The Story: [from GoodReads:]
It is the middle of the summer, but there is an unseasonal mist pressing against the windowpanes. Harry Potter is waiting nervously in his bedroom at the Dursleys’ house in Privet Drive for a visit from Professor Dumbledore himself. One of the last times he saw the Headmaster was in a fierce one-to-one duel with Lord Voldemort, and Harry can’t quite believe that Professor Dumbledore will actually appear at the Dursleys’ of all places. Why is the Professor coming to visit him now? What is it that cannot wait until Harry returns to Hogwarts in a few weeks’ time? Harry’s sixth year at Hogwarts has already got off to an unusual start, as the worlds of Muggle and magic start to intertwine….
My Take: [Just a quick note before I launch into my review: while I won’t reveal spoilers related to Half-Blood Prince, I may inadvertently drop spoilers from previous books. I assume most folks have read books one through five, so I’m not going to conceal spoilers from those. But in case you haven’t finished Order of the Phoenix in its entirety, please be forewarned – there may be spoilers!]
If Prisoner of Azkaban was awarded seventh place in my mental rankings of the Potter books, then Half-Blood Prince assumes sixth place. Again, this has nothing to do with the novel being sub-par or weak. If anything, this sixth installment capitalizes on the evolving dark tone and finally pulls back the curtain of mystery on the series’ chief villain, Lord Voldemort. That being said, I simply place other books in this series above this one in terms of enjoyment as it comes down to similar elements that I found less than likable in Prisoner of Azkaban regarding repetitive character exchanges.
But one aspect that really deserves serious praise here is that Half-Blood Prince offers us a glimpse into the man who would become Lord Voldemort. From his pre-childhood to his early days at Hogwarts and beyond, Voldemort morphs into a villain who is more of a person and less of a figurehead bad guy. Not to say Voldemort ever becomes a trope, either before or after this novel, but for me a villain makes or breaks a story. The villain represents the chief threat for the hero to conquer, so depending on how strong a villain is represents the type of challenge the main hero will face. A weak villain doesn’t offer much of a challenge and is usually present just to fill the role of an obligatory bad guy. But a villain with some history and motivations becomes a formidable force indeed.
Thanks to the exposition chapters scattered throughout, we glimpse Voldemort’s past that evokes a sliver of sympathy (just a tiny sliver, mind you!). Rather than make him the chief antagonist “just because,” Rowling created him to be a person, someone who was once a child himself, who suffered, who attended school, who worked, and who made decisions that paved his way to what he later becomes. For me, too many books for the middle grade set tend to rely on stock villains or Snidely Whiplash-type figures. These characters are evil simply because they’ve been cast in the role of a villain and for no other reason. While such villains work in younger reader’s literature (as young children are usually not mature enough to see layers of grey among moral black and white), they come across as underdeveloped and juvenile in works intended for older children, teens, and adults. But through Lord Voldemort, we get a villain who isn’t just a figurehead baddie as his moral choices in the story’s present are completely understood judging by his decisions in the past.
Story-wise, the novel splits its time between Harry’s private lessons with Dumbledore, where he delves into Voldemort’s past (a method which echoes Sun Tzu’s advice to, “Know your enemy and know yourself and victory will always be yours”), and Harry’s public life among his classmates. However, much like in Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s these latter moments that can wax repetitive at times. This is especially true as Ron and Hermione bicker, only this time it’s not over their respective pets but their respective love interests. Unlike previous novels, there is a lot of focus here on boyfriend-girlfriend relationship dynamics: Ron and Hermione, Ron and another girl, Hermione and another boy, Ginny Weasley and her string of boyfriends, and even Harry and a potential love interest(s). While I expect these types of relationships to be explored in a school days’ setting, they did trend towards being cyclical at times. Not to mention this novel involves quite a bit of juvenile squabbling. Again, the principle characters are teenagers, so it makes sense that they’re going to act their age, and I never got the impression that they were behaving too childish. But my greatest enjoyment comes from seeing these characters get along as opposed to being at each other’s throats, hence why this novel doesn’t rank as one of my favorites in the series though it’s by no means weak or even boring.
