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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the book)

I seem to be starting a number of these Off-Topic commentaries with disclaimers about my lack of background, but given how steeped I am in Trek lore, I sort of feel like I'm cheating my readers if I don't admit up front that I'm not equally conversant with the history of whatever else I'm discussing. I have read all the Harry Potter books, but only once, because I lent them to a certain someone who only later cheerfully admitted that he takes very bad care of books he's been loaned. I may have to submit a very specific Christmas list to this person. (And those would be hardcover books you owe me, not trade paperbacks, buddy.) At any rate, there are plenty of details from previous books which I've entirely forgotten, so if I garble something feel free to email me and tell me about it.

Hardly Plotted and the Half-Baked PonceHalf-Blood Prince moves along at a good clip, which is a nice change of pace from the previous two (Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix). While those two books needed to be as long as they were in order to tell their entire stories, in this one Rowling apparently felt she could skip certain things like long chapters of classroom action, partly because this is Year 6 already and we know what happens in these classes and partly because it's less a part of the eventual plot. It's definitely tighter, and doesn't meander into side trips to Hogsmeade or midnight tussles with Filch and Mrs. Norris. But that editorial trimming leaves the 652-page book feeling... unfinished.

There were several characters who got a lot of face time in Phoenix who barely had cameos in Half-Blood Prince, like Neville, Luna, Dobby and Kreacher, McGonagall, and nearly the entire adult complement of the Order. Cho is completely gone. The trio is no longer taking Hagrid's class, so we don't spend nearly as much time with him as we have in past books. Draco shows up more in Harry's obsessions than in the hallways. Voldemort himself only appears in Pensieve flashbacks. I found myself wanting to know what my other friends were up to.

Because we miss out on what happens to the secondary and tertiary characters, and for a few other reasons I'll outline below, I wonder if Book VI should simply be considered the first half of a two-parter with Book VII. (We pause for a moment to allow the audience a chorus of wails and groans, since Jo takes two or three years per novel, and she ain't gonna rush the ending.) That would explain a lot of the lack of followup -- it's just later on in the "arc."

That having been said, I did enjoy the book. Rowling's turns of phrase sing. She has a knack for marvelous descriptions which never run too long, and her constant nameplay in and out of different languages and various mythologies is always good for a laugh.

I liked Harry and Ginny as a couple, and I didn't expect to. It helped that Ginny has grown up to be brave, sensible, and fierce -- rather like Hermione without the nagging -- and so makes a good partner for the teen who's going to take on evil incarnate. I think Harry was stupid to break it off with her at the end, for two reasons: 1) the argument "you'll be at risk if we're dating" is garbage, because she's already at risk just being the sister of Harry's best friend. Everyone already knows they're dating; the damage is done. 2) Dumbledore said over and over that Harry's greatest weapon and defense against Voldemort is Love. Why, then, is he walking away from it? His friends and adopted family (the Weasleys) are what give him love and strength. Yes, I know that Rowling had to get back to the Luke-Han-Leia trio and Ginny didn't fit, but it still felt wrong. Neville and Luna and the rest of the D.A. were around a lot in Phoenix, weren't they? Why can't Ginny be an equally present second-tier character? (Because we'd miss all the angst and longing to get back to his "normal life." Common sense doesn't always make for compelling drama.) Near the end, when Harry is helping Dumbledore out of the cave, he tells the headmaster not to worry because he can Apparate them back to Hogwarts. "I am not worried," Dumbledore responds, "I am with you." I am not alone, I am not defenseless, I am protected because I am with someone who loves me is the unspoken message. But Harry is still slow on the uptake.

I hope he's not as slow in putting the pieces together in Book VII, in regards either to Voldemort or Snape. I don't think Snape is one of the bad guys; I think he was a grumpy double agent for Dumbledore. What did Dumbledore ask him when he was collapsed against the tower wall, weakened from drinking the toxic waste from Voldemort's jewel pool? He said "Help, Severus." He specifically told Harry to get Snape, because only Snape could do anything for him. Sometimes "help" means delivering coup de grâce. Sometimes it means doing a deed so someone else doesn't ruin himself. If Draco's task was to kill Dumbledore and he couldn't do it, Snape had made the Unbreakable Vow to do the task for him. Dumbledore did want to die, but he didn't want Draco to murder him. By asking Snape to do it, both Snape and Draco were freed. Draco doesn't have a murder on his conscience -- listening to Dumbledore still treat Draco with kindness and pleasantries even as he's dying, even as Draco is gearing up to kill him, is touching, and a fitting final act for a great man and a great teacher; in his last moments he's still trying to reach out and save one boy -- and Snape now looks to Voldemort like the Dark Lord's unassailable servant. That puts Snape in an excellent position to help the Order's side, even if they don't know it.

But nobody else connects those dots. Nobody else even hints that Snape could be anything but evil. Harry knows that Snape can cast telepathic curses, but it doesn't occur to him that he might actually have done so against Dumbledore while shouting the Unforgivable Curse as a distraction or a cover. And that's why I didn't find the ending to be satisfying. There wasn't closure. I felt like I'd figured out something the characters hadn't, and I've never been one step ahead of the Scoobies before. It was disappointing. The emotional payoff wasn't there -- I kept waiting for a reveal which didn't happen. Draco's confession was only about his emotions, not about his actions, if that makes sense. I don't feel like I really know what was happening behind the scenes the whole year. Okay, he was trying to fix a piece of magical furniture. I'm crappy at carpentry; I know how draining it can be when you can't get two boards to align or make a straight cut to save your life. But the narration repeatedly describes him as pale or gray, thin, exhausted, and weary, and even Moaning Myrtle says he's crying in the bathroom. So what was going on all that time? We got a lot of Harry's guesses, but no concrete explanations. I would have liked to hear his story of getting the Dark Mark. (We do assume he's got the Dark Mark, right?) What kind of deal did he make with the devil, and at what moment did he regret it?

