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Sunday, July 17, 2005

"Dirty Harry" Potter: Half-Blood Prince a brutal read

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the least "Potter"-y book of the series. Almost 24 hours after finishing reading it I feel... depressed, but not let down. This was NOT what I was anticipating at all. And you know why that is? It's because of something that hit me as we left Border's bookstore late Friday night...

The next Harry Potter book is probably two or three years away from now. By then, I might very well be a father myself. This is the last fictional series that I picked up during what, I guess you could say has been the extended drama of my youth (though a lot of people tell me that I'm the kind of guy who'll never, ever really completely grow up :-)

I read the first Harry Potter book in the summer of 2000 during a particularly rough period in my life. It's what I was reading when I first started talking to a girl named Lisa that I'd met over a Christian website. Harry Potter kept me going and Lisa kept me going, through some turmoil and turbulence. I read the next two books in the series, and then the fourth (ironically Goblet of Fire was the first Potter book I ever bought, while it was still hot in hardback). A year and a half after reading Sorcerer's Stone we saw its movie on opening day. A few days after that I was asking Lisa to marry me. We've seen every Harry Potter movie the day they premiered and I've done two midnight rollouts of new books since we've been married. This is something that wound up intertwined in our lives, ya see. And the next time that I buy a chapter of this epic, my life probably won't be anywhere near the same as it has been.

And I guess that by now I had taken it for granted that Half-Blood Prince was going to follow the standard Harry Potter formula: cruddy summer with the Dursleys, hooking up with Ron and Hermione, leaving for Hogwarts, meeting the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, surviving Hagrid's critters, staying out of Snape's way, stumbling onto weird stuff that later turns out to be a plot by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, solving the mystery like the Scooby-Doo gang and then heading home for another cruddy summer with the Dursleys, end of book, bring on the next one. That's what I thought was coming. That's what I wanted to be coming. Guess that at this point I've gotten too comfortable, like I know what I should be expecting from the Harry Potter series.

And then J.K. Rowling goes and totally messes it all up. This could have been the last time I got to really enjoy a Harry Potter book in the final years before taking that step to father a generation of my own. This could have been a pleasure of a read. It could have been a safely comfortable thing to enjoy. Rowling took it and made the last 70 pages or so a tortured nightmare that I keep telling myself "No, she didn't really do that... did she?" It literally woke me up several times last night. No other book ever left me feeling this unsettled.

And that's why I think, in the end, that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is by far the most powerful – and the most realistic - novel of its kind that I've ever known.

I think the signs come pretty early on that this time Rowling is going to do things different in this stage of Potter's tale. I won't share what those are but there are a few... subtle clues... that suggest something bad on the horizon. Bad things do happen here: there is stuff in Half-Blood Prince that makes Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith seem lukewarm in comparison. Just like Episode III those things don't happen immediately: they come slowly, after the tantalizing promise that things just might turn out great after all. And then... WHAM!!

And when they come, Rowling doesn't let up. She went all-out here to make this the most painful Harry Potter book to date. There are things that happen in this book that would easily make it the cruelest children's book of all time. It's a mean, unrelentingly brutal read that, I think it will shake up a lot of adults who have followed the series thus far. It sure as heck shook me up.

Rowling doesn't play it safe. Life doesn't play it safe either. There's no guarantee that you and your best friends are going to be able to wake up a week or a month or a year from now and congratulate yourselves on outwitting the bad guys while coming out unscathed. The things that you thought you could expect all too often turn out to be the most bitter of disappointments. The people you thought you could count on... they can become the worst of traitors. You never see it coming. Those things happen more times than you can readily count in Half-Blood Prince, just as you never see them coming in real life either.

And in the end, there's no promise of comfort. There's just the unknown journey ahead, and all you can do is suck it in and plow forward and pray for the best, despite the worst. That's all Harry can do. And isn't that all that any of us can do, if we really want to live the life given us?

But anyway, about the book...

