Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (review)

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince (London: Bloomsbury, 2005). 7/10

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I’d hotly anticipated this latest in the Harry Potter series. Even though Rowling is a poor prose stylist, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban showed that, possibly with the aid of a good editor, she can be a great storyteller. As the series has unfolded over the past several years, I’ve become attached to Harry and his friends, and was curious to see what happened to them in their sixth year at Hogwarts.

By now, Rowling seems to understand that some parts of the Harry Potter formula are, to put it mildly, boring. So in Half-blood Prince, there’s barely a chapter spent at the Dursley’s before Harry leaves on a mission with Dumbledore, and, as in Order of the Phoenix, Rowling usually thinks of ways to keep Harry away from the Quidditch pitch so we aren’t burdened with dull match-descriptions.

Although she’s now a better judge of what readers are likely to find interesting, the longer format that we saw introduced in Goblet of Fire has not been good for Rowling’s pacing. For most of its 605 pages, Half-blood Prince meanders aimlessly through the school year. A lot of the activity is, granted, merely a backdrop to a series of trips Harry and Dumbledore make into other people’s memories of Voldemort’s past. which are one of the book’s highlights. The subplots that surround these revelations, though, are uninspired: a few underdeveloped romances, Harry’s obsession with what Draco is doing (which turns out not to have been unfounded), and the mystery of the Half-blood Prince’s identity. Though there is, fortunately, scant mention of the power of love, what little there is reminds one of just how trite the justification for Harry’s ability to defeat Voldemort is:

‘So, when the prophecy says that I’ll have “power the Dark Lord knows not”, it just means — love?’ asked Harry, feeling a little let down.

‘Yes — just love,’ said Dumbledore.

It’s disappointing that here, Rowling seems to indicate that she knows just how unsatisfactory it is to rely on the power of love, but fails to come up with another way that good can triumph over evil. Here’s a tip, J. K.: good triumphs only when it’s fought for by badass motherfuckers with their hearts in the right place. You’ll never win by being soft, but rather by being aggressive and ruthless. The difference, I’m afraid, is in the ends rather than the means. Though the good tend to have lines they won’t cross, for the most part when evil fights dirty, the good must be similarly cunning, and ready to lay aside their scruples where necessary.

The culmination of Half-blood Prince is, as always in the Harry Potter books, action-packed and compelling. It is, however, far too short, only around 100 pages in length. Given that so much of the book is aimless, it’s a shame that Rowling devoted so little space to it’s most important and exciting parts. She does, however, deserve credit for some of the decisions she made about the book’s ending.

Discussion including spoilers follows…

The big surprise at the end of Half-blood Prince is that Dumbledore dies. Though it was Malfoy’s mission to kill him, it is Snape, bound by the Unbreakable Vow, who delivers the Killing Curse. While I was fully expecting Dumbledore to die at some point, I had not expected that it would be before the next, final, volume of the series. By getting Dumbledore out of the way now, though, Rowling has ensured that Harry will face Voldemort alone for the entire last book. Given that Harry’s hero-status is undermined by having had others come to his aid every time he has had to face Voldemort in the past, killing Dumbledore off is a good decision, from a storytelling perspective. When Harry’s victory finally and inevitably comes, the sense of triumph over adversity will be much greater now that Harry cannot hide behind Dumbledore’s immense magical power.

Less satisfying is the treatment of teenage romance this time around. With Ron and Hermione bickering at every turn as a result of unresolved sexual tension, Ron hooks up with Lavender Brown, who is transparently infatuated with him. Lavender is, however, a jealous girlfriend and a poor substitute for Hermione, and after the Christmas break, Ron tries to avoid her. Her depiction of the difficulty of breaking up from a first relationship, and the ineptitude with which a boy is likely to do it, is the high-point of Rowling’s dealings with romance. As with Harry and Cho’s lack of enthusiasm for their relationship in Order of the Phoenix, Rowling seems to be at her most comfortable describing relationships that people no longer really want to be in.

She’s much less adept at writing about happy relationships. Once Ron and Lavender have broken up, Hermione and Ron are both happier, but until Dumbledore’s funeral, we don’t see them displaying any physical affection for each other. Harry, too, begins a new relationship, suddenly and unconvincingly finding himself obsessed with Ginny, whom he kisses unexpectedly when Gryffindor again wins the Quidditch cup. The spur-of-the-moment nature of their coming together is believable, if perhaps a little too much good luck for Harry (better luck than I have ever had, anyway). Harry’s decision to break up with Ginny at the end of Half-blood Prince, however, is disappointing. It’s noble and believable for him to cut himself off from her so that Voldemort won’t be any more tempted to use her against him than he was in Chamber of Secrets, when she was merely his best friend’s sister. But it seems like the break-up is really intended to get Rowling out of the duty of writing about their relationship. One can’t blame her if she’s no good at it, but I suspect she may have other reasons.

Rowling is extremely coy about teenage sexuality. Ron and Lavender do, for the duration of their relationship, seem to be kissing constantly. But at a co-ed boarding school, I’d expect the senior students (especially the more popular ones) not to leave it there. They should be fucking with rodent-like frequency and gusto. Harry’s attraction to Ginny, too, is unbelievably non-sexual. He’s frequently distracted by her “flowery scent” (which sounds euphemistic when I write it here, but isn’t intended to be), but the way his feelings for her are described is otherwise very nebulous. She occupies his dreams, he thinks things about her that he feels he shouldn’t, but where are the descriptions of how he feels his body just aches for naked girl-flesh? Obviously, Rowling has never been a teenage boy, but she really ought to be a bit more savvy about teenage male sexuality.

The trouble is, I suspect, that Anglo-American society’s understandable concern with paedophilia, especially violent sexual abuse of children leading to kidnap and murder of them, has bled into an equal abhorrence of adult sexual attraction to and activity with post-pubescent teenagers. Although, as Wikipedia states, “attraction to adolescents is not commonly regarded by psychologists as inherently pathological,” public and judicial opinion drives a rampant persecution of adults who are attracted to teenargers.

Because of this, depictions of teenage sexuality have become a sensitive issue and a cause for suspicion. Rowling and her publishers would be aware of, and I’m sure have had discussions about, the controversy she would stir up if Harry and Ginny (or Ron and Lavender) were fucking each other, and I suspect that it’s a wish to avoid controversy that makes her steer clear of what really should be happening. It’s a great shame, because Rowling has a lot to contribute to childrens’ and teenagers’ culture. Millions of people read her books, and she shows a remarkable sensitivity to the feelings of children who are oppressed by adults in positions of authority. She could, if she dared, give her readers a sensitive and frank treatment of adolescent sexuality, which is something that they desperately need. Sex is an issue for 16- and 17-year-olds (and for younger teenagers besides). It ought to be a feature of books about them and for them, if the subject matter warrants it. Rowling ventured into the world of romance, and she is, I believe, under an obligation to treat it honestly. She has failed in that duty.

Despite its myriad failings, Half-blood Prince is yet another readable and enjoyable book from Rowling. Even though her range of sentence styles is limited, and she very often uses vague expressions that leave out potentially interesting details, she deserves credit for creating characters and a setting that can draw readers back for this sixth volume despite lacklustre writing. Reading ought to be a pleasure, and the commercial success of authors like Rowling and Dan Brown who care to make their books exciting and accessible is a well-deserved slap in the face for writers of “serious” or experimental prose whose boring work is foisted upon students by so many high-school and university literature teachers.

Long live Harry Potter!

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.