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No half measures
J.K. Rowling’s Prince is full-blooded
Related Links


J.K. Rowling's official Web site

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Joyce Millman talks about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince before it's released.Joyce Millman reviews Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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They say the third time’s the charm, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth volume in J.K. Rowling’s coming-of-age saga of the Frodo/Jesus of the wizarding world, is the best since the third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Not that a middling performance by the ingenious Rowling would deter us millions of Muggles lining up at the witching hour at bookstores everywhere. None of the volumes has been an out-and-out disappointment; still, the first two were whimsical adventures and the fifth, the 870-page Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, despite a thrilling climax and the darkening of the fairy tale, felt bloated — marred by hyperbolic writing, too many mental trips down a mysterious hallway, and in Dolores Umbridge a villain whose simpering evil was relentless to the point of tedium. The new book’s plot, with its plunges into the past via decanted memory, is complex but not repetitive, and the villains (including the Big Kahuna who must not be named) are more nuanced. Not only are we not sure until the end who the Half-Blood Prince is, we also don’t know whether his good or his bad half will out.

Harry and his classmates at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are 16 as the tome — the first to open not at 4 Privet Drive but rather at 10 Downing Street — begins. As he’s announced by a silver-wigged magician in an oil painting on the wall, the Minister of Magic pops out of the fireplace to inform "the other Minister" of havoc in the wizarding world that’s spilled over into the mortal one, where the now open rampage of the resurrected Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters has been misinterpreted as everything from a freak hurricane to a bridge collapse.

Meanwhile, Harry and chums are packing up their wands, owls, and hormones to head back for a penultimate year at Hogwarts, where, adolescence having bloomed, love potions are as difficult to dodge as Quidditch bludgers. In a new development, ancient headmaster Albus Dumbledore, more deus ex machina than hovering humanitarian presence in book five, plans private tutorials with Harry whose purpose is to explore the formative years of Lord Voldemort (who otherwise makes no appearance in the novel) through Rowling’s answer to the flashback: the bottled and corked memories Dumbledore (unflappable as usual, though not supplied sufficient reason for one unshakable belief) pours into a swirling font of reminiscence called a pensieve.

Harry’s mysterious connection to Voldemort has been illumined by the prophecy revealed at the end of book five according to which Harry is "the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord" and "the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not." Now dubbed "the Chosen One," Harry will learn in Half-Blood Prince the nature of this painful power, which is the ability to love. As at the conclusion of the two previous two volumes, he will learn more than he wishes to of mortality. And he will learn that even the wise and the venerable can be dead wrong.

The Potter series has been compared to fantasy epics ranging from The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars (there’s no small number of borrowings from Tolkien in Half-Blood Prince, including Voldemort’s employment of Inferi, ambulatory dead, to pad out his troops). The comparisons are valid, and a swelling Miltonian echo also suggests Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. But what’s so original in Rowling, apart from the invention of an alternative world that interweaves Eton with the occult, is her combination of heroic quest with spot-on humor both wry and adolescent. Would Tolkien stoop to constipation jokes or to the roundelay of "snogging" that signifies the Hogwarts contingent is growing up (and leads Harry to an acute sense of his aloneness)? There is less wizard-world whimsy, even less bloody Quidditch, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but more soul.

Issue Date: July 29 - August 4, 2005
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