The penultimate chapter in the Harry Potter series has arrived. It’s time to talk about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I’d like to warn anyone who might read this review that there will be SPOILERS. But not just spoilers for Half-Blood Prince. I fully expect that anyone reading this already knows what transpires between Snape and Dumbledore. No, this review will contain SPOILERS for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Again, I imagine most people reading this review have already read the entire book series, but there may be a few of you who have only seen the films, in which case I’d be giving away events that take place in Deathly Hallows Part 2.
Now that we have that housekeeping out of the way, I’d like to get right into my review of what I consider the very best book in the Harry Potter series. In my mind, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince may be a clear stepping stone into the final book, but I also think it is the best, most compelling book in the series.
Half-Blood Prince is a book all about growth. It’s about the growth of Harry into a young man who will be ready to take on the tough tasks ahead of him. It’s also about the growth of Voldemort into the most powerful dark wizard of all time.
Through the book, Dumbledore is aware of a fact he never discloses to Harry. He knows that by the end of the school year he will be killed. Armed with this knowledge he sets out to give Harry the tools to understanding and defeating Voldemort. The “understanding” part is key. He can tell Harry all about the Horcruxes that will keep Voldemort alive eternally unless destroyed, and he can tell Harry where he suspects some of those Horcruxes might be, but for Harry to find all of them, face Voldemort and come away victorious he needs to have a keen understanding of the man that is Lord Voldemort.
Before getting into this further, I’d like to backtrack a bit. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince begins with a chapter in which the former Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, pays a visit to the muggle Prime Minister. Immediately, Rowling is sending a signal that the war brewing in the magical world is encroaching on the muggle world. More than anything this tells us that nobody is safe. It’s not just the fate of the wizarding world that is at stake, the fate of the world at large is on the line as well. In setting up the immense stakes of Voldemort’s potential takeover, Rowling also sets up the importance of the more intimate lessons Dumbledore gives harry on Voldemort’s history.
You see, Half-Blood Prince is not a book with much action. Basically all you’ve got is some Quidditch, a drawn out sequence at the end that is more suspense than full on action, and a small battle in the halls of Hogwarts that Harry runs through just to get to Snape. Rowling simply raises our awareness of the high stakes in the background. This allows the flashbacks of collected memories in Dumbledore’s Pensieve to have the same thrill as any of action sequence. Rowling skillfully turns the process of learning and exposition into the exciting forces that keep us coming back for more.
It helps that what we learn about Voldemort is absolutely fascinating. We see what his family was like, and just how disturbed they were. We see what he was like as creepy young child in an orphanage. We get a glimpse of what he was like as a young adult, when he was still on the road to losing the name Tom Riddle forever. This is the man who nearly tore apart the wizarding world and killed Harry’s parents. He is the embodiment of evil and the ultimate villain in the series. Gaining an insight into what makes him tick is as intriguing and rewarding as witnessing those moments of humanity in Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. In fact, it’s even more rewarding than that. By learning about the human being underneath the Dark Lord we, along with Harry, are learning the traits and flaws that will bring about his downfall.
It would be silly of J.K. Rowling to leave all the mystery to this series of flashbacks, though. She also includes a carefully revealed ongoing mystery. Malfoy has been tasked with some kind of mission and cursed objects are nearly killing students, including Ron. Harry suspects that the cursed objects have something to do with whatever Malfoy is up to, but he cannot prove it. Malfoy’s mission, of course is to kill Dumbledore. What’s particularly beautiful about Rowling is her compassion for her lead characters. Even a downright git like Malfoy is given a shred of humanity. Throughout the book we see that he is both determined to carry out his mission, but also that the mission is tormenting him greatly. Malfoy is a jerk, and he was raised by a family of dark wizards, but he is still a kid, and he is not a killer.
