potter fan Julie Neal advises patience. In a customer review on Amazon.com, she writes, "Regardless of the temptation, don't skip to the end. It doesn't work. The answers to all those key questions everyone wants to know unfold throughout the story.''
Potter is a pastime and a business. Before the release date, booksellers competed worldwide to sell the book, with some cutting the price by two-thirds. Now, the re-sales are starting. On Amazon.com, some individuals were hawking used copies, and some new ones, for as little as $16, $1.99 less than Amazon's price. On eBay, where just a few days ago a pre-release copy was worth $250, "Deathly Hallows'' was offered Saturday for immediate purchase for $10.99.
The first six Potter books have sold more than 325 million copies, and in some places demand for "Deathly Hallows'' is already exceeding supply.
Seven of the top 10 best sellers on Amazon.com were Potter books Saturday, including a box set of the whole series coming out in September with a list price of $195. The British retailer Asda Group Ltd., which discounted "Deathly Hallows'' to $10, said Saturday it had sold 450,000 copies of the book between midnight and 4 p.m. and was selling it twice as fast as the previous Potter. Waterstone's said that at the height of the overnight sales frenzy, staff members were serving 20 customers a second.
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