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July 17, 2005
Book Review: Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

I refrained from running out to purchase the new Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, during the midnight madness sales at the local bookstores. Last time, that meant serious delays in getting a copy of the book. However, either Scholastic produced a more realistic first run or the initial enthusiasm may have been overestimated. When I went to the bookstore on Saturday, I found several dozen copies at 40% off available and almost no shoppers in the store. I took advantage of the opportunity and picked up my copy, and after finishing a couple of other projects this weekend, tore through the new installment.


In my opinion, J. K. Rowling improves with each new outing, and Half-Blood Prince follows in that tradition. Rowling plays around a bit more with the formula here, just as she started to do with Goblet of Fire, and starts us off with several vignettes before the normal look at the abnormally normal Dursleys and their maltreatment of Harry, this time getting a good scolding and a lesson in manners from Professor Dumbledore before taking Harry with him. Unfortunately, unlike earlier volumes, Harry's trip to Hogwarts does not portend happier times -- as the first vignettes make crystal clear.

The war has not gone well for the Order of the Phoenix. After the loss of Sirius Black in the last battle, the Death Eaters captured remain in Azkaban. However, the others have made their presence felt in a number of attacks; Lord Voldemort has called his old allies to his side, such as the Dementors and possibly the Giants as well. His victories against the law-abiding wizarding world threaten to expose their existence to the Muggles, and the uproar has forced the Ministry of Magic to change hands. Security has tightened everywhere, but especially around Harry and Hogwarts.

As in Order of the Phoenix, Harry and his friends work less on solving schoolyard mysteries than in preparing to fight a war, but some of the same dynamics still remain. Quidditch plays a central role in life at Hogwarts, and the halting steps at romance first seen in GoF come back into more prominence here. The same antagonisms remain in play as well. Draco Malfoy still wants to thwart Harry and his friends, and Severus Snape seems as awful as ever -- only with the war and the nature of the enemy at hand, no one can know how dangerous these old antagonisms can get, or who a wizard can trust.

HBP resolves a number of storylines that Rowling has carefully constructed through the first five installments. As one might expect in the penultimate installment of the series, we learn much more about the origin of Voldemort. Most interestingly, Harry and Dumbledore team up to determine how Voldemort achieved his evil form of immortality, which holds the secret of his undoing. Before they can get to it, both must face betrayal and attack -- and as in the last book, a character dear to readers will meet a bitter end.

Some reviewers have taken to noting allegories between the Potter stories and real history, comparing Dumbledore to Churchill and Harry to America, as did Jonathan Last in last week's Those looking for such connections will probably not find disappointment in HBP, although the parallels may appear closer to the current war rather than WWII. The Death Eaters have taken to attacking Muggle civilians to force the wizards to both protect themselves and the Muggles simultaneously. The Ministry only appears to care about being popular rather than effective against Voldemort's growing gang of murderers and bloodthirsty lunatics. Keeping Death Eaters out of Hogwarts has become a high priority for everyone, but turns out to be much more complicated than anyone knows, and the threat might turn out to be closer than Dumbledore guesses.

HBP provides a gripping and quick read, a hallmark of the Harry Potter stories. Rowling appears to have improved her technical skills in writing, one of the weak points of the series but easily overlooked in favor of her excellent storytelling abilities. As the series continues to get more complex and serious, the improvement in technical skill comes none too soon. HBP is an excellent foundation for the final installment -- where Harry will have to take on Voldemort and only one of them can survive. I highly recommend the book for Potter fans.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 17, 2005 9:51 PM

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