The opening chapter has the Prime Minister of Great Britain (I'm assuming it's supposed to be John Major, since per previous books this one can be calculated to begin in the summer of 1996) receiving a visit from Cornelius Fudge: the just recently-sacked former Minister of Magic, who is staying with the Ministry in an advisory capacity. Mysterious disasters and unexplainable deaths have started happening all over the countryside, beleaguering the Prime Minister. Fudge explains that they all relate to the war in the wizarding world, which has gotten so bad it's started spilling over into the Muggle (non-magical folk) realm. The new Minister of Magic is introduced, the following chapter takes us down an ominous street called Spinner's End, and it's not until Chapter 3 that we get our first glimpse of Harry Potter. Barely two weeks after the events of Order of the Phoenix, he gets escorted by none other than Dumbledore himself away from the Dursleys and back into pursuit of "that flighty temptress, adventure."

But first, there are some matters to take care of: Harry’s inheritance of everything that Sirius Black possessed being one. Another is the rehiring of Horace Slughorn: a retired professor known for "having favorites" among the Hogwarts students. With those affairs in order Harry returns to the Burrow, home of the Weasleys and his best friend Ron. The rest of the summer is spent dwelling on recent events in between visits to Diagon Alley for a little bit of school supply shopping. And visiting Fred and George's new practical joke store. And keeping a wary eye on Draco Malfoy, who Potter suspects from early on of being in cahoots with Voldemort.

Then the Hogwarts Express takes the story back to Hogwarts School. As conventionally happens in a Harry Potter story. And that’s just about the last conventional thing that happens in this book.

Among the chief sub-plots of Half-Blood Prince is Harry's quest (under guidance from Dumbledore) for Tom Riddle's origins, before he became the Dark Lord Voldemort. We find out about Riddle's parents, his time at Hogwarts, and his obsession with something called a "Horcrux". Harry divides his time between these private "classes" with Dumbledore and his regular schedule, which includes Defense Against the Dark Arts. Once again, Rowling has a new teacher for this particular class. Who is it? Ahhh, that would be telling. Suffice it to say it's something that a lot of Potter fans would have never seen coming (and you can probably deduce what I mean by that already). There is also the matter of the Potions book that Harry uses during this term: one filled with countless bits of helpful advice scribbled within its margins by someone known only as "the Half-Blood Prince". Naturally, who the Half-Blood Prince is becomes another part of the arc. Albeit, the conclusion of which I can see how it was all laid out in plain sight, but would have never guessed it would end as it did.

I've never been a big follower of "relationships" stories or subplots, so the tangled web of infatuations between Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and the rest didn't intrigue me all that much. However the state of things toward the end of the book, I think it was quite satisfying. Harry and his gang are definitely not mere hormone-mad teenagers by the end of this part of the saga: they are taking to their roles as young men and women with a lot of maturity, and I think it's safe to say that by the end of the book we know exactly how the relationships are going to play out by the end of Book 7 (assuming that everyone lives long enough to graduate from Hogwarts... if graduation is even an option anymore).

For the first half of the book, it could be considered life as usual during a normal year at Hogwarts.

And then, things start going... bad.

Very bad.

As in, if it can possibly go bad, it does go bad.

And then it gets a whole lot worse.

Starting around Chapter 25, things go downhill in the worst possible way and they don't let up. The little "id" monster deep inside me wants to scream aloud what happens, trying to exorcise the anguish that literally came in reading those last few chapters of the book but... I've resolved to not spill the beans here. But after reading some of the Harry Potter forums I can rest assured that I'm not the only one going through this. Dear Lord, I hope J.K. Rowling doesn't have a public e-mail address or phone number, because this is the kind of thing that caused R.A. Salvatore to get death threats after he killed off Chewbacca in one of the Star Wars books. It's something that is almost definitely going to outrage just about everyone who's faithfully kept up with the series. It'll positively rattle you to the core. You NEVER see this coming, not really. Even when you think you do, you keep telling yourself "No, she won't go that far." But she did.

