Reviews of books 1,2,3,4 and 5 can be found here.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is, in its own quiet way, one of the best of the series. Though there are no evil teachers, no massive dragons, no real whizz or bang, it’s a fascinating character-driven tale.
Harry is back for his sixth year at Hogwarts. Snape has finally bagged the Defence Against the Dark Arts job, and genial old buffer Horace Slughorn is in his stead as Potions master. Harry, assuming his grades aren’t good enough to continue Potions under Professor Snape’s tutelage, does not bother buying books or supplies, but Professor Slughorn accepts him into his class. Given a second-hand copy of Advanced Potion-Making, Harry discovers notes and corrections, as well as invented spells, scribbled everywhere. The only clue to the previous owner’s identity are the words “This book is the property of the Half-Blood Prince”. With the aid of the Prince’s book, Harry becomes the best in the class at Potions, besting even Hermione.
Meanwhile, Dumbledore, who barely featured in The Order of the Phoenix, has requested to have private lessons with the Boy Who Lived. These lead to the most fascinating chapters of the book, where Dumbledore and Harry try to piece together their enemy’s past in hopes it could lead to them defeating him for once and for all.
Voldemort, like Harry, was an orphan. His poor, downtrodden, abused mother, Merope, saw the handsome Tom Riddle, a Muggle, as a escape from her brutal father and mad brother. Dumbledore believes she tricked Riddle Snr into drinking a love potion and then married him. When the potion either wore off or Merope stopped giving it to him, he abandoned his pregnant wife without a second glance. Destitute in London, she gave birth at a Muggle orphanage and died soon afterwards. Tom Riddle Jnr grows into a bullying, thieving psychopath, who uses his magic to extort and frighten the other children. What is hinted at in Voldemort’s childhood is the stuff of nightmares.
“Billy Stubbs’ rabbit… well, Tom said he didn’t do it and I don’t see how he could have done, but even so, it didn’t hang itself from the rafters, did it?”
Later on, we see how Tom Riddle took a job at Borgin and Burke’s after school and killed an old lady for her Hogwarts relics. It’s then that the bombshell is dropped; to kill Voldemort, Harry must first destroy the pieces of his soul left in the souvenirs of his murders. But Harry is not sent off on this needle-in-a-haystack quest totally unprepared. Harry destroyed one- Voldemort’s diary- in The Chamber of Secrets and Dumbledore has destroyed a ring belonging to Marvolo Gaunt, badly injuring his hand in the process. Gaunt was Voldemort’s grandfather, and he framed his uncle, Morfin, for the murder of the Riddles, which poor Frank Bryce got blamed for in the Muggle world.
Harry, meanwhile, becomes obsessed with tracking Draco Malfoy, who is boasting that he has been given a special task by You-Know-Who. His father, Lucius, is in disgrace, and indeed Voldemort has given Draco a job- an impossible one at that. For Draco is to kill Dumbledore.
He’s not very good at it; almost killing Ron and Katie Bell but getting nowhere near the headmaster. Until the fateful night that Dumbledore and Harry venture to the cave where little Tom Riddle tortured two fellow orphans many years before. Our own Cliffs of Moher looked suitably menacing and forbidding in the movie version.
There’s a Horcrux, a fragment of Voldemort’s soul there, and to get it to it, Dumbledore and Harry must cross a lake filled with zombies (JK calls them Inferi, but zombies are what they are). The quest and the potion Dumbledore drinks to reach the Horcrux weakens the Hogwarts principal terribly. On their return, they see the Dark Mark in the air over the school. It’s a trap. Draco lets Death Eaters into the school, and although his nerve fails him, Dumbledore is killed- by Snape.
It was shocking back in 2005 and even knowing now that Snape is not a bad guy, it’s still shocking. Hogwarts without Dumbledore is inconceivable; his funeral is very moving. Very wisely, JK has Harry, Ron and Hermione decide to drop out of school to pursue Voldemort. It’s difficult to imagine how she could have made a Dumbledore-less Hogwarts work, and at that point it had moved far beyond the magic Malory Towers template.
This is not a kid’s book and I would have great reservations about allowing a child read it. At sixteen, I had read darker books than this, Stephen King for example, but I recall being quite taken aback at Morfin calling Merope a ‘slut’. Not at the word itself, but the fact it had appeared in Harry Potter. But there are all sorts of dark themes and implications running throughout.
The Gaunts, for example; Marvolo’s treatment of his children; Morfin torturing snakes and poor, downtrodden Merope seeing Tom Riddle as her only way out. It’s a depiction of a family situation as grim as you would get in any adult novel. JK Rowling has said that Voldemort’s concept under a loveless union led to his inability to empathise and love. This of course has a number of unfortunate implications, but his early years are an interesting look into the childhood of a master manipulator and psychopath. The scenes in the cave are deliciously creepy, and the whole book has a marvellously sinister feel to it.
Harry doesn’t even appear until the third chapter. The first concerns the Muggle Prime Minister who is informed that it’s Voldemort behind all the mysterious deaths of late; this is my favourite opening to the whole series. Rowling, with her understanding of human nature, has united the concerns of politicians everywhere, whether magic or Muggle. The Muggle Prime Minister observes, “Furthermore, Fudge was looking distinctly careworn. He was thinner, balder and greyer, and his face had a crumpled look. The Prime Minister had seen that kind of look in politicians before, and it never boded well.” Chillingly, Voldemort is killing Muggles and their leader can do nothing whatsoever about it; he must keep to the story that hurricanes, gas explosions and cruel murderers are prowling Britain.
Next we see Narcissa, Draco’s mother, begging Snape to keep her son safe at Hogwarts. It’s in this book that sympathy for Draco Malfoy begins to emerge. Although he breaks Harry’s nose on the Hogwarts Express (a scene which makes me wince), it’s clear by the end of the book that the Malfoys are in way too deep and are too frightened to back out. Draco can’t kill Dumbledore, and he’s terrified of Voldemort. But he still sticks with the Death Eaters, too afraid to go to the side of right.
The only thing I would fault the book on is the Half-Blood Prince element. The previous owner of Harry’s Potions book is not exactly a thrilling mystery, and when it’s revealed that Snape is the previous owner, the reader wonders why Harry, despite having been taught by Snape for six years, did not recognise his handwriting. Even if Harry can be a bit slow on the uptake, surely Hermione would have cottoned on?
It’s not all doom and gloom either. Black humour abounds; Ron’s “Anyone we know died?” daily refrain is darkly amusing. And Harry finally bites the bullet with Ginny only to dump her at Dumbledore’s funeral. Slughorn’s Slug Club brings much needed light relief, as does Harry’s experience with Felix Felicis, the ‘liquid luck’ potion. I’d love me some of that.
Notes on my Copy: Look at that! ‘King’s Cross, 16/7/05’ Yes, I bought this book in the very station that Harry sets off to Hogwarts on. Due to not being able to find a midnight launch party in the part of London we were staying in I picked up on the way to the train up north to visit relatives. British readers may especially notice the date. Just over a week before that, suicide bombers had killed 52 commuters in London. The atmosphere at the time was a bit strange, despite the Blitz spirit Londoners are famous for. One bomb had went off just beside King’s Cross itself and the place was quite subdued. The ninth anniversary of this tragedy occurred recently. May the victims rest in peace.