That kind of explanation is one of the things missing from Half-Blood Prince. I don't expect answers to all the questions, or for ongoing plots to be tidily wrapped up at the close of each book, but I did want to know what Draco was doing all the time Ron and Hermione and Ginny were all trying to make people jealous and Harry was sneaking around in his Invisibility Cloak. I wanted to know what Voldemort was up to, through his minions. I wanted to see more of Snape not through Harry's perspective, more of the Death-Eaters and what they were doing, more of Fudge and Scrimshaw or whatever the hell the new Minister of Magic was called. (Scrimgeour is a real name, apparently, but how do you pronounce it? Fortunately he's not in the book enough for me to work at it or particularly care.)

The classroom scenes and magical politics might not have been necessary, but I missed it all. If Harry taught Dumbledore's Army in Defense Against the Dark Arts last year, how did those students stack up against the ones who weren't there? Was Snape surprised? Did he figure something out? Why did Snape leave the book in the Potions room where he'd taught for so many years? In fact, why didn't he keep it somewhere private, or destroy it? Did Snape intend for Harry to find it, or did Dumbledore order Snape to arrange it? Was either of them somehow behind Harry getting into Potions at the last minute so that he didn't have any books, and had to use that one? How was Harry going to pass the Potions final if he couldn't use that book? Did Snape have any part in Slughorn getting the Potions job? Did he suggest Slughorn because he knew Dumbledore needed the memory to figure out the link between Voldemort and the Horcruxes? Does anyone else in the Order know about the Horcruxes? How are things going at the Ministry of Magic, or at St. Mungo's Hospital? I would have liked even hints, so we could make intelligent guesses and know that Rowling had at least thought about these issues. Right now it feels surprisingly like these items were dropped in, and the other five books were not arbitrary about plot points.

Draco and Harry both talked about not finishing Year 7 at Hogwarts. It'd be very disappointing not to complete the last year of the series at the school. Besides that, it would be a serious dent in Harry's education, and if Rowling's universe is comparable to ours, wouldn't the lack of a magical high school diploma make it hard for him to find a job? (And did the kids ever take basic skills like math or science or typing?) It's strange to think of what Harry would do, for a living, with his life, after school is over. We've only seen him in context of the school years. What kind of job would you have when you've spent your teenage years having such adventures?

Rowling continues her light but sure touch with relationships and characters in Half-Blood Prince. I was very happy to see that Harry has gotten past his Annoying Sulky Adolescent phase and is starting to take his first steps into adulthood and maturity. Ron and Hermione pick up the Adolescent part without the Annoying -- they fight, flirt, try to make one another jealous, spend half the book not speaking to one another, and come together in the end, but they were acting like normal 16-year-olds. In Order of the Phoenix I kept wanting to smack Harry upside the head for being such a prat, and I didn't get the urge once here. As far as the rest of the characters, everyone feels real and normal, down to Mrs. Weasley and the other siblings being annoyed about Fleur and Bill. Mrs. Weasley's irritation and reconciliation with her future daughter-in-law probably happens around the world every day of the week and twice on Sundays. (I'm glad only one of the brood is going to be on the outs -- Percy's estrangement is difficult enough without also having Bill half-ostracized for having a PITA wife.)

The "lucky charm" was an interesting Potion of the Month. I particularly loved that Harry placeboed Ron into thinking he'd taken it, boosting his friend's self-esteem simply because he could (not unlike Hermione surreptitiously getting in the way of Ron's Quidditch competition). It was fun to see Harry giddily taking risks when he himself drank the Felix, and knowing that for once nothing bad was going to happen. (I had to skim the scene where Harry's hiding in the Slytherins' compartment and Draco finds him -- I hate stuff like that.)

Is there anything significant to Dumbledore drinking 12 cups of the green stuff? or that the 13th cup was the water which revived him? The last thing he yelled while under the influence was "I want to die." Was it still affecting him? Is that why he called for Snape, because he'd bespelled himself and a clean wand blast was less painful than whatever the potion was going to do to him from the inside out? (I could see why he paralyzed Harry, to prevent him from interfering in a dangerous but necessary event.)

While the point of all the kayaking down Memory Lake is to give us the history and therefore motivation of Voldemort, in the last few books we're getting quite a bit of that for Snape as well. He was the odd duck, the target of torment by the popular kids, and his self-esteem never entirely recovered, it seems. Even in trying to give himself a boost by playing on his mother's maiden name, he can't help but be self-deprecating: "Half-Blood Prince" is the ironic name he gives to himself. I don't think James ever used the term "mudblood," but it's not a new epithet, and Snape was probably trying to come up with something better-sounding. Even if he's on the good guys' side, he's still bitter about how he was treated, and gripes that Dumbledore is taking him for granted. He rages when Harry (whom Snape is, ultimately, trying to help) tries to use one of his own spells against him -- the upstart child of his hated enemy, trying to continue his father's legacy of attacks.

John Cook of Sev Trek made a good point in his all-spoiler review: it was strange that Harry could use the Sectumsempra curse without knowing what it did -- if you only need to say the words, what's the point of schooling? Anyone with magical abilities could start shouting a spell encyclopedia at random and get all manner of hexes off.

One final thought: I read Phoenix having seen the first two movies, and was still picturing the kids as they were in the illustrations. But after seeing the excellent film for Prisoner of Azkaban, I was envisioning everyone as the actors. The casting was just as perfect, but the staging and directing of Azkaban set it so much apart that the actors finally came alive as characters on screen.