Tuesday, 18 October 2005

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2005
Review number: 1306

Most of the Harry Potter books so far have begun with tales of the mistreatment of Harry by the Dursleys during the summer holidays, which provide a comic note even as the novels as a whole become darker. The first exception is The Goblet of Fire, which begins a quite chilling scene featuring Voldemore himself. The Half-Blood Prince is the second, and it begins with a very different scene: the introduction of the new Minister of Magic (the incomptencies of Cornelius Fudge having finally led to his replacement) to the British Prime Minister, who is the only Muggle in the country permitted to know about the existence of magic. It is an odd beginning to the novel, especially when you compare it to The Goblet of Fire - what happens in Voldemort's ancestral home is of great importance to the plot, but the scene with the Prime Minister seems only to be used to introduce the new Minister of Magic, who is a comparatively minor character in the novel, before being completely forgotten. Of course, the two of them may turn out to be more important later on - Rowling has proved to be quite good at picking up details later, and there are several examples of the way that she does this in The Half-Blood Prince.

The plot this time is more to do with Dumbledore's attempts to help Harry understand Voldemort's background rather than the machinations of Voldemort attempting to kill Harry - the focus of the earlier stories. A crucial part is played by memory - Harry watches several episodes from Voldemort's early life which are either Dumbledore's own memories or ones he has collected. They do this because Dumbledore is convinced that these memories are key to understanding what has happened to Voldemort since his attack on Harry's parents: why had his failure to kill Harry as well led to his disappearance and a shadowy half-existence?

However, the main theme of the novel is not so much its plot as the evolvution of the relationships between the characters established earlier in the series, as contrasted to the cold calculation that marks out the manipulation that is the only way that Tom Riddle (the young Voldemort) seems to relate to those around him. This novel is in fact a six hundred page exposition of something Dumbledore tells Harry, that the important difference between him and Riddle is the role that love plays in his life, from the sacrifice his parents made of their own lives trying to protect him to the way he works with his friends as contrasted with the subservient obedience Voldemort demands of his Death Eaters. It also plays to one of Rowlings' strengths as a writer, her characters. Harry at sixteen is not the same as Harry at eleven; growing up and his experiences have developed Rowling's central character. By concentrating on relationships, both he and the lesser characters become rounded out; even Draco Malfoy becomes more than an arrogant bully.

A lot of what happens in The Half-Blood Prince fits in with the things I had guessed would occur or was widely predicted by fans, but the one important event I didn't expect at ll (which occurs near the end, so I won't say anything that gives it away) is possibly not what it seems to be on the surface: in the last magical confrontation, think about what Harry is prevented from doing, and what this may mean.

The intention behind The Half-Blood Prince is sufficiently different from the earlier books that it is not easy to compare its quality with the rest of the series. We learn a lot of background, and this is handled very well indeed; so often this sort of thing becomes a boring interlude between the scenes of action. It has a serious tone, which is reasonable considering the events it follows at the end of The Order of the Phoenix, not least in their effects on Harry's own life. The adventures of Harry Potter have been moving in this direction since The Goblet of Fire, and in this book Harry is being prepared, as he, the other charadcters, and the readers all know, for the most serious confrontation he will ever face. In the end, The Half-Blood Prince is much more dependent on its place in the series than the others, and is the only one (so far) that would really suffer from being read out of context.

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