Harry Potter Gets Old [Updated]
Scroll down for more specific but non-spoiler statements.
The book opens with an invocation of the terrorized Muggle and Wizard communities. The first episode is narrated from the perspective of the Muggle PM, who is despondant at being blamed for a number of horrific accidents and murders. When the (ex) Minister of Magic Fudge shows up to blame Voldemort for the tragedies, we learn how the governments have communicated over the years. In true Rowling-fashion, this is presented as no cause for alarm. We then learn that the new Minister of Magic is issuing security notices that offer no real help and serve only to alarm the public. Throughout the book, Harry declines to get involved with the Ministry's efforts because he thinks of them as politically motivated and overly harsh.
It's almost impossible to read these sections without thinking of the American and English positions on the War on Terror, and I wouldn't be surprised if the top-secret committee on Harry Potter hadn't rethought--at least for a moment or two--releasing the book on schedule, given the recent attacks on London. Given the book's somewhat platitudinous take on political responses to terrorism, however, and given the represented PM's decency (and implied ineffectualness), the top-secret committee on Harry Potter made the right call. I'll still be curious to read the reviewers' spin on the rather lightweight political stuff.
As far as plot goes, this installment is the classic instance of a long, slow set-up. We learn a great deal about the early history of Tom Riddle (aka Voldemort), we learn a bit about what will be necessary to defeat him once and for all, and Harry defines the purposes of his adulthood, in classic English fashion, by acquiring the Harry Potter-world equivalents of land, a bride, and a revenge-quest.
[UPDATE 1: NYT reviewer Michiko Kakutani is of a different opinion.
the sixth volume of the series, the darkest and most unsettling installment yet. [...] There are a host of other unsettling developments in this novel [...] The early and middle sections of this novel meld the ordinary and the fantastic in the playful fashion Ms. Rowling has patented in her previous books, capturing adolescent angst about boy-girl and student-teacher relations with perfect pitch. [...] As the story proceeds, however, it grows progressively more somber, eventually becoming positively Miltonian in its darkness.
Still, I suspect most of this review of being colored by the emotions expressed in an earlier sentence:
And the terrible things that Ms. Rowling describes as being abroad in the green and pleasant land of England read like a grim echo of events in our own post-9/11, post-7/7 world and an uncanny reminder that the Hogwarts Express, which Harry and his friends all take to school, leaves from King's Cross station - the very station where the suspected London bombers gathered minutes before the explosions that rocked the city nine days ago.And I also sense that Kakatani is giving belated praise to a series that has come to define an era's readership. But it reminds me that I mustn't be too harsh on a single volume in a series that has given me great pleasure.]
Spoilers below the fold.
Sirius Black, killed at the end of the last book, has left his estate to godson Harry, but as Harry is not a Pureblood, the house won't let him in. This bit of news is communicated entirely in exposition, so we don't get a single scene at the old Black estate. The Black house-elf Kreacher, however, now serves Harry, making for an entirely unreasonable tag-team with the freed-elf Dobby. They serve to plug a minor plot-hole. Very minor.
No, almost all of this book takes place inside Hogwart's. Outside, everyone is terrified; inside, everyone is studying for their NEWTS and falling in love.
There are a few exceptions to the falling-in-love rule, but the under-fifty set, the rag-tag Aurors that seemed "interesting" from the Order of the Phoenix, also end up falling in love. Hagrid's previous romance with a fellow half-giant, Madame something-or-other, is left unmentioned. (I for one would like to see a romance for one of my favorite characters, Professor McGonagall, if we're going to be doling out romances right and left all of a sudden.)
The adolescent romances are almost painful to read. There are a few true-enough moments: avoiding or being unnecessarily mean to the desired person, petty vengeances, inability to speak honestly, etc., but since the characters involved are so beloved, Rowling can't really make them behave badly. The psychology remains on a surface-level--but, Lord, it goes on forever. More than anything, this volume falls into the courtship novel genre, and I can't say it's an enjoyable example of the species. It becomes clear 1/3 of the way through who is attracted to whom, and since the feelings seem already mutual, the impediments are contrived.
