Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

“Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”

Albus Dumbledore

hbp-uk-kids-jacket-artIn the sixth Potter book, Our Protagonists embark upon their N.E.W.T. (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests) courses, complete with concomitant complaining about how they have So! Much! Work! (Sorry, Hogwartians, until you have been to university I have no sympathy for you.) Harry finds an old textbook which gives him hints as to how to cheat at Potions; Dumbledore infodumps about Voldemort’s past; and someone is trying half-heartedly to assassinate someone else at Hogwarts.

Half-Blood Prince has some superficial resemblances to Chamber of Secrets, the second Potter book: both feature books that preserve some memory of a former Hogwarts student which lead their owners into morally dodgy territory; both involve the threat of sudden assassination. But while Chamber works out its central metaphor with a certain amount of narrative elegance, Prince doesn’t even have a central metaphor: it’s far too wrapped up in its own backstory to talk about anything external to its universe.

A charitable reading might say that Prince is partly about the value of history: much of the book is dedicated to delving into Voldemort’s personal history to discover his weaknesses, and Harry’s Potions book was once owned by a very familiar character. The Potter books as a whole are, certainly, steeped in thinking about history: the fear of Voldemort’s return refracted through memories of what it was like when he was in power, the legacy of Harry’s parents and their friends shadowing his time at Hogwarts, old grudges carried for a new generation to bear. Interesting though this project potentially is, it’s not executed in a way which particularly plays to Rowling’s strengths. As the early Potter books attest, she is excellent at taut and tense plotting and at bringing a certain kind of knowing wit to her fantasy, breathing life into old tropes and making them relevant again. She is not good at characterisation or dialogue, which is a pity, because Prince wants to be a character piece about Harry’s having to shoulder the burden of the older generation.

I don’t feel like there’s that much to say, actually, about Prince. For a 600-page book, there’s very little going on, and it feels like Rowling’s just marking time until she can finish the series. Possibly my least favourite Potter so far in this re-read.

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