Monday, November 21, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling

Last summer I waited in line with my daughters for the most eagerly anticipated book of the year: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The book was well worth the wait. It was the best written since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I pegged some events correctly and was surprised by others. I found the book entertaining, and would even recommend it to non-Harry Potter fans as a place to start the series. I'm going to be discussing some plot spoilers in this review so if that sort of thing bothers you you've just read my review in a nutshell and don't need to read further.

I had problems with Book Four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Although I enjoyed much of what happened in the book the ending nearly killed me. Once we learned that Barty Crouch Jr. was posing as Moody we were treated to a full chapter of exposition as he recounted the entire story all over again, but from his point of view. I found it dreadfully dull and often skipped through it. Only this year did I learn that JK Rowling enjoys Dorothy Sayers and that Goblet of Fire's ending fit the classic Sayers' style ending.

I had problems with Book Five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as well. I found it overly long at times and in need of a good edit. Interestingly, JK Rowling felt the same.

"There are bits of all six books that I would go back and tighten up. My feeling is that Phoenix is overlong, but I challenge anyone to find the obvious place to cut."

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy those books. I've read them so many times I've lost count. I'm just saying that these books had flaws in execution and length. The same couldn't be said for Book Six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This is the tightest book she's written to date. The narrative was woven well. The characters were well fleshed out, there weren't any personality changes pulled out of a hat like Ginny's character in Book Five, and the back story balanced well with current events. Not only did we see an end to CAPS LOCK Harry, but exposition was much improved from earlier books. Instead of having the story explained from the mouths of Hermione, Dumbledore, or Crouch, we had pensieve episodes which worked much better in my opinion, proving the old writer's adage: "Show it, don't tell it." This was a well written adventure story.

Interestingly, I had three predictions proven to be true, which is good even for me. First, Dumbledore died, paving the way for Harry to finally stand on his own. Until now, and as Harry himself had pointed out in Book Five, he's been very lucky and always saved by somebody else. Now there will be no teachers to rescue him. No guardian angels waiting in the wings. Our hero cannot be a hero until he fights insurmountable odds on his own. Second, we discovered the horcruxes. I had predicted a few years ago, based on events in Book Two, that Voldemort had obtained immortality by imbuing inanimate objects with his soul, as he had done with the dairy. I was delighted to be right about this one, and the third prediction: that it would be too much to expect the horcruxes to be laying about Hogwarts so Harry would have to go on a quest to find them. There are still mysteries to be revealed in Book Seven, such as the importance of Harry's green eyes and how that relates to Lilly, his mother, or what significance his scar has yet to play beyond it's iconic purposes. Book Six tied up enough loose ends to satisfy, but left enough untied to keep the reader looking forward to the next installment.

Much has been made of how dark this book is compared to the others. I'm not sure where people's heads have been. Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone started with murder, abandonment, and child abuse. It was garnished with bullying, hinted with dark disembodied cloaks that fed on fresh unicorn blood, then topped with life threatening trials and ordeals. And that was all before facing the grand baddie himself. All that has changed is Harry has grown up, gone through his angry teenage years and now is ready to be a man. The framework for this was laid in the first book for this progression, but the books have always been dark.

As for romances, much has been made about them as well, but JKR will not be known as a great romance novelist. The "romance" in the books is, as we Americans would put it, High School stuff. Meeting at lockers, making out in the equipment room, etc. No surprise there. They're still students. We have yet to see if Harry and Ginny have the greatest written love scenes of teen fiction yet to come. In fact, I suspect that it is quite plausible for Ginny to die, sacrificing herself and protecting Harry with the same charm his mother once used on him, but I'm not holding my breath. The romance will be there, but secondary to the action and adventure experienced by our hero, Harry Potter. It is his story, told through his eyes, and unless Harry suddenly becomes a hopeless romantic the story's narrative will focus on the same elements it always has. Could a Harry Potter fan ask for anything more?