J.K. Rowling has kept her promise --- that each of Harry Potter's years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry will be darker and more difficult than the one before. This sixth installment is the darkest and most complex of the books yet. But just in case you have any doubt, Harry is proving well up to the tasks at hand --- and his magical world seems more vivid and real than ever.
Harry's sixth year at Hogwarts is off to a rocky if exciting start. The Wizarding world is at war after the violent showdown at the end of Book Five that saw the death, injury or arrest of several key characters --- and the clear return of evil Lord Voldemort/ He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Mysterious murders and magically triggered disasters continue, and there has been a mass breakout from Azkaban, the wizard community's prison. Even Muggles are starting to notice, including the Prime Minister. Families of students heading back to school on the Hogwarts Express are on high alert, but reassured that new security measures are in place along with a tough new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour.
Meanwhile, Harry has received an unusual summer visit from Hogwarts headmaster Professor Dumbledore during which the trusted mentor explains just how different Harry's upcoming school year will be. Among other things, it will include private study sessions with Dumbledore where the elder wizard will shed more light on the prophecy about Harry laid out in Book Five and help Harry discover --- through memories viewed via Dumbledore's magical Pensieve ---Lord Voldemort's heritage and just what makes him tick, including the dark magic that has rendered him seemingly immortal.
Now 16, Harry and his pals Ron and Hermione have received their O.W.L. exam results and must buckle down in their studies to focus on the more specialized N.E.W.T. level. As in years past, there is a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher; this time a most surprising candidate fills the post. All this means piles of homework and ever-more-challenging classroom projects. It's a good thing that Harry has discovered a used potions textbook filled with helpful --- and sometimes dangerous --- spells and hints scribbled in the margins. The book says it was once property of the Half-Blood Prince, a mystery that Harry and company are determined to solve. And sneering bully Draco Malfoy continues to be an annoyance and more as he sorts out where his own loyalties lie and tries to master more complicated magic.
The little free time Harry has is spent captaining the Gryffindor Quidditch team, and readers who love the high-flying action of the game won't be disappointed. Social lives are not completely put on hold either, as Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny Weasley are among those contemplating their fluttery romantic feelings (sometimes for each other). And Fred and George Weasley's joke shop is doing booming business, which accounts for some of the good bits of humor throughout.
As spring arrives and the end of the school year nears, Harry accompanies Dumbledore on a secret and perilous mission that at its heart contains a key to Voldemort's undoing. The two brave wizards could not know, however, that their actions would help trigger a high stakes battle back at Hogwarts pitting Death Eaters (Voldemort's henchmen) and yes, vicious traitors to Hogwarts, against the good guys. When the blood and the Dark Mark in the sky are cleared, not everyone survives.
When it comes to the clever weaving of plot threads all the way back to the sorcerer's stone and Chamber of Secrets, Rowling is at the top of her game. She keeps a broad roster of familiar faces in the fore and reminds us of past characters and events and how they play perfectly into her ultimate plan for Harry. She also writes in a slightly more sophisticated style than the earlier books, with a richer emotional tone that matches Harry's developing maturity.
Away from all the action of his latest story, Harry is indeed growing into a young man. He is still grieving over losses experienced during his fifth year but knows he must move on. He's learning to be more comfortable in his own skin, even if it means accepting being “The Chosen One” singled out by Voldemort and a subject of constant scrutiny and curiosity to classmates, teachers and the public at large. It's the kind of stuff that makes a guy really appreciate who his true friends are, and Harry has some gems in Ron and Hermione.
By the end of HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, Harry emerges as a calmer, more psychologically deep teenager who seems to have lived lifetimes far beyond his 16 years. He is now fully confident about his life's calling --- to defeat Voldemort at any cost --- and has developed a steely resolve, bolstered by great emotional pain, to carry it out. Whatever the wait for a final battle-to-the-death in Book Seven, it will be too long.
--- Reviewed by Shannon Maughan
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