Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J K Rowling

Kazu Kibuishi cover

After the most satisfying book in the series so far (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), comes, well, in comparison at least, somewhat of a nothing. The trouble with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (published 2005) is that it’s the book before the final showdown with Voldemort, so its main purpose — aside from offering us one more slice of Potterishness — is to tick off those last minute essentials before that showdown begins. In other words, this is Harry Potter and… Any Other Business?

Which wouldn’t matter, if Rowling were on top storytelling form. There are plenty of plot elements to put to bed before the final book — the uncovering of Voldemort’s origin story, Harry linking up with Ginny, and the necessary Hero’s Journey moment of shedding the mentor-figure who’s been guiding and protecting our protagonist so far, to name but three — and I can’t help thinking that the Rowling of the previous book would have woven them into a seamless, suspenseful narrative. But I don’t think she has, this time. Some of those plot points just happen, without the sort of preparatory tension that would make them feel properly earned. (Harry and Ginny getting together, in particular, feels like it just gets squeezed in amongst everything else that’s happening, rather than being properly embroiled in the rest of the plot, or given the sort of build-up that would have made it feel so right — something highlighted by how easy it feels for Harry to tell Ginny he has to distance from her at the end of the book, now he’s in full Harry-versus-Voldemort mode. This makes me think it really should have happened in the next book, at some appropriately dramatic high point.) Voldemort’s origin story is made to seem a bit more alive than flat-out exposition thanks to Harry getting to witness snippets via Dumbledore’s Pensieve, but Dumbledore has still done all the footwork and thinking to put it together, so it is, basically, still exposition. Even the main “foiling evil” plot that Harry (as usual) gets caught up in — Draco Malfoy’s mission — doesn’t make any progress till it’s all revealed in one go at the end, voiding it of any sense that Harry’s efforts made any difference at all. (And they didn’t.)

Jason Cockroft cover for the UK HB

(I like to think I’m backed up in all this by the film, which, given a chance of a second go at Rowling’s loose bag of plot elements, refined it in a number of small ways, and made it a lot more satisfying. The film of Half-Blood Prince is, I think, the most different from any book of the series so far, and perhaps it’s the only film that’s actually better than the book, in my view.)

Even the by-now standard visit to a subterranean place-of-secrets — which reached a height, for me, in the last book’s eerie Department of Mysteries — here has one of the oddest, and least satisfying sequences of all. Dumbledore and Harry visit a cave to retrieve one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, and the main task there is… for Harry to force Dumbledore to drink a potion. I can only guess this is supposed to be a sort of test of loyalty on Harry’s part (loyalty being the main quality associated with Dumbledore throughout the series), but if so, it doesn’t have a corresponding payoff. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this sequence is the nature of Dumbledore’s suffering, which is all about the pangs of conscience:

“…please make it stop, I know I did wrong, oh, please make it stop and I’ll never, never again… Don’t hurt them, don’t hurt them, please, please, it’s my fault, hurt me instead…”

Dumbledore seems to feel incredibly guilty about things, but is this just a result of the potion, or does he have reason to? Well, the answer for that lies in the next book.

Brian Selznick cover

This book’s most interesting new element is Horace Slughorn, the ex-Head of Slytherin who likes to associate himself with “the famous, the successful and the powerful”, and who “enjoys the feeling that he influences these people”. Slughorn is another “neutral”, of the kind I’ve been highlighting in my mewsings on the series. He’s neither good nor evil, but is attracted by “greatness” (power), and driven by, not morality, but self-interest. Slughorn could have done with more of a story, I think — either a comeuppance or a redemption — but doesn’t really get it.

In contrast, Harry is at his least interesting in this book. Now he’s being believed by everyone, and is starting to show signs of confidence and power, I realised his main attractive quality in previous books had always been his vulnerability. Now he no longer has that so much, he just comes across as rather petulant. Or maybe he’s just a teenager…

