Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince review
Now that we're this dark into the story arc of the Harry Potter series, the emphasis of the story is on driving toward the cataclysm which must inevitably occur in the next few hundred pages, not so much on the gee-whiz magical wonders and gags which were so prominent in the early books. If this were a film, very few new special effects would be need to be invented. Indeed, great long stretches of the book are taken up with what amount to flashbacks of the early years of Voldemort, his only appearance in this book breaking the pattern of the other books which tended to pile up tension upon tension, breaking it only at the end in a climactic showdown between Harry and the Dark Lord. Here, the climactic scene of peril and violence at the end is one where Harry plays no active part at all, having been rendered immobile, and is not so much a duel as an execution of the helpless. In this book, unlike most of the others, most of the sneaking about is not done by the three main characters but by their antagonist Draco Malfoy, pretty much all offstage. It is a talky sort of book, and only the depth of the author's imagining of scene and character saves it from being totally pedestrian.
Here's where I get all nitpicky about the mechanics of the storytelling, so I should preface it by saying that structurally in the scheme of the series, Rowling has I think done a good job at setting things up for a satisfying conclusion. The book is carefully crafted, which makes sense considering the length of time it took to produce.
The most sensational scenes for younger fans might be the extended kisses between the teens. This, plus Harry's furious romantic quandary “Ron or Ginny? Ron or Ginny?”, has me thinking “here come the X-Rated fanfics.”
I thought the scenes with Harry and Dumbledore in the Pensieve were just a bit disappointing, because after a few rounds of this, it seemed just to be a backstory excuse. Instead of bringing the information in using a more natural device, Rowling just deposited great big gobs of magical flashbacks. It was as if the narrative was supposed to be sufficiently entertaining on its own without any real action going on in the main story.
It was frustrating having none of the main characters raise the question of whether the “Half-Blood Prince” might be Voldemort, even despite the extensive scenes depicting Voldemort's father as a Muggle. This especially because of the way the book as McGuffin turned out in book 2, and seems like something which might have been caught during editing. Well, the plot turns out not to have turned out that way anyhow.
The author has evidently come around to the view that Quidditch is too boring to write about (or read about) at any length. The one big Gryffindor victory actually occurs offstage. It's always been distressing to me that the rules of the game can lead to situations where it would be in the Seeker's interest not to capture the Golden Snitch, if their team were sufficiently far back in points. I suspect there might have been a bit of a scene where Gryffindor captain Harry muses on how he led his team to the Quidditch cup this year, but that accomplishment has paled in comparison to the titanic crises bearing down on him now (not that I have any evidence that this scene actually existed).
Some of the other set pieces we've become accustomed to in previous volumes were drastically trimmed on the grounds that we've already seen enough of them: abuse at the hands of the Dursleys, the Sorting Hat (whose role has been getting shorter and shorter), Hermione in peril, owl package delivery during mealtimes, Dark Forest. Even the one main Hogsmead scene was somewhat truncated. This is probably why the book turned out to be over 200 pages shorter than the last one (although I doubt very much that the last book will continue this shortening trend).
Dumbledore is the Alan Greenspan of his world, where he is accorded respect (or fear, from his enemies) on the basis of mysterious mental processes, understood by virtually none. It would have been more fun to have seen him weaving the defensive spells around Hogwarts, sneaking off on his intelligence missions, and dueling with Voldemort instead of simply hearing about these exploits afterwards (or, as it happens, not hearing about them).
Maybe they will make good this time on the threat of shutting down Hogwarts. If Harry goes out a-questing at the beginning of the final novel, it will remind me of the final book of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy Titus Alone in which the title character leaves the castle of his family to confront the outside world. It will be interesting to see how he does at being a whole person in the Muggle-dominated world, given his impoverished stock of experience. Given that Harry and his Order of the Phoenix allies will actually have to succeed at four separate quests, the plot will have to race on at a dead sprint if the volume is to avoid being a thousand pages long.
Characters making only tiny cameos: Colin Creevy, Mad-Eye Moody, Nearly Headless Nick, Argus Filch. There is one new character whose place in the grand scheme of things is still unclear (Professor Slughorn), and another only hinted at by allusion (the mysterious R.A.B. of the fake Horcrux locket).
Overall rating: 7 out of 10. It felt a little like the first part of a two part final tome, which is probably the best strategy to take in view of the realities of the book market.
Chapter summaries of this book are available online.