Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling book cover
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) is the penultimate book in J. K. Rowling's wildly popular series and sees the eponymous hero moving ever closer to the end of his Hogwarts career, and into the adult world where independence is fraught with danger. With the wizarding world now accepting Voldemort's return, factions are fast forming, and Dumbledore is more aware than ever that Harry will need as much knowledge as possible if he is to fulfil the prophecy which weighs heavy on the young wizard's shoulders. To this end, the headmaster schedules private lessons with Harry throughout the school year where they prepare to face Voldemort once more. This predominantly takes the shape of Dumbledore sharing with Harry, through his pensieve, memories he has collected about Voldemort's (Tom Riddle's) early life. Together they explore the formative years of the dark wizard, and Dumbledore explains that Voldemort's continued existence is largely down to a piece of very dark magic he performed many years ago. That is, the splitting of his own soul, the fragments of which have been stored in a number of magical objects. To rid the world of Voldemort once and for all, Harry will have to find and destroy all of these 'horcruxes'. It is a terrible burden, but does not distract Harry from keeping close tabs on Malfoy and Snape throughout the year, both of whom he suspects of being in leagues with the Deatheaters. And of course, Harry still has all the teenage anxieties he has been developing to contend with.

The reader, along with Harry, is afforded a much greater understanding of Voldermort's development through the vignettes that Dumbledore shares. The parallels between the young Tom Riddle's life and Harry's own are marked, but whereas "the boy who lived" was marked out by his mother's love and protection, "he who must not be named" fought bitterly to shed his roots and destroy everything that linked him to his difficult lineage. Trust is important, and as Dumbledore slowly reveals more about Tom Riddle's life to Harry, there is a two way trust between them. Dumbledore expects this in all things, and although Harry defers in most, there is one topic upon which they disagree: Snape.

With Harry's growing maturity he here hits the moment of knowledge, the realisation that one is master of one's own life, and that the comfort derived from protectors and guardians no longer comforts, that that responsibility falls upon one's own shoulders. Here Harry steps out of the shadows of his role models and becomes a man in his own right, choosing his own battles and making his own judgements. Harry shows increasing signs of assimilating Dumbledore's own propensity for self-sacrifice; he has always been marked out as one who will have troubles thrust upon them but increasingly he shoulders his responsibilities and protects others at a risk to himself.

As all of the characters mature, romantic relationships begin to tangle with friendships, causing disharmony amongst the central three characters. These romantic interludes are a little hit and miss, with a sense that Rowling is building to a neat conclusion rather than allowing her characters to dictate the development of relationships.

Where the Ministry of Magic had been in denial and actively working to discredit Harry in The Order of the Phoenix, here it becomes a bungling propaganda machine, which does little to help fight Voldemort, but rather manages its public image carefully, presenting a reassuring, if false, front to the wizarding world. This is but one of the duplicitous instances in Harry's world, which becomes increasingly complex and treacherous as the books progress.

Harry finds success after he stumbles across an old textbook, filled with detailed instructions for marvellous magic. But the success that Harry achieves through using The Half-Blood Prince's old textbook and potion-making instructions proves short-lived, and Rowling emphasises the importance of learning properly and warns against rewards without effort. As with the prophecy in Order of the Phoenix, the identity of the Half-Blood Prince is disappointingly predictable, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the mystery element of the books is now secondary to the over-arching battle with Voldemort.

Having been pushed into the background for much of the previous books, Malfoy takes a more central role here, as he did in the earlier books in the series. However, Harry's blind pursuit of his schoolboy nemesis, based on little or no evidence, can be a little irritating.

Again, the plot meanders a fair deal, and with a fairly weak central story, draws in a broad range of characters and focuses on the details of Harry's teenage life at Hogwarts, with all the difficulties that that can throw up, focusing far more on the social interaction between the students than with their relationship to the school itself. But the Potter series is by now firmly rooted in its characters and lives and falls by Rowling's ability to draw the reader and the characters together. Once more the plot accelerates alarmingly at the end of the book, with the huge majority of the novel taken up with meandering story-telling, the final surge electrified by a rapid series of important events.

There is a lack of emotional depth at times, notably the lack of grieving on Harry's part for his dead godfather, something which should surely have played a more central role in this book. Though the body count mounts, Rowling does not deal with death particularly well, and for the second book in a row, the reader is left underwhelmed by the traumatic finale, and spared the harrowing experience that loss ought to cause the characters.

The darkening tone of the novels won't suit all readers, some of whom will miss the lighter mysteries, the boarding school setting, the humourous moments, and most of all the variety of magic described. One of the problems with the darker tone is the intricacy with which Rowling attempts to explore her world. The difficulty here is that when considered in too much detail not all of the story makes sense. Notably, the expectation that Harry, an average teenage wizard, will have to, single-handedly, destroy the most powerful dark wizard known to the wizarding world (something that Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of his age, has only just discovered how to achieve), with whom he now, supposedly, assumes parity.

As the series has developed, Rowling has moved from creating self-contained, neat junior fiction, to voluminous books, that bleed into one another. Gone is the certainly and resolution of the early books, here is the ever more complex and adult world that Harry now faces. Darkness pervades and for the mature reader there are references and allusions that are troublingly bleak.

This is similar to the previous book in that there's a lot of writing for not very much plot. Admittedly, this is all shamefully enjoyable for a Potter fan, but is certainly removed from the earlier books.


Useful Links
Reviews of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on Amazon (US)
Film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on Amazon (US)

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