Near the end of the book, when Dumbledore is cornered on the tower by Malfoy and the Death Eaters, they exchange some very revealing words. “He told me to do it or he’ll kill me. I’ve got no choice.” Malfoy’s words say everything we need to know. He is a reluctant participant, coerced into doing something he would never be able to bring himself to accomplish. Dumbledore sees this. He sees in Draco a child with a good heart deep down inside. Draco is not so far gone as to render him a monster like Voldemort. This is why Dumbledore made sure that it would be Snape that killed him instead of Malfoy.
Of course, that is only something we properly learn at the end of Deathly Hallows, but I think that anyone able to read between the lines of Half-Blood Prince would recognize that Snape was under orders from Dumbledore to do what he did. More to the point, especially when this book is combined with the later section of Deathly Hallows, we find that Half-Blood Prince is in many ways a great tragedy with Severus Snape as it’s tragic hero. He’s a character who did shameful things, as Harry learns. Snape, it turns out, was the person who revealed to Voldemort the section of the prophecy that led him to seek out Harry Potter and murder Harry’s parents. But like any great tragic hero, Snape’s search for redemption comes at a cost. Not only does he have to live with the deaths of Lily and James Potter, he also has to live with the murder of Dumbledore, and in the end he is killed.
Rowling is also very clever in the naming of the book. ‘Half-Blood Prince’ refers to the owner of the old text book that Harry uses in Potions class. The book contains all kinds of passages crossed out and amended, as well as newly invented spells written into the margin. Harry uses one of these spells, Sectumsempra, against Malfoy in self defence. The spell slashes Malfoy violently and shows that the Half-Blood Prince may have been a dark character. And what a dark character indeed. It is revealed in the end that Snape was the Half-Blood Prince. Rowling basically puts it right out there that the central character of the novel is Snape. That Snape is the character who should be paid the most attention to. I really think that if you read the book and pay close attention to Snape you will find a sparingly written but highly complex individual who is something of a genius at magic and potions, but also has a darkness in his heart that brings about his sad fate.
I haven’t even gotten to the cave sequence yet, which says a lot about the quality of everything else in the book. Dumbledore takes Harry with him on a journey to a remote cliffside cave somewhere in the country. In the cave, Voldemort has hidden on of his seven Horcruxes. The journey that they take within the cave reveals to Harry the extent of magical protection Voldemort has applied to the treasured fractions of his soul. But the highlight is a sequence in which Harry is made to force-feed Dumbledore scoops of poisonous water from a basin in order to retrieve the locket at the bottom. The poison is so painful it causes Dumbledore to weep and beg for Harry to stop, but he cannot stop. Harry must get that locket, and this devastating scene for the first time puts Harry in the position of carer. Dumbledore has always watched over him and protected him, but here he must knowingly cause Dumbledore pain and force him to continue, much like a parent forcing a child to eat. This is the push Harry needs in order to fully comprehend the dark task that will lay ahead of him in the absence of Dumbledore’s protection. It’s one of the most harrowing moments in any of the novels, but it’s also one of the stronger pieces of character development in the book as well.
Finally, Half-Blood Prince also has our characters growing up romantically. Harry becomes somewhat infatuated with Ginny Weasley and Ron and Hermione’s love for each other becomes frustrating in its lack of fruition. The characters in general begin to feel the pull of romance in a big way, and given that the next book will necessary be devoid of silly high school love Rowling plays it all up here in a big way. This is great because it serves as the balance to all the incredibly dark goings on. Pretty much everything else in the book involves war or Voldemort or sadness, so it’s great that we get a fair bit of romance to make it all palatable.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a beautiful novel. I have a hard time breaking it down into anything less. Rowling writes her penultimate novel with depth and nuance and, above all, humanity. Her compassion for humanity can be felt on nearly every page, whether it be the romantic subplots or the dark dealings between Snape and Malfoy. The lack of a direct physical presence from Voldemort also gives the book a more intimate feeling that is the perfect set up for the grand scale epic to come in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I have no question in my mind that Rowling is one of the best writers today, and in my opinion Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the best book she’s written so far.