(Originally posted on i-Pocalypse.com on 7-19-05)
JK Rowling is an extremely blessed writer. She wrote a book (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) that became the cornerstone to what has, in effect, become a publishing phenomenon. The series of books are pretty much the ink and paper equivalent of the Star Wars series of movies, and the fan base is just as devoted. With the release of each new book, publishing records fall and new ones are set and Ms Rowling becomes increasingly more financially stable. Added to this, however, are the increased expectations for her to deliver more – bigger and better adventures, twists, characterizations – upon which, to this point and for the most part, she has pretty much been able to deliver. But this is all academic. You already know this.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince covers Year Six for our hero at the magical wizarding school of Hogwarts. Harry is now 16 years old and after the events of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix everyone is treating him differently again (except, of course for his closest friends Hermione and Ron, and of course Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts). Lord Voldemort is back for sure this time and the whole Wizarding world is in turmoil from it. And this turmoil is starting to bleed over into the Muggle, or normal, world as well. All the while Harry deals with another year of school, another year of uncertainty and paranoia and even a little bit of unrequited love, all coupled with the constant danger of knowing that there are those in the world that are actively trying to kill him. He is now, obviously, firmly entrenched in his teenage years.
Year six is as much a transitionary year for Harry Potter as it is a transitionary book for the series, which in a weird way makes it probably the least engaging of the books yet. It is all set-up with little pay off, and I don’t mean that in a necessarily bad way, but it is not, alternatively, a good thing, either. A lot happens, but very little of what happens is completely resolved. Again, it is set-up for the seventh book of the series. The book mostly deals with the choosing up of sides in the battle against Voldemort. Even the big reveal of the Half-Blood Prince is quickly handled and then over, with little insight added.
Rowling seems to have lost some of the joy in writing that the other books seemed to have in abundance. The other books took more time in non integral side journeys, spent more time on just the day to day happenings of being a student and struggling with classes and enjoying one another’s company. This book is completely focused on getting from Point A to Point B which lessens some of its charm to a certain extent. We spend less time with the Weasley’s (my personal favorites of the series), less time with Neville and the other students, less time with the Teachers other than Snape, and less time all around with atmospheric wanderings around the school itself. They are mostly included in, again, only to advance the plot, or solely as matter of continuity to the other books. This is a shame since those things were a major part of the charm in the earlier books.
The biggest weakness, however, is in how she handles the love lives of our main characters. She really struggles in depicting believably the kinds of inner roiling that goes on in the teenage psyche (well, any age psyche, actually) as it struggles to deal with these stirrings from deep down inside. Any time she addresses the issue, whether with Ron or Hermione or Harry, it comes across as perfunctory and a bit too matter of fact. All of a sudden it is important and then it is gone, not to be mentioned again until it is deemed important again. Harry’s growing obsession with what he thinks is going on with Draco Malfoy is more compelling than his growing obsession with the girl of his dreams.
The pluses, though, far outweigh the negatives.
The moral she is driving becomes clearer and clearer with each book. The importance of friendship, love and ultimately trust are taking a more and more central role, one that always points to the need for personal sacrifice for those we love. Sacrifice for those for whom we are, ultimately, responsible.
Harry is maturing. He is still a hot head and a bit too reactive, but he is striving to be more thoughtful in how he handles challenges. Ron is still stalwartly his friend, even when he doesn’t see the issues as clearly or understand the stakes as quickly. Hermione is still the smartest, but she is starting to gain more confidence in herself. Ginny is still a cipher in the background, but she is the most secure in who she is of the group. Snape is still unknowable, a walking wounded heart of past hurts. And Dumbledore is still Dumbledore, trusting completely those he trusts and looking for the best in those that have no good in them in order to understand them better.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is not the best book in the series, but again it seems to be more of a transitional installment. Everything here seems to be setting up the final go round in the next book. And if that is the case, then the next go round should be everything that we have hoped that Ms Rowling has been leading us up to.