Title: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6)
Author: J.K. Rowling
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Age Category: 14 to 19 years +
I plan to review the seventh and last of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)—before the release of the seventh Harry Potter movie in November, 2010. But, I can’t review the seventh book before I review the sixth, right? So, here’s my take on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6). While I will not divulge here any important plot twists or outcomes of this book, I will talk about the plot of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5), so if you are worried about spoiling that book, stop reading!
Harry Potter Books: Summary
In the previous installment of the Harry Potter books—Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)—Voldemort and his minions tried to steal a prophecy (i.e., a crystal ball that preserves prophetic words previously spoken) about Harry and the Dark Lord, to help them in their wicked bid for power over the wizarding world. With help from members of the Order of the Phoenix—a secret society formed to counter Voldemort’s forces—Harry and his friends foiled the plot in dramatic “shoot-em-up” style. (For my review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, click here.)
As a result of the botched attempt to obtain the prophecy, Voldemort’s bid for power has become public knowledge, and the (unconfirmed but true) rumor on the street is that Harry Potter is “The Chosen One,” i.e., “the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord.” This is where the story of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) picks up.
A further result of the botched attempt is that Voldemort is furious with the Death-Eater-captain of the failed operation, Lucius Malfoy, father of Harry’s arch-rival at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Draco Malfoy. Since Lucius has been imprisoned, Voldemort uses the son to get back at the father, giving Draco a mysterious and dangerous mission while back at Hogwarts. But what is his mission?
The effort of Harry and his friends to unravel Draco’s plan constitutes a major subplot of the book. Harry is given an old magic textbook filled with notes, hand-written by its former owner, “The Half-Blood Prince.” The textbook helps Harry and his mates navigate their year at Hogwarts. But who is the Half-Blood Prince? This question also drives the plot forward.
The other central plot line of this sixth of the Harry Potter books involves private lessons Harry receives from Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, and Dumbledore’s periodic secret excursions from the school. Where is Dumbledore going? What is he doing? Why is his hand so badly burned? And what does the Half-Blood Prince have to do with any of it? The climax of this book yields the sharpest and most shocking plot-twist of the all the Harry Potter books: not to be missed!
Subjective Appeal: Action-Packed Story, Teenage Romance
In my view, the central subjective appeal of the sixth of the Harry Potter books is its storyline. Everything about the story is complex, inviting the reader to study its depths. First, its characters are manifold and psychologically realistic; Rowling even probes the twisted psychology of Voldemort in this book. This thorough development of “the bad guy” is rare and interesting for a children’s book. Second, the book’s plot is bursting with subplots, each of which dovetails seamlessly with the overall plot of the book and the series as a whole. Rowling masterfully wraps in plot-lines from prior Harry Potter books and sets up the grand plot-line culminating in the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7). Finally, Rowling’s carefully crafted fantasy world of magic and creatures is compelling and vivid, as always.
One thing that sets this story apart from prior Harry Potter books is the place of intense action and drama. Although the uptick in these is perhaps only incremental from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5), it is clear that this sixth book is more intense than the earliest books (e.g., Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone (Book 1), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book 2), and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Book 3)). This is one reason I think the book is firmly in the “Young Adult Fiction” (13 to 19 years) category, and is not simply “Middle-grade Fiction” (9 to 12 years). The drama and action will particularly appeal to teens.
Just as the intense action and drama is suitable for teens, so the relational themes in this sixth of the Harry Potter books are mature in a way that will capture teenagers. Specifically, at age sixteen the characters in the book are now firmly entrenched in the world of romance and dating, and the relational tensions that entails. For example, the beginning of Ron’s fling with Lavender Brown is described thus: “There, in full view of the whole room, stood Ron wrapped so closely around Lavender Brown it was hard to tell whose hands were whose. ‘It looks like he’s eating her face, doesn’t it?’ said Ginny dispassionately. ‘But, I suppose he’s got to refine his technique somehow’” (p. 300). Rowling obviously brings a heavy dose of humor to her descriptions of teen romance, which will also appeal.
Developmental Value: Lessons in Romance, Ethics, and Religion
On the whole, I think Rowling deals tastefully and skillfully with the romantic theme: I don’t think there is anything parents of teens should worry about here. The particularly “kissy” sort of romance is portrayed as shallow and silly (as suggested by the quote above). When the romance is more compelling, it is far less physical and much more relational. This contrast in the portrayal of romantic interaction communicates a valuable lesson to teens about where the substance of romance lies, i.e., in relationships, not lips (though there’s nothing wrong with a little smoochy smoochy!). Moreover, the book is sexually chaste relative to the contemporary world of most teenagers; Rowling’s portrayal does not confront any fundamental questions of sexual ethics and does not portray anything beyond kissing. Nevertheless, the romantic themes are another reason I think the book is clearly Young Adult Fiction.
The insistent battle between good and evil also contributes to the developmental value of the book. As for the other Harry Potter books, the dominant moral lesson is clear: evil is to be confronted at all costs. One worry is that Harry commits a shockingly horrible act at one point in the book, casting a spell on Draco Malfoy that nearly kills him (p. 522-523). However, several things ameliorate his transgression. First, Harry is soundly punished (p. 528-529). Second, his misdeed was (mostly) in the service of his effort to foil Malfoy’s dark mission. Third, he had never previously used the spell he cast and thus did not know its effects (he read it from the Half-Blood Prince’s book). Thus, his intention was not to kill Malfoy, evidenced by his own shock and cry of “No!” immediately upon seeing the effect of the spell. Moreover, it is important for children to see moral failings in protagonists: teens can better identify with morally flawed characters, and can thereby learn from their negative example.
Finally, for teens that are religiously oriented, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) continues to develop Rowling’s Christian allegory (see “Harry Potter: Christian Allegory or Occultist Children’s Books? (Part 2)” for my more complete view of this topic). For example, toward the end of chapter 23 (“Horcruxes”), Harry and Dumbledore have a conversation with deep theological overtones. Dumbledore tells Harry that Harry’s power to defeat Voldemort consists in his ability to love, and notes that Harry’s privileged knowledge of Voldemort’s wicked activity (through visions) has come without the desire to join in. Finally, Dumbledore denies that Harry is compelled to confront Voldemort, emphasizing rather Harry’s free and noble choice to do so. Here, then, Harry is a type of the biblical Christ—freely and sacrificially choosing to confront evil in an ultimate way, remaining pure in heart despite his intimate encounter with evil, and being motivated and empowered by love. Profound theological teaching is available here for those who are interested; however, the episode slips harmlessly under the radar for those who are not.
In short, I highly recommend Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) for teens aged 14 to 19 years. Rowling’s compelling storyline, characters, and themes continue to entertain, even while her book teaches important moral, theological, and relational lessons. Thus, I encourage you to find this sixth of the Harry Potter books in your local library, or to support my work by purchasing the book through the links in this post, or in the Children’s Books and Reviews Online Bookstore.
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