One new face added to the cast here is Horace Slughorn, a former Hogwarts professor whom Dumbledore recruits out of retirement. While he’s not a favorite of mine, I do appreciate Slughorn’s good humored-nature that’s contrasted with a dark secret he’s gone to great lengths to ensure nobody uncovers. He seems to possess an interesting mixture of Lupin’s good-heartedness and Lockhart’s sense of self-importance only vastly deflated. Slughorn seems more keen to inflate his own self-worth through the company he keeps rather than laying claim to other people’s accomplishments. He rides other folk’s coattails, so to speak, which makes him not exactly admirable but not despicable either. I suppose as he’s a new character added so late in the series, he doesn’t come across as very memorable as we’ve never had the chance to connect with him over the long haul. But it is worthwhile learning his secret, which he reveals before the novel’s end.
But the biggest twist in this novel comes at the very end. Oddly enough, Half-Blood Prince hearkens back to some of the series’ mystery-themed roots as Harry is determined to unmask Draco Malfoy’s mysterious, covert behaviors. While this doesn’t drive the plot, it does rope in some good tension as it operates under the duplicity notion (as the question becomes is Draco working for Voldemort or does he simply have his own agenda?). While the final reveal of Draco’s actions is somewhat predicable (especially based on similar set ups in past novels), the other bombshell moment is not. (Though I confess that, before I read Half-Blood Prince, I was aware of said bombshell, which took away the shock value. I will forever chew myself out for running across that spoiler because it totally ruined what was undoubtedly a jaw-drop-worthy moment.)
I most certainly will not reveal any spoilers regarding this book’s closing bombshell, so no worries. But I do want to discuss its significance as vaguely as possible. While one character’s fate certainly came as a shock in the way it was carried out, it was ultimately necessary for the story, especially moving forward to the seventh and final book. Therefore, I took no issues with how it all played out. In fact, I don’t think Harry’s story arc would have worked had this character been allowed to remain on board. After all, Harry is the true hero of the series, so it only makes sense for him to stand on his own so he can be a defender of others rather than being defended, especially in his greatest hour of testing which is to come in the final book.
So all in all, while Half-Blood Prince isn’t one of my favorite novels in the series, it retains the same elements I’ve come to love about the Potter books in general complete with compelling characters, a multi-angled plot, a maturing tone, and fascinating world-building. Combine that with a look into it’s chief villain’s backstory and it serves to deliver a tense set up for the series’ conclusion.
Content: Content-wise, this novel is still fine for its middle grade target audience and anyone older though it does possess a dark tone and a slightly elevated violence/peril quotient that might deter young middle grade readers.
Language – There are minimal, PG-level profanities (along with some British profanities) though they’re sporadically dropped. Elsewhere, characters mention other characters giving obscene hand gestures but no one ever actually flashes it on the page. In a memory, Harry thinks someone is giving an obscene hand gesture but instead the person is just showing off a ring that happens to be on the middle finger.
Violence – Violence falls chiefly into the fantasy violence lane where magic is used as opposed to weapons. However, this novel puts various characters in either dangerous or deadly situations. While nothing ever turns graphic or gory, the violence and threat of violence possess a darker tone than what’s found in previous novels. One character is forced to use blood in order to open a magically-sealed portal. In a memory, a young Voldemort recounts sinister “pranks” he pulled on other children and a rabbit (but nothing is graphically related). Elsewhere, a female character is seen living in an abusive home as her father mistreats her and calls her names but that’s as far as the abuse goes. One character volunteers to drink a questionable substance that results in the character reliving unpleasant memories (though it’s never revealed what the character is mentally witnessing). Characters suffer injuries or torment from touching cursed objects. Some characters are also poisoned or attacked in a fight (the latter occurs chiefly off-page). The aftermath of an attack is relayed to other characters but not in graphic detail. Infiri (magical beings akin to zombies) try to attack some characters but are unsuccessful. Other characters are put in harm’s way and even face death. So, overall, this novel showcases more treacherous situations than previous novels; however, nothing crosses the line of good taste, but it’s worth noting particularly for the sake of younger readers.
Sexual Content – None. Various teen characters pursue sundry boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, which leads to flirting and kissing (or snogging, as is the British term used here), but nothing ever becomes sexual or sensual.
Overall, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the series’ darkest entry and for good reason. While not my all-time favorite book in the series, it still effectively sets the stage for Harry and Voldemort’s endgame by reinforcing old friendships, relaying new information, and reassuring readers that the best is yet to come in its final installment.