Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
The war against Voldemort is not going well; even Muggle governments are noticing. Ron scans the obituary pages of the Daily Prophet, looking for familiar names. Dumbledore is absent from Hogwarts for long stretches of time, and the Order of the Phoenix has already suffered losses.
As in all wars, life goes on. Sixth-year students learn to Apparate -- and lose a few eyebrows in the process. The Weasley twins expand their business. Teenagers flirt and fight and fall in love. Classes are never straightforward, though Harry receives some extraordinary help from the mysterious Half-Blood Prince.
So it's the home front that takes center stage in the multilayered sixth installment of the story of Harry Potter. Here at Hogwarts, Harry will search for the full and complex story of the boy who became Lord Voldemort -- and thereby find what may be his only vulnerability. (courtesy of Goodreads)
*This isn't so much of a review as a discussion of my thoughts. I'm assuming most everyone has read this series already, so I refer to connections with the later books. If you haven't read Harry Potter, beware of spoilers.
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince functions as an interlude, a waiting period before the last book. Although there are very important plot arcs developed throughout the book, it doesn't feel like an important standalone book in the same way that some of the previous books like Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire do. The book continues with the tone established in Order Of The Phoenix: it is very dark and ominous. I like that Rowling gets right into the book. We don't waste time by summarizing the previous five novels. By the sixth book, the reader has or should have read the previous books. The novel is long enough as it is; I'm glad that words aren't wasted on repetition.
Harry has mostly gotten over his sulky, angry phase that characterized his personality in Order Of The Phoenix. The gravity of Sirius's death and the prophecy have sobered him. Harry spends much of this book with Dumbledore. It's really the first novel in which he's spent large amounts of time with Dumbledore. Despite how much Harry worships his headmaster, he's really only spent snippets of time with him throughout the past five years - mostly a few minutes at the end of each year when Harry finds himself narrowly escaping death. Harry still sees Dumbledore as essentially a perfect person, but also begins to get hints of his personality. We see, for example, his ability to both charm and manipulate.
There is lots of romance in this book - between Ron and Lavender, Ron and Hermione, and Harry and Ginny. The characters are at the right age to have boyfriends/girlfriends, and it provides a little bit of levity in an otherwise serious novel. The relationship between Ron and Hermione is, as usual, characterized by sniping and arguing. And yet again, they have a massive disagreement and refuse to speak to each other for months. Big fights between the three characters is a plot device that Rowling uses is just about every one of the books. I wish she could come up with some other way to develop and test the friendship between the trio.
Half-Blood Prince really belongs to Snape and Malfoy. Snape is, of course, the half-blood prince, although we don't know that until the very end. Through Snape's handwritten notes, we learn about his penchant for the dark arts as well as his brilliance at potions. There is a reason that Dumbledore thought he was qualified to teach potions. At the end of the book, we see Snape's rage at being called a coward by Harry. Nothing could be further from the truth, although Harry obviously couldn't know that.
Malfoy becomes a man in Half-Blood Prince. And to the reader's surprise, he becomes a man who is perhaps not good, but is not evil. He accepts a position as a Death-Eater and the huge task of killing Dumbledore with the enthusiasm of a child eager to please his idol and to gain glory. He quickly realizes the task is not as simple as he arrogantly assumed it would be and that the consequences of failing are huge, both for him and his family. Ultimately, when the opportunity to kill Dumbledore is handed to him, he can't do it. He can't bring himself to murder in cold blood. And that makes Malfoy, for the first time, a character worthy of some respect.
A few other thoughts about the Half-Blood Prince:
1. Slughorn shows a different side of the typical Slytherin house-member. He is not a devotee of the dark arts, but he is selfish and conniving - he'll do anything for personal gain. He is not brave - he would prefer to save himself than to fight against evil.
2. In Chapter Two, "Spinner's End," we see more clearly than ever the love that Narcissa Malfoy has for her son: "'Severus,' she whispered, tears falling down her pale cheeks. 'My son...my only son...'" (pg. 38, UK edition). I don't think the love that the Malfoy family has for each other can be emphasized enough, since it saves Harry's life in Deathly Hallows.
3. Hermione dominates her OWLs, as expected, getting an O in everything other than DADA. She is an incredibly skilled witch, but not as good practically as Harry. Both Harry and Ron who are consistently portrayed as average students at best manage to get Es or Os in all the key subjects. One can argue that this is a convenient plot device to ensure that they stay in all these courses for their 6th year, but it also shows that they are smarter than they let on. (see pg. 100, UK edition).
4. Snape's comment about Tonks's new Patronus is quite unforgiveable: "'I was interested to see your new Patronus...I think you were better off with the old one,' said Snape, the malice in his voice unmistakeable. 'The new one looks weak.'" (pg. 153, UK edition). Tonks has done nothing to deserve Snape's bullying. He must realize that she's in love with Lupin and is targeting her simply because she loves one of his childhood enemies. Or he just likes being a jerk. It's particularly inexcusable since his Patronus also comes from the person he loved. This is a good example of the fact that despite Snape's bravery and ultimate hero status, he still isn't a very nice person.
5. Harry has always jumped to conclusions where Snape and Malfoy are involved, and Hermione has always been quick to calm him down. Both Hermione and Ron are sure that Harry is overreacting to Malfoy's strange behavior and that he is unjustifiably blaming him for everything bad that happens. It turns out that, for once, Harry's suspicions are right on the mark. He doesn't realize that Dumbledore is precisely aware of the tasks Snape and Malfoy are assigned to do, but ultimately, Harry's conclusions are not as rash as they seem.
6. Chapter 26, "The Cave," is remarkable because of the interraction between Dumbledore and Harry. It is perhaps the only time that Dumbledore ever allows anyone to be on an equal level with him, or to see him at in a moment of weakness. Actually, scratch that - Snape is the only person other than Harry who gets to see Dumbledore at a weakness. Snape and Harry are the two people that Dumbledore trusts, to the extent that Dumbledore trusts anyone: the only two people who get to see him as a somewhat of a person rather than a god-like figure.
7. We understand best in Half-Blood Prince just how similar Voldemort and Harry are. Both come from unhappy childhoods. If anything, Harry's was worse than Voldemort's. Both see Hogwarts as their true home. But their essential natures are different. Harry may have a hot temper and act rashly at times, but he almost always seeks to do good. Also, Harry is simply not as intelligent as Voldemort. Even if he did lean toward the dark side, he probably couldn't have achieved Voldemort's level of evil. Harry is fortunate to have love in his life, something that Voldemort always lacked. Even though the Dursley's hate Harry, Harry knows that his parents, Sirius, Lupin, and the Weasleys love(d) him. No one loves Voldemort. Perhaps if someone had truly cared about him, he might have turned out differently.