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"Can't you find something useful to occupy yourself?" Hermione Granger asks Ron Weasley early in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

"What, like reading kids' stories?" he replies.

Millions of people are occupying themselves this week reading Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final volume in J.K. Rowling's best-selling Harry Potter series. The books stopped being mere "kids' stories" - stopped being mere books, for that matter - years ago. They have become a pop-culture phenomenon as the stories have deepened and matured along with Harry. The series' loyal fans - the readers who have stuck with Harry Potter for seven books, 199 chapters and 4,100 pages, and who share in the last book's seven-part dedication - have every reason to be pleased with the way their young hero and the books that tell his story have turned out.

Harry, now an adult wizard at 17, is in the last and most challenging stage of his battle against Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard who has tried so many times to kill Harry in his bid for world domination.

Harry's mission: To hunt down and destroy the fragments of soul that Voldemort has hidden in a handful of magical objects, known as Horcruxes, then finish off the Dark Lord in a one-on-one duel.

Because Voldemort and his supporters have grown stronger than ever, there is danger literally at every turn for Harry, Ron and Hermione. They are constantly on the move, dashing all over Britain as they work out the mystery of the Horcruxes. It's the ultimate test, not only of their resourcefulness but of their friendship and their character.

Most of Harry's adult mentors have been killed off, but he receives a lot of help - most of it from Ron and Hermione, but some of it from most unexpected sources. Nearly everyone Harry has met in his seven years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry turns up for at least a fleeting cameo. Characters close to Harry die - far more than in any previous adventure - and some of the deaths will come like quidditch bludgers to the gut. But there's also plenty of redemption, and nearly all of it feels earned and authentic.

The final six installments of Harry Potter can't really be called sequels; Rowling meticulously mapped out the entire seven-part arc before she wrote the first installment. Thus, the bits and pieces and hints she has laid out along the way finally come together like the world's biggest and most spectacular Rube Goldberg contraption. (Not to spoil any surprises, but some of the climactic scenes will remind you forcefully of iconic counterparts in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, two inspirations Rowling cheerfully acknowledges.)

More important than the plot threads Rowling brings together in a rich tapestry are the thematic threads. As Harry repeatedly demonstrates the selflessness, love and willingness to trust and forgive that always have set him apart from his nemesis, the series' central moral - stated by Dumbledore so many years ago - becomes clear: "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

So, does Harry live or die? Only a true Muggle would ask such a limiting question.

J.K. Rowling

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 759 pages, $34.99