I love this book. Unabashed, unadulterated, love. It is tied for my favorite Harry Potter book with Prisoner of Azkaban, though it may even be a little bit ahead. Nearly everything about Half-Blood Prince is spot-on and supremely satisfying.
Where do I start? The end of course! What ultimately sets this book above the others for me is the final adventure. Harry and Dumbledore’s journey into the underground cave is dark and eerie, and ultimately more fearsome than Harry’s previous adventures where the enemy and the risk are readily apparent. The silence of this scene is particularly disturbing – like an empty house late at night, where the absence of sound suggests the presence of something else. As Professor Trelawney suggested three installments earlier, magic is often associated with “loud bangs and smells and sudden disappearings” (Prisoner of Azkaban, 103): it can be brash and obvious and ungraceful. Penetrating the cave, on the other hand, takes a bit of divination; it requires intuition and understanding beyond the obvious for Dumbledore to find the entrance and understand the magic contained within, something that no spell could help him with. This is magic as we have never seen it – as much of the mind as of the wand and despite the terror of it, it contains beauty beyond what Hogwarts can teach. Before, magic was a helpful skill; here, Dumbledore show that it can be a form of art.
But the final adventure is not enough to carry the whole novel. As always, the writing itself is more important than anything and Rowling’s writing in Half-Blood Prince is particularly excellent. Remember how I loved the succinct and apt writing in Goblet of Fire, only to be disappointed when Order of the Phoenix reverted to Rowling’s initial whimsical and wordy style? Well, she certainly got it back in Half-Blood Prince. Just look at the two books sitting on a shelf: Half-Blood Prince is more than two hundred pages shorter than Order of the Phoenix but contains no less content. Rowling replaces hundreds of pages of realistic but overdone complaints about Umbridge with loads of actual important information, without in any way challenging the tightness of the plot or taking away from the daily lives of Harry and his friends. She strikes a great balance between all the aspects of the story here, which I really think she failed at in Order of the Phoenix, and the effect is so much more satisfying.
Rowling also reminds us of her skill to give excellent and practically invisible clues about what is to come, showing both how well she planned out the series and her ability to make her readers smacks themselves during rereads. Before the release of Deathly Hallows, I heard predictions about Snape’s redemption; as one friend of mine explained, Dumbledore’s simple final word – “please” – was more of a supplication than the groveling that Rowling would have you believe it to be. She aptly discerned that Dumbledore was asking Snape to perform the dreaded act, rather than pleading with him not to. I have to admit, I did not believe any of this. I, like Harry, was convinced of Snape’s guilt and found the whole debate to be ridiculous. This was probably my fourth or fifth reread of the book, and it is the first time that I discovered the clue that Snape is really one of the good guys. Snape’s taunt, as Harry chases him through the grounds – “Blocked again and again and again until you learn to keep your mouth shut and your mind closed, Potter!” (603) – was a kind of revelation for me. Though never particularly effective, Snape is Harry’s teacher until the end. Even while fleeing to join Voldemort and apparently abandoning Harry to his fate, Snape reminds Harry of what he needs to do to survive and, more importantly, succeed. Though Harry is too stubborn to accept this, Snape is teaching him what little he can in these moments; if I had understood this on my first reading, I would have understood Snape’s true nature as well as my friend did.
In addition to this revelation about Snape, the information about Tom Riddle that Rowling shares (without oversharing!) in this text is invaluable to the series as a whole. Not only does it provide the basis for Harry’s comprehension of his nemesis in the final installment, which leads to his ultimate victory, but it helps us understand Harry himself better as well. I think that this is the first time that we really see Harry’s choice. After all, Harry and Riddle aren’t so different. In addition to similar physical appearances and a disturbing connection that won’t be fully unraveled until the final installment, both are orphans. Yes, we knew that, but let’s take a minute to compare the two. Harry was raised in a home by people who abused and neglected him, alongside a boy who is beloved and spoiled. Every aspect of his young life reminded him that he was alone and unloved. Tom Riddle was raised in an orphanage by people who were overworked but genuinely cared for their charges (why else would they take them on trips or even bother to question Dumbledore’s motives when he comes for Tom?), alongside children who were his equals. From all we can see, young Tom was shabby but cared for, a far more promising beginning than the demeaning, soul-deadening childhood Harry experienced. Both are generally helpless, but Tom, who was at least cared for, chooses a life of violence and solitude whereas Harry, whose anger is much more justifiable, chooses to be good. Yes, you could make the argument that they just fell into the path started by their parents and ancestors, but that’s a copout. Rowling has designed characters who make choices, rather than succumbing to some inherent nature, and that’s how I read them. Harry and Voldemort have choices and make them independent of their respective childhoods. Tom’s youth shows Harry to be all the more impressive for denying his early rage and right to vengefulness.
But Half-Blood Prince isn’t just about what lies under the surface. It’s also about kids growing up, which Ron gives an exceptional demonstration of.
Won-Won Ron’s (rather delayed) discovery of girls just makes me so happy, in a very different way. Rowling’s description of his failed relationship (if you can even call it that) with Lavender is exactly like a million “relationships” that I knew of (and/or participated in) in high school and middle school, except instead of being melodramatic and ridiculous, it’s absolutely hilarious. Rowling wields a wicked pen quill when describing their uncomfortable and very public lusty outbursts, once telling us that “There was a noise like a plunger being withdrawn from a blocked sink and Ron surfaced” (313). Is there any better way to describe the sound made at the end of a very wet kiss performed by two very inept kissers? I think not. The slurping, sucking sound that Rowling evokes is perfect, pointing to her skills in both metaphor and observation.
Oh, and Ginny. I love Ginny. Before Half-Blood Prince, she tended to be shunted to the side (even despite her very important role in Chamber of Secrets) and so we never got to see how excellent she really is. Spunky and as fiery as her hair, she just seems like she’d be so much fun to be around (and probably an enthusiastic lover… just sayin’). Sure, you might say that she’s a bit obsessive but hey, it works out in the end (ßSPOILER!). I once crushed on a guy for four years only to find, upon finally getting with him, that he was rather dumb, a bit sleazy, and had some creepy stalkerish tendencies. Fortunately for Ginny, Harry is only a bit dumb, which is entirely preferable to the latter qualities. I just wish that she’d been less of a throwaway character up to now. She’s got more personality than Ron and Hermione and provides a much better match for
me Harry – her energy and instincts (as demonstrated in Order of the Phoenix) would have been a lot of help on some of his earlier adventures. Harry deserves several punches for not realizing that sooner, because Ginny is freaking awesome.
Note that in the first paragraph I said that I love “nearly everything” about Half-Blood Prince. My one real complaint would be that Rowling overdoes the point about Harry suspecting that Draco Malfoy has become a Death Eater, and Ron and Hermione thinking that he’s a nutter. I suppose that this is to make up for Harry’s enormous mistake in Order of the Phoenix and to show that his instincts really are good, but this bit gets a little tiresome. There are only so many times I can hear (read?) Ron and Hermione sigh at Harry’s folly without wanting to shout, “Okay already! I get it!” In the end though, the fact that Harry proves to be right despite his apparent nutterness is what makes Ron and Hermione’s later trust in him more believable so I suppose that it’s acceptable, if irritating.
However, believe you me: the incessant sighing in no way detracts from my love of Half-Blood Prince. As this excessively long adulation demonstrates, I LOVE reading and thinking about it and trust me, I could go on. I barely even mentioned Draco Malfoy, but I won’t keep you for longer. In fact, if you made it this far I applaud you. I just hope you love Half-Blood Prince as much as I do, because it really is excellent. (The movie is too. I think I’ll go watch that right now…)