Fair warning before I get into this review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is my favorite book in the series. The earlier books spent so much time setting up a complex narrative, compelling characters, and (mostly thanks to book 5) a deep emotional reserve from which to draw, and Half-Blood Prince capitalizes on all of that. Further, while I’m all for thick books and long narratives, this book feels pointed and focused in a way that those around it tend not to. Order of the Phoenix gets a little too long for me, and even though I love almost all of Deathly Hallows, that too seems kind of overly stuffed. Anyway, you’ve been warned: I love this book a whole lot.
I’m really a sucker for love stories, so maybe I’m a little predisposed to dig Half-Blood Prince based on the Harry/Ginny stuff, but the blossoming relationship between our protagonist and the youngest Weasley actually really nicely shows the development of both Harry and this series. Previously, we’ve seen Harry with Cho Chang, but that relationship was very clearly the middle school type we’ve all experienced: worrying about holding hands or what the other person is thinking or feeling completely awkward around one another. I’m definitely not saying that awkwardness goes away or that it’s the only marker for the maturity range of Harry/Cho, but there is definitely a marked difference in the Harry/Ginny situation. Whereas Cho was a one-dimensional character to Harry (and, therefore, the reader), there’s a way in which Rowling is careful to show Harry recognizing Ginny’s complexity and personality as he grows to understand his feelings for her. This is not only neat to see because Ginny has been a majorly bad-ass, cool character for some time without really getting any recognition, but it also shows a progression in our main character, which makes sense since he’s actually getting older and becoming an adult.
Speaking of growing up and becoming more complex, Rowling does a really nice job in both capitalizing on the intricacies of Snape’s character (and loyalties) and setting up Malfoy to be a similarly enigmatic character. Up to this point, he’s been the cookie-cutter bad guy–mean and evil based on standard reasons (family upbringing, ignorant, friends, just plain bad, whatever) that give him the depth of a kiddie pool. However, Malfoy doesn’t feature as prominently in this book, and when he does appear, it’s almost like he has a range of emotions and the possibility to feel fear and remorse. That scene on the tower at the end of the novel, when Malfoy is struggling with the decision to kill (or not) Dumbledore is the kind of thing that is always so appealing and powerful–the heart in conflict with itself (I think Faulkner said that, but I can’t remember for sure and don’t have the will or internet speed to look it up without taking the next hour and a half). We get to see Draco as a person with a complex and humanistic interiority, and that’s really nice. Pair that with the bitter sweet questions we are left with concerning the loyalties of Severus Snape, and we have a few characters who are suddenly much more compelling than we’ve previously seen.
On a similar note, we also get a good dose of Tom Riddle backstory in this book which, for me, adds a layer of complexity to the narrative more than it does Voldemort’s character. Sure, we get to see Voldemort’s origins and relatives, but Rowling (and I might be wrong on this–correct me if so) never really tries to make the Dark Lord out to be anything but a bad, evil dude. Even as a kid, he’s despicable without too much light. He’s described as handsome in a cold way, smart in a dangerous way, and independent in a scary way. Maybe it’s the teleological effects of seeing where he ends up that colors this reading of young Tom, but it just really doesn’t seem like he’s ever portrayed as anything other than evil. There are moments when it seems like Rowling is trying to fight this impulse–things like eliding Tom and Harry’s fetishization with Hogwarts, but even then she is careful to put some distance between the two characters’ feelings/desires. That said, I think the backstory stuff works really well in this book; Rowling is able to give us some major informational dumps without it ever feeling that way. The pensieve as a narrative device is brilliant because we can get those history lessons in a narrative format without it feeling to forced or contrived. In a weird way, I think I enjoy the backstory we get through the pensieve more than any of the actual narrative arcs in the present of this book.
Of course, the crowning moment of the book is Dumbledore’s death, and on the one hand, I think it’s a really brilliant, brave move by Rowling. Dumbledore’s absence is felt by Harry and everyone else as being akin to the loss of a rudder or guiding force, and that’s absolutely true. Dumbledore’s character has been described since the beginning as the only one Voldemort feared, but we’re also always given the sense that Dumbledore is the guiding hand in all of this, that he’s playing the long game and is definitely going to win. His death, therefore, has to feel like a major blow, one that brings with it despair and terror. On the other hand, as we’ll see in the next book, Rowling’s move here isn’t the brave and adventurous one that it’s made out to be.