Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
With her astonishing run of the first five books, Rowling's magical thrillers have grown increasingly darker, using deaths in books four and five to really give the story's arc an emotional heft the first trio were thin on.
It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.
-- Ursula K. Le Guin
J.K. Rowling's sixth novel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, accomplishes so much of what it needed to, which is not as easy as it may seem. Pulling together strands from all of the previous books and setting the stage for the seventh could have left this latest volume a meandering narrative mess. Instead, Rowling manages to balance the needed answers while adding insight and further shading already complex characters. It is this tangled mystery of Harry, the death of his parents, the rise and fall (and rise) of the Dark Lord, and all of the mystical revelations and relationships, which have hooked readers young and old. How else to explain the madness that has proceeded the last several releases of the Potter series with lines of avid fans hungering for the next clue?
With her astonishing run of the first five books, Rowling's magical thrillers have grown increasingly darker, using deaths in books four and five to really give the story's arc an emotional heft the first trio were thin on. By the end of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling had brought back to form the malicious Lord Voldemort while killing off Hogwart's student Cedric Diggory in such an off-handed way that it was a revelation of where the series was ultimately heading. In the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, it was Harry's godfather, Sirius Black who fell while battling Voldemort's supporters, the Death Eaters. So, it's no surprise that the sixth book deals yet another blow to readers with the most significant and affecting death yet. These days are indeed dark, even the Weasley family clock hangs precariously and constantly on its mortal danger setting.
But while the death is certainly fitting considering the novel's penultimate nature, most of the book is concerned with memory and history. Since Rowling first put down the words to the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or Philosopher's Stone, depending on your location), this has been a series which imbues its every turn with history and recollections, from the death of Harry's parents right through to the brazen and deftly-orchestrated ending of this newest addition which even as it unfolds is leaving a trail of clues and interpretations sure to have heads spinning for the next several years while every word is deciphered for meaning.
From the beginning, this book is set apart from the others by opening upon the Prime Minster of England who receives a visit from the former and current Ministers of Magic. These visits are hardly courtesy calls, but mirroring modern current events, stately warnings of the dire situation regarding both non-magical and magical world death and destruction. It's exceedingly difficult to read the book and not think for even the briefest of moments about the recent terrorist bombings in London, but then again, Rowling has always run an undercurrent of fascism and ethnic strife through the series, from the scorn of pure blood families for mixed-heritages to the slavish race of house elves who are nearly forever in service to their masters.
By even the second chapter, Rowling has eschewed her usual tact of initiating the books with Harry's summer return to his aunt and uncle's unwelcoming care. Here, it is the potions master Severus Snape taking center stage, as he is visited by Bellatrix Lestrange and Narcissa Malfoy, who begs for help with her son Draco's newly initiated directive from Voldemort which drives part of the sixth's novel's action.
For most of the novel though, Harry and Hogwart's headmaster Albus Dumbledore are paired off, using their time to unlock the secrets of Voldemort's immortality and to better understand the events of young Tom Riddle's life through collected memories. For some, this back story will seem halting, but to those who have savored every little corner of Rowling's universe, learning of Voldemort's heritage and the surrounding events of his rise to power will answer some of the questions since the series began, and especially the events of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which loom larger now as the finale slowly begins to unwind.
None of this is accomplished at the expense of Rowling's imaginative and often humorous series. Harry's return to Hogwart's finds him more willing, at the suggestion of Dumbledore, to open up to his friends Ron and Hermione; Snape finally gets his dream job; and the Wesley twins Fred and George offer the magic world's only comic relief with their bright and cheerful joke shop. While there is now less to know about the comings-and-goings of the Hogwart's realm, older events play an increasingly vital role. Romance is filling the air and everyone is learning a little more, and no one more than Harry who chances upon a usefully annotated copy of a potions handbook, once owned and modified by the self-styled Half-Blood Prince. In purely delightful fashion, all of this ties together, and while the ultimate meaning of it all is still up in the air, by the time Dumbledore and Harry return from an almost perilous journey to see the Dark Mark above the Hogwart's tower, actions and vows take on a life of their own.
It's from this ending that the series finally accepts its own gravitas and lets the fulcrum swing past the point of no return. And while heartbreak will surely affect anyone emotionally invested in these books, Rowling has laid her tracks with precise reason, something that has been the most addicting facet of Harry Potter, the slow unraveling of a tale where all the parts are now coming back around and taking their rightful place in the puzzle.
While there's always a possibility the seventh book could disappoint, there is very little reason to despair. Rowling may have faltered here and there, but as she shows in this latest work, she never fails to deliver. While Harry and readers march towards the long-awaited showdown, the actual wrenching of hearts will be the several year wait until the story has cast its last spell.