Olly Moss ebook cover

Learning Voldemort’s backstory is perhaps the main function of this book, and it’s perhaps Half Blood Prince’s highlight. It means we get to see Rowling’s version of an origin-of-evil story, something genre fiction generally doesn’t do well. (I’m mostly thinking here of the Star Wars prequels’ back-of-a-postage-stamp-psychology take on how Anakin became Darth Vader.) Rowling doesn’t make the mistake of explaining Voldemort’s evil, but instead sets about revealing how deep its roots go. Tom Riddle, it turns out, comes from a long line of magically powerful, pure-blood-elitist wizards so averse to mixing their bloodline they’ve dwindled into a physically and mentally-decayed line verging on the subhuman. However, Voldemort wasn’t brought up by this line, so we can’t put his moral failings down to their style of upbringing, only as an in-bred genetic tendency. Rather, it’s that he inherited their power (a neutral thing), and came to see that power, and the way it sets him apart from others, as his identity and destiny. After having got used to the way his abilities make him feel superior to the Muggles he was raised with, it’s perhaps only natural that, when he found himself in the Wizarding World, he was driven to differentiate himself still further along the same scale, by raising his magical abilities so that he was as far above his fellow wizards as his magic put him above the Muggles.

Jonny Duddle cover

I’m not saying Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince isn’t enjoyable. But perhaps it might be better viewed as the first half of a two-book narrative concluding in the next and final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — if only because the titular focus of Half-Blood Prince, Severus Snape, doesn’t get his full story told till that book (which also balances Voldemort’s origin story with Dumbledore’s).

If nothing else, though, Half-Blood Prince is still a dip into Rowling’s Wizarding World, which by this point can be allowed to survive on the minor pleasures of character moments, jokes, and hints-of-things-to-come — for one book, at least.


The Rift by Nina Allan

On Saturday 16th July, 1994, 17-year-old Julie Rouane goes out for the evening and doesn’t return. Although no body is found in the ensuing search, it’s eventually assumed a local plumber, Steven Jimson, who is found guilty of several other murders of young women in the Warrington area, killed her. Julie’s three-years-younger sister Selena gets on with her life, but fails to fully engage with it:

“College had seemed pointless – or rather she hadn’t seemed good enough. The idea of selecting a future, rather than simply accepting the future that was offered, seemed – what? Selfish, inconsiderate, immoral even.”

But then, twenty years later, Selena gets a call from Julie. She has, it seems, been living and working in nearby Manchester for some time and wants to explain what happened to her. But when she does, finally, explain, her story isn’t about local serial killer Steven Jimson, but involves her being mysteriously transported to the distant planet of Tristane.

(The section of the novel where Julie tells her story is called A Voyage to Arcturus, and I admit it was to see if there was any influence from David Lindsay’s novel that I read Nina Allan’s The Rift. But that section opens with a school essay by Julie on Peter Weir’s film of Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, and it’s Joan, not David, that’s the influence on Allan’s novel. If David Lindsay’s interplanetary journey is to be evoked at all, it’s by way of ironic contrast: his Maskull journeys to distant Tormance to return transformed; Julie travels only to further lose an already lost part of herself.)

One of the problems with Julie’s story is that Tristane, the alien planet she finds herself on, is almost wilfully unexotic. For a start, she doesn’t get there by spaceship or some sort of technological transportation beam, she just wanders round a lake near Warrington till she finds she’s not on Earth anymore, but at an identical lake on Tristane. She’s found by a woman from that planet who instantly recognises her. It turns out, to this Tristane woman, Julie isn’t from Earth at all, but was born on Tristane and got lost from there, and now she’s back. The Tristane woman is called Cally, and her husband is Noah — very Earth-like names. One of them is described as wearing a parka, a specific type of coat which of course evokes a specific, non-alien image. This air of mundanity could, of course, be down to the fact that all this is being translated, for our benefit, into English. But the place-names on Tristane sound to me as though we’re being invited to believe they were deliberately, randomly, and somewhat carelessly made up: Tristane is in “the Suur System, in the Aww Galaxy” (the Aww Galaxy?), whose cities and regions include Fiby, Galena, the Wrssin Forest, Marillienseet (which comes short after Julie mentions having listened to Marillion on the day of her disappearance), Clarimond, Davis (Davis?), and “the vast underground metropolis of Staerbrucke”, which immediately made me think of Starbucks, and wonder if Julie hadn’t found herself staring at a discarded coffee cup by the lake near Warrington instead of journeying to a distant planet.

There are, though, two decidedly different things about Tristane. One is that siblings there are allowed to marry (though it’s socially frowned upon, and any offspring are expected to be genetically modified to prevent harmful mutations). The other is that Tristane has recently cut off all contact with its sister-planet Dea, and though there is no official reason for this, a bestselling book tells the story of a creature found on Dea called the creef, which plants its eggs in human victims, who proceed to walk around for several months becoming slowly depersonalised before being devoured from within.

