Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

by J.K. Rowling

Published by Raincoast/Bloomsbury/Scholastic

607 pages, 2005

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Into the Darkness

Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski


If you found Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix dark, bring your flashlight to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. (Though maybe candles would be more appropriate.) Fans are grieving. Internet lists are flooded with stricken readers trying to find textual clues -- any clue -- that might suggest "it" hasn't happened. Well, it has.

The wizarding world, as this book starts, is in disarray and the war it is fighting is starting to spill over into the Muggle world in the form of natural disasters. That idiot Fudge has been given the boot, but his replacement, Scrimgeour, is worse in many ways. Harry has once more become everyone's favorite boy -- the Chosen One, no less. Meanwhile, the Ministry is putting out Death Eater warning pamphlets, many people have disappeared, including wandmaker Mr. Ollivander (is he now making wands for the enemy?) and the proprietor of Harry's favorite ice cream parlor. Others have been arrested in what would, in the Muggle world, be called a witch hunt. One of the victims is the lovable Stan Shunpike, conductor of the Knight Bus.

The Dursleys make their shortest appearance in the entire series and say very little, because this time they are confronting, not klutzy Mr. Weasley, but Albus Dumbledore himself. As the book opens, Dumbledore takes Harry to pick up the new potions master because Snape is finally about to get his wish and teach Defense Against the Dark Arts. The new teacher, comical as he is -- and what else could he be with a name like Horace Slughorn? -- has his own dark secret.

At the end of the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in J.K. Rowling's internationally bestselling series, it was not at all clear that Harry would ever forgive Dumbledore for the mistakes he had made, but the relationship is now closer than ever. Dumbledore is mentor and father-figure. Harry needs all the information he can get about his enemy, and several trips into the Pensieve show him Tom Riddle as seen through the memories of Dumbledore and others, finally building up a picture of the young man who would grow into the monster Voldemort.

Harry, who wasn't expecting to take potions, has to borrow a very old textbook, which has a lot of scribbled annotations by someone who calls himself the Half-Blood Prince. His advice is so good that Harry soon becomes a first-class potion-maker. This, of course, leads to bad trouble, though it also saves Ron's life.

One of the joys of Rowling's series is that, no matter how dark the story, there is always humor. A lot of the humor this time out comes through Harry's best friend Ron Weasley and his family. Bill Weasley is marrying the beautiful Fleur Delacour and she's at the Burrow when Harry arrives, driving everyone crazy. Molly, in particular, feels invaded and alarmed at the notion of Fleur as a daughter-in-law. Ron finds himself "snogging" Lavender Brown and then having to flee her attentions. With Lee Jordan gone, someone else has to do the Quidditch commentary and there are some very funny scenes involving the new commentators. The students are practicing for their Apparition licenses, for all the world like Muggle teenagers learning how to drive a car.

We need the humor, because the rest of Half-Blood Prince is extremely grim. It may be that we have finally seen which way the wind is blowing with the brooding anti-hero Professor Snape. Personally, I don't think so and am prepared to wait. There were a number of clues that suggested all was not as it seemed on the surface and in a J.K. Rowling novel, we know that few things are as they seem.

Harry's props are being kicked out from under him, one by one, so that he will, almost certainly, be left to face Voldemort alone at the climax of the series. One can't help wondering if all his friends will also die by the end, or if he will simply lock them away somewhere to protect them.

It is to be hoped not. As Half-Blood Prince ends, Harry regretfully but firmly puts aside his chance at love because he fears giving Voldemort a hostage. This is clearly a mistake on his part, one he will hopefully realize in the future. If the series is, ultimately, about love and its power to change the world -- and I believe it is -- then turning down love is not a good idea. Harry is alive because of his mother's love. His friends, in the last book, helped him for love. Love appears strongly in this book -- the love between man and woman, parent and child, Harry and his mentor. It takes a tragedy, but two characters finally end up in each other's arms; Fleur shows herself to be not as shallow as she seems and two other characters make an unexpected but appealing couple. Even Draco Malfoy turns out to have a mother who loves him enough to risk her life for him -- and he loves his family enough to agree to a mission he really doesn't want to carry out.

With love, of course, comes the potential for redemption. There is the suggestion throughout the Half-Blood Prince -- as well as the series in general -- that to be saved, you have to be capable of loving and being loved. So Malfoy, who has been a two-dimensional baddie for the last five books, is suddenly a frightened teenage boy who has bitten off more than he can chew. He will probably find redemption. Other characters might not. Voldemort has been losing because, like Sauron in Tolkien's novel, he can't comprehend love and self-sacrifice.

The language here is powerful, the darkness of the theme matched by the darkness of the mood. The landscape becomes almost a character in the story. A desolate, polluted Muggle landscape reflects Narcissa Malfoy's despair when she pays an urgent visit to plead for her son's life.

No matter what you're expecting, Rowling knows how to tear at your emotions. Whatever you already know, it won't prepare you for a scene that was long coming. Rowling has made us care deeply about these characters.

My only disappointment with this book is that certain characters, such as Neville and Luna, don't really come into their own as I had thought they would after the Ministry of Magic scene in Order of the Phoenix, nor has Petunia. It is to be hoped that they will do so in the final volume. Rowling rarely, if ever, takes trouble over a character or an event for nothing, which is another reason I think she isn't finished with Snape yet. He is the most complex character in the entire saga and I will be very disappointed indeed if he turns out to be exactly what Harry has always believed him to be : a sneering, two-dimensional villain.

I would also be sorry if I believed, as many reviewers seem to, that Rowling is making allusions to current world events. I don't think so. The series has been plotted out for years. Besides, fools in power, witch-hunts and a community gripped by fear of the other are not solely modern phenomena. I'd like to think that when, as is likely, this series becomes a classic, it will stand on its own. | August 2005


Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.