Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
by J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Mary GrandPre
Arthur A. Levine Books (July 16, 2005)
I know a fair number of adult SF fans have been complaining about the Harry Potter series lacking depth etc., but seriously, these are children's books -- should any grown-up find it shocking that Harry's adventures aren't meant for them and thus don't suit them?
It's not supposed to be Sartre, folks. I think if most of us go back and read beloved books from our childhood, we'll find them a bit lacking in one respect or another. For instance, I adored Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time when I was a preteen and young teenager. It along with a couple of other books were what inspired me to want to become a writer. But when I read it again as a thirtysomething, the characters seemed flat and the villainous force seemed insufficiently frightening. Wrinkle is undeniably a classic work, and I still love it, but it was written for 12-year-old me, not jaded ol' modern-day me.
Some people have commented on Rowling's not portraying adolescents as the horny little monsters that pretty much all of us were in our mid-and-late teens. Seeing as this is nominally aimed at kids ages 9-12, Rowling couldn't very well turn in Harry Potter and The Last Picture Show, could she?
Still, in Half-Blood Prince, Rowling does at least hint at the wizard kids having budding sex lives and shows Ron and Hermione quarreling and running off to date other students in an effort to make each other jealous. Ron and Hermione aren't the only ones who find romance in the novel -- Harry suffers a great deal of teen angst over his attraction to Ron's little sister Ginny. Order of the Phoenix member Tonks is wandering around in a broken-hearted funk. And all the Weasley women are upset over Bill's engagement to stuck-up Fleur.
The first two-thirds of the book spend enough time on the kids' romantic entanglements and on Voldemort's adolescent history that the story lacks real tension. Furthermore, Harry is treated as a hero by his classmates, which removes a great deal of the drama found in the earlier novels. I found the prose as readable as always, but I just didn't have the sense of fear and impending doom I got from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Some other reviewers and readers have claimed that this is the darkest book in the series; really, it's not. Order of the Phoenix was loads darker overall. What does happen in this book is that A Major Beloved Character dies in an entirely plotworthy manner. Some people will be aghast and turned off by that, but the character's death was utterly necessary for the events of the final book.
And we all know what's going to happen in the last book: Harry has his final showdown with Voldemort. A kid can't go into a killing battle with a wizard, but a young man can. This book is about Harry leaving the nest, once and for all.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince only starts getting truly interesting in the last third of the book; by the end, Rowling had me good and ready for the final book in the series.
There are of course The Usual Problems: much of the book seems derivative and echoes the work of writers like Tolkien and Dickens and Barry Hughart (Bridge of Birds); Rowling even nabs some imagery from the Dead Marshes sequence in the film version of The Two Towers. The plot doesn't entirely hold water in places. If you've read the entire series so far, you're probably prepared to forgive Rowling for being a bit of a literary George Lucas. I personally found the book (along with all the others in the series so far) interesting enough to finish in under two days, but if Order of the Phoenix bored you (as some have reported), you probably won't get through the first few chapters of this.
It seemed to me that in many ways, this novel was an exercise in backstory and setting up events for the final novel. It's a shame she couldn't have made this book as gripping as some of the others have been, but I have faith that the final book will give us the payoff we've been looking for.