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.)
(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.
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…
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.
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.