J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2005)
The wait for Book Six is over. Most die-hard fans waited in the dark for the first copies to hit bookstores at 12:01am on July 16th -- I know I did. We all scrambled home, crawled into our beds, and read until we turned the last page. Okay, so maybe I didn't stay up reading all night. But to paraphrase Danny Glover's popular line in Lethal Weapon, I'm too old for that . . . well, let's just say I decided a good night's sleep would give me a clear, fresh-faced look a book I'd been waiting two long years to get my hands on. As a fan of the series, I loved this latest installment. But I couldn't help but notice that this book is missing a bit of the craftsmanship that Prizoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire benefitted from.
The book starts off with a couple of chapters of prologue, providing exposition and filling in the some of the blanks between this book and Order of the Phoenix. As the main story starts off, things seem to be pretty routine over on Privet Drive and down at the Burrow; Harry's still oppressed at home, and Mrs. Weasley still holds down her own fort. But with the increasing danger of Lord Voldemort, things have changed; the lives of everyone determined to oppose You-Know-Who have kicked into high gear. The usual summertime storyline that started off the first five books is now starting to unravel as pressures start to affect everyone, both hero and villain.
There's a new Minister of Magic, but finally getting a Minister who believes that Voldemort is back isn't all it's cracked up to be. Staff additions happen at Hogwarts as well, including the obligatory new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher. Characters who have only been briefly introduced get a bit more face time, including the (literally) stunning beauty Fleur Delacour. Harry, Ron and Hermione receive their O.W.L.s (that's Ordinary Wizarding Levels for you muggles out there), and the sixth year students find out what classes they can advance in, and what areas of study they can no longer continue. Also continuing are threads of romance, with love in the air for several Hogwarts students, and for a few grownups, too. And the mysterious Half-Blood Prince? You'll have to find that out for yourself.
There are many high points in this book. Ms. Rowling seems to remember very well what it feels like to be a teenager. The teens she writes about are as worried about solving the problem of Voldemort as they are about their objects of affection or their exams, and that "everything is life-or-death" tone is very believable. Of course, there's the fact that with these teens some of their problems really are life-or-death. Plot-wise, back stories are expanded upon, from chapter-long tales of Voldemort's history to a few tiny, appetite-whetting tidbits of information on a few favorite characters. My own favorite part doesn't have anything to do with the plot at all. It's an advertisement in Chapter Six, courtesy of Frank and George, that had me laughing like a naughty five-year-old. A little tip for the marketing department: t-shirts. Trust me on this.
By now just about everyone knows about the Next Big Death (yes, that's a bit of a spoiler, but it's all your gonna get in this review). Unfortunately, with the progression of this storyline it's just another unfortunate but necessary tragedy that moves the plot and the characters to where they need to be. After all that hoo-hah though, it's the loss of another, lower-tier character that had me wondering what would happen next. Because J. K. Rowling doesn't just toss out something without it coming back later in one fashion or another.
There are moments where Ms. Rowling really shines, especially chapters two and twenty seven. These moments prove to the most die-hard critic that she can spin a page-turning tale. But an overall lightweight style as well as a few seemingly thrown together subplots gives the book a strange, unbalanced feel. It's a very quick read, which is an unusual statement for a novel clocking in at 652 pages. It's true though; the prose has a simpler feel this time around. Or perhaps it's just that less ground is covered plot-wise. The main story moves forward, but by inches rather than leaps. Don't worry, high-school hormones don't take center stage to the detriment of other plot points (but they do take up a fair share of the word count). This book is the calm before the storm, and with an overall lull in the action, this book suffers from a sort of directional torpor. When you're waiting for something to happen, things can seem to drag a bit. It happened in Chamber of Secrets when everyone was waiting for Voldemort to reveal himself, and it's happening now, before the big Book Seven showdown.
Disappointments? I've got a few. Some characters that I've come to love (or love to hate) don't get enough play in this book. Kids outside of the Love Connection storyline aren't really given much to do, and teachers? Except for the newbie, they're barely present. Lucius Malfoy is out of sight too, which is a shame, because I really love a good boo-hiss baddie. Sure, there are reasons for some of these MIA folks, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more Hagrid, and a whole lot more of Neville and the rest of the Gryffindor gang.
Love is a blessing and a curse in this book, both for the characters and for the reader. There have been romantic undercurrents for certain characters for many books now, and it's nice to see some of them at least acknowledged. But Ms. Rowling's mood tends to shift in regard to these romantic entanglements, taking a heavy hand to some, giving them a kind of soap-opera feel, while suddenly shifting gears in one or two sentences for others. One particular storyline was so out of left field I stopped dead and wondered where the heck that had come from. Another entanglement sinks without a murmur, which is hard enough to believe with mature adults, let alone teenagers. And I know I can get a bit emotional, but does practically every single female have to fall apart at the seams when it comes to love? A couple of characters act so, well, out of character that I wondered if I had read them right to begin with. That said, being a huge romance buff I loved several of these subplots, even though they were hokey and predictable.
The cover art for this book is a complicated thing to discuss, since there are so many different versions out there (American, American Deluxe, British, British Adult . . .). I'll just stick to the edition I've got right here. Mary Grand Pre's cover artwork for Scholastic's American Edition is in beautifully blended pastels, and gives the book a murky, mysterious quality. And her teeny black and white illustrations at the beginning of each chapter offer tantalizing glimpses of what is to come.
Although things look shaky at the end of this part of the story, we know that there's one more book left, so things can't be completely hopeless. Hey, the gang managed to make it through the ending of Goblet of Fire and on to the next tale in the series, didn't they? I have no doubt that Harry and company have got what it takes to see themselves through the beginning of the next book. Of course, since the next one is the final chapter of the series, who knows what will happen? Besides J. K. Rowling herself, that is. For the rest of us, the wait for Book Seven begins.