Both of these elements can be read as being in some way symbolic of sibling relationships, either of being too close (sibling marriage) or too distant (separated sister-planets Tristane and Dea), with the added threat of loss of self in the second. Is, then, Julie’s story actually an attempt to communicate something about her relationship with her sister?

coverI’ve covered a number of lost-woman-returns-from-Faerie novels on this blog, including Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012), J M Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920), and Ramsey Campbell’s The Nameless (1981), as well as some in which the lost person doesn’t return, as with Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015) (where’s it’s a man who disappears) and Alan Garner’s Boneland (2012). The point in all of these novels is that, although the characters in them want to know what happened, and try to prove or disprove the returnee’s story either way (which never works), the novels themselves don’t care about the facts, but are about the experience of loss. With Joyce, for instance, it’s how all the promise of a young life can be derailed by the loss of someone upon whom that promise was built, while with Barrie it’s about how loss spreads out to affect, and infect, everyone involved.

Loss permeates The Rift, too, and not just around Julie. The book opens with an episode from Selena’s past, in which she befriends an older man, a maths teacher who keeps koi carp in a pond in his garden, as a memory of a woman he once loved in Japan. When it becomes known, locally, that this man left his previous job under suspicion of having an inappropriate relationship with a pupil, local youths break into his garden and pour disinfectant into the pond. There’s a sense, from this point on, of all of us — humans as well as fish — being just as vulnerable to destructive and incomprehensible cosmic forces that will take away all we care about in an instant:

“…the koi carp, how lovely they had been, how vulnerable to harm. The way we all are, here in our fish bowl. The whole stupid lot of us.”

Later, it’s revealed Julie also had a relationship with an older person, a woman this time, but also a teacher. This, and other parallels, infect all the narratives in this novel, and it’s a novel made up of many narratives, fragments of narratives, and documents: school essays by Julie, an excerpt from a crime novel based on her case, the story of a young woman who claimed to be the last of the Romanovs, encyclopedia entries about fish (which I confess I skipped after a while), the diary entry of a xenometallurgist. It starts to feel like one of those “terminal documents” from Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition that are used to both represent and attempt to resolve trauma, and which find echoes in other crisis narratives such as Alan Garner’s Red Shift, or Eliot’s The Waste Land. The Rift doesn’t quite have the same intensity as those, and I could never quite convince myself the switching from one narrative to another wasn’t seeking to represent the trauma at the heart of Julie’s situation, so much as avoid revealing the truth about her story. Though, having written that, I realise that being unable to face the truth is another aspect of trauma, too.

But it’s certainly the relationship between the sisters that’s at the heart of this novel. As children they used to play a game in which they pretended odd people were “aliens”, and the grown-up Julie at one point says “Remember when we were small, Selena, the worlds we made?” Is Tristane, then, an invitation to make another world, only not for play, this time, but to find common ground in the face of so much that is incomprehensible? Even before her disappearance, Julie and her sister were drifting apart. (And Julie also says, at one point, “I was never close to my sister Selena… I used to think I was, but I wasn’t, not even when we were kids”, which perhaps undermines my argument.)

But what this aspect of the novel most reminds me of is my take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where, if you’re caught in a world that has no solidity, the only thing to do is find someone to cling to, even if they’re half made up of lies themselves. Shared experiences bind people together, just as traumatic, isolated experiences draw them apart. And the world, to Julie, is exactly of this type:

“Nothing is like you think it is, Selena. Nothing at all.”

She doesn’t even know herself anymore:

“Once the truth of what had happened to me began to seep through, a rift seemed to open in my mind, a rift between the universe I appeared to be living in and the one I understood.”

She doesn’t return from Tristane (as Maskull/Nightspore does from Tormance) invested with hidden knowledge, but instead with a black hole inside her of loss and confusion. Sifting through the evidence makes no sense, and it’s only when Selena decides to believe in her — even despite some confusing for-and-against evidence — that Julie can perhaps start to be real to herself once more.

I’m not sure I completely got this book, and I have to say I found its mixing of many narratives to be somewhat draining rather than (as with Garner and Ballard) intensifying. But it’s one of those books that, having read it and looking back on it, it turns out to be more satisfying than it was while I was reading it, which often happens with me with difficult novels.

I still don’t get the thing about the fish, though.