And by the end of the novel we realize with a great deal of sad clarity that the Harry Potter who came to us as a wondrous-eyed eleven year old is gone forever. In his place is someone more like "Dirty" Harry Callahan, or Bruce Wayne, or Roland from Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Harry has become a far more grim and angst-ridden young man, forced to grow up into an adult in a world that would never make sense even if it were bereft of all magic. You can almost see the murderous look in his spectacled eye as he sets out to do what must be done. Imagine Charles Bronson with a magic wand... and that is what Harry Potter has become.

Rowling has apparently said that Half-Blood Prince is one-half of a single novel, with the second half coming later in book #7. With that in mind I think that Half-Blood Prince feels a lot like The Matrix Reloaded in that it supposedly will lead directly into the final volume of the Harry Potter series. This is the first time that any Harry Potter book has ended on what could be called a cliffhanger. It has much of the same tone as The Empire Strikes Back did when it ended. It answers many questions but it introduces seemingly just as many other mysteries, including the one that Harry Potter fans will no doubt be debating endlessly for the next few years: Who - or what - is "R.A.B."?

For the past five books we've watched J.K. Rowling pull doves out of her hat. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince she pulls out a crocodile.

And that's about all I can say about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince before the lesser angels of my nature start blabbing about more than I care to share with those who are still blissfully un-spoiled and unaware of what it is that transpires within the pages of this tome. But I will say that this is by far one of the richest – and the most thought-provoking – fantasy novels that I have ever read. And definitely the best Harry Potter book to date.

9.5 stars out of 10 (and I ONLY gave it less than a perfect score because Half-Blood Prince had hardly any appearances by my favorite character, Mad-Eye Moody :-).


Anonymous said...

Wow! Good review Chris!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I, well, can't agree I guess. I did enjoy the book. It was affecting, and not gratuitous. But there was a lot of exposition, and not much suspense. Suspense has been the lifeblood of the series, so this one was a bit of a letdown that way. Sure, I can see it was necessary setup for Book 7. But that doesn't make it great on its own. Ranking the books so far in order, I'd put 'em this way:

1. Order of the Phoenix
2. Prisoner of Azkaban
T-3. Order of the Phoenix/Sorceror's Stone
5. Half-Blood Prince
6. Chamber of Secrets

Chris Knight said...

It sorta stands on its own, just like all the other books have. Prisoner of Azkaban had a MUCH different tone to it than Sorceror's Stone. I found myself re-reading the first one this morning just to make myself believe that, yes, this WAS the same book series of which Half-Blood Prince is the most recent installment.

I felt Half-Blood Prince as being something like a story about London during the Blitz in World War II: it had to focus on Harry's situations at Hogwarts, while at the same time giving us the broader picture that a real war was going on all around him. I wanted *more* of that actually, thought that Rowling spent too much time on the Hogwarts scene and not more on outside events(I'm still wondering why exactly Stan Shupike is in jail). But for what it seemed to have been written to accomplish, Half-Blood Prince pulled off a stunning job.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a rather old blog entry, but I just had to add...

R.A. Salvatore killed off Chewie?! The BUM!

(As for this book, I didn't see it coming, either. I'm fervently hoping there was a "good reason" behind what happened, and not just a "hey, life sucks, deal with it" flavor. Because this is FICTION, consarnit, where some things are supposed to make sense... ':P)

Oh, and -- great blog!

Niya Speaks said...

So I decided to leave another comment because I find your blog to be very interesting. Though, as a born again Christian I must say that I am a bit taken aback by your choosing to read Harry Potter books. The Word of God says that we are not to have any fellowship with darkness and Harry Potter is total witchcraft. I think that you are very insightful and articulate, however you are not immune to the attack of Satan by the things you watch, read or hear. So take heed, because your adversary goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.

Chris Knight said...

Dear Niya,
Are you going by what people have told you about the Harry Potter books, or have you actually *read* them for yourself?

The seventh and final book of the Harry Potter series was some of the most profound Christian allegory that I've read in any modern literature. When you read it you'll see that Rowling had been doing that the entire time.

I know some people who have been led to think about God in much more serious terms because of the Harry Potter books than they had before. That can't possibly be a bad thing.