Any review of the latest installment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, really needs to answer only one question: is it good… enough? Author J.K. Rowling has built up enough of a following with her previous five books that it is a fair bet that anything short of a total disaster will sell millions of copies over the next few weeks, and fans that stayed put through the bloated (but thrilling!) 870 pages of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will surely flock to give Half-Blood Prince a chance.
I was lucky enough to get my copy the minute (well, nearly) it was available, and read it in a marathon speed-reading session that now culminates in the review you are reading. My entire aim this time out has been to be one of the first people to review the book in the United States, and hopefully I now will be. It hurts (oh it hurts! so tired…) but it sure hurts good. (I suppose all those all-nighters I pulled back in college are finally paying off in the real world (unlike, I may add, my actual degree)). For the sake of you who have not yet turned the last page, I will refrain from any major plot spoilers. However, readers who wish to remain totally ignorant of everything however inconsequential or cryptic would do better to read the book itself instead. I will only say this: Horcruxes!
So: Is it good enough?
Oh. My. God.
Each volume in the Harry Potter series has grown progressively darker as the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort draws nearer, and Rowling does little to reverse that trend in the new book. In fact, she ups the ante considerably. As much as I hate to draw pat connections like this, Rowling’s treatment of the war between Voldemort and his Death Eaters and the rest of the wizarding world is unavoidably coming to resemble, yes, the War on Terror™: people die in random attacks; the Ministry of Magic releases useless pamphlets about protecting yourself against hexes; and people engage in endless discussions about whether they know anyone in the obit section today. But whatever I say, you’re still not going to believe me on this point until you read the book for yourself.
What’s striking is that Rowling handles these points of comparison admirably well, raising doubt as to whether the parallels were intentional or whether it’s just hard these days to read a novel about an evil cabal set loose on society without coming to those conclusions. Either way, what was once a wondrous world full of Fizzing Whizbees and cutesy pointed hats has become a dark and treacherous place where murderers hide in plain sight and bad things happen to innocent people. Whereas Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’s dementors occasionally cast a shadow over the story, and Books 4 and 5 regularly featured acts of cruelty, now that same pall hangs over the whole novel. That’s not to say that Half-Blood Prince is an unrelenting slog from bloodsoaked battle to bloodsoaked battle, but the hints of peril that have been growing since Book 2 now fully dominate the scenery.
This change has happened organically as Rowling’s protagonists have grown from naive 11-year-olds to teenagers wrestling with maturity, responsibility, and hormones. Many critics (notably Slate’s Chris Suellentrop) have complained that in past volumes Harry has gotten away with murder (figuratively speaking), making him less a sympathetic character than an overprivileged brat. But now cheating in class and sneaking around at night are no longer larks, and the burdens that Rowling gives Harry to shoulder more than make up for his special treatment. In Half-Blood Prince, actions now have real consequences.
Now that the main characters are fully adolescent (16 years old in this volume), the interpersonal relationships have become much thornier than they were in past novels; gone are the halcyon days of butterbeer and wizard chess. Even more than in Book 5, Rowling spends a great deal of Half-Blood Prince deepening the relationships between Harry and those around him: Hermione, Ron and Ginny Weasly, Hagrid, Snape, Malfoy, Dumbledore, and others. There are still plenty of cute touches and light moments, but even they have other sides to them: Professor Trelawney, outraged that she must share teaching duties with a centaur, has taken to raiding the kitchen’s sherry stock; the Weasley twins have opened their joke shop, but some of their products aren’t necessarily all that funny sometimes.
Although the nominal plot of the book concerns Harry’s search for the “half-blood prince,” the real action takes place in two arenas. The first is Harry’s growing awareness of his part in the fight against Voldemort, and his struggles with the reality that he must be on guard at all times. This leads him to make decisions that sometimes hurt his closest friends and allies, and ultimately decides the course of the plot. Second, someone at Hogwarts wants someone else dead, but nobody knows who.
The major themes of this story are duty, obligation, and loyalty. The very first chapter upsets what we think we know about some major players and which side they are on, and throughout the book loyalties are tested and alliances formed, all against the backdrop of Voldemort’s growing power and the swelling ranks of the Death Eaters. The second half of the book gives Rowling an opportunity to show off the depth of the world she has created, as characters that started out as cute little cutouts now share in pain, elation, rage, grief, and shame. If this series ever was really for children, it has now grown into fully realized and emotionally complicated material suitable for adolescents not much younger than the characters themselves.
At nearly 300 pages shorter than the just-previous release, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince is tighter, and its impact more profound, than the last two books. However, Rowling could still use an editor to clean up some of her messier sentences and paragraphs. Since this installment turns more on inner struggles and subtle (though frantic) infighting than the past volumes, some of the talkier parts do lose focus somewhat. Rowling still has not managed to make everything pull together fully within the bounds of the single installment, leaving some plot threads (as well as characters like Remus Lupin and Tonks) to hover around the margins too long. But these are forgiveable sins, considering that Rowling has finally managed to hang her rapidly growing tale on a few key unifying themes. Everything that has happened from Books 1 through 5 has been tied into the main plot and the entire train is picking up speed. By the end of Half-Blood Prince the story is hurtling forward from astounding revelation to astounding revelation, some of which you sort of saw coming, some of which you really, really didn’t.
So, yes. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is good enough, and then a great deal better than that. While she still needs an editor like Ted Kennedy needs a 40-day chip, Rowling only raises the stakes in what has become one of the biggest phenomena in publishing since the invention of moveable type. She has admirably constructed a penultimate chapter that sets the table for the final showdown we’ve all been waiting for since the first book, and leaves the action at just the right point to have her millions of fans clamoring for the final installment.
If you have been waiting for this for months, rest assured: this is the series’ The Empire Strikes Back. The stakes are even higher and the surprises bigger than you imagine, and despite the usual problems of editing and focus, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince delivers the goods. But… whatever happened to Grimmauld Place?
Thank you ladies and gentlemen; and now, to bed.
Update: 2:00 PM 7/16 — BEWARE: FORUM COMMENTS BELOW CONTAIN PLOT SPOILERS!!