And, I'm sorry, but Ron is just lame. Conceived as a foil to Harry, he has just never managed to develop an attractive personality of his own. He is not as flamboyant as his twin brothers, not as heroic and interesting as Harry, not as smart as Hermione. He is a mass of quotidian neuroses in a magical world. He shouldn't be a love-object for Hermione, even if she is devolving over the course of the series into a reference library indexed by an overdeveloped super-ego.
The ostensible plot surrounds the following relationships:
--between Harry and Dumbledore: Dumbledore gradually takes Harry into his confidence, finally asking Harry to watch his back during a raid on one of Voldemort's soul-containers. This relationship escalates way too rapidly from mentoring to partnering. Maybe too much was going on to write in an additional episode for Harry's special Jedi training. As Obi-Wan before him, of course, Dumbledore must die.
--between Dumbledore and Tom Riddle: In a episodic series of flashbacks enabled by the now cliched Pensieve device, we learn that Dumbledore had had reason to be suspicious of the young Tom but had hoped to rehabilitate him. We see Dumbledore biding his time as Tom bamboozles Hogwarts with his smarts and good looks. (Oh, and we get a useful foil in the person of Horace Slughorn, former and now current Professor of Potions, specializing in academic favoritism, so that we can understand how networking can promote vicious characters with profitable futures ahead of them.)
--between Harry and "the Half-Blood Prince": this latter is the annotator of a textbook that enables Harry to finally cheat his way into success at Potions. Gradually, as the plot sees fit, Harry discovers Dark spells among the helpful Potions hints, giving Hermione more justification to think that Harry ought not use cheat-sheets. As usual in the Rowling universe, condemnation of cheating remains qualified: Hermione is a self-righteous genius willing to work twice as hard as the slacker-heroes whom she is unaccountably willing to save from their laziness. Everyone at Hogwart's besides her cheats; it must be that old public school spirit.
--between Harry and Snape, redux. Once again, Harry has reason to be convinced that Snape is in league with the Death-Eaters. A little narrative-perspective cheating gives this particular suspicion--after all of the damned times Potter has been suspicious and proved to have been an arrogant git--a little more credence. After all, Snape has finally been given the coveted position teaching Defense against the Dark Arts: something had to give. Still, Harry is running around trying to convince people that Snape is a traitor, to which they all answer, Dumbledore believes in him, so shut up.
The main plot resolves into the identity of the ominous "Half-Blood Prince" and Snape, who turns out to be, what do you know, a traitor and a murderer. The treatment of Snape is perhaps the most ambiguous moral message I've ever seen delivered in children's literature. Redemption is possible--or not. When people are mean to you doesn't mean they're evil--or not. You may not like someone, but you should try to be nice to them--or not. Snape's betrayal is particularly weird coming on the coattails of the last Potter book, which made a deliberate, psychological attempt to rehabilitate him into a character who could resent Harry, our Hero, for good reasons while not being evil. Maybe HP and the Order of the Phoenix departed from the outline, maybe the outline was flawed from the get-go, or maybe I like Alan Rickman.
Kieran Healy suggests that the last installment was driven almost entirely by Harry's stubbornness. The charge is rather more fairly levelled against this book than against the latter, which did spend rather more time--perhaps too much--in explaining characters' motives. Harry sees no reason to bring "The Half-Blood Prince" textbook to Dumbledore's attention, despite the moral of all the previous books and the added opportunity of regular private lessons with the headmaster. No, Harry prefers to cheat, and the book can never really bring itself to punish him properly for this preference because the plot-line depends on it.
So, the upshot is that our three heroes--and maybe the besotted Ginny, although I suspect she's about to become a prize instead of a character--are off to seek and destroy the Horcruxes that will enable them to kill Voldemort. Dumbledore is dead, Snape is after all a traitor, everyone is partnered off, our heroes have made a pact not to return to Hogwart's (after the Wesley-twins' departure, I'm astonished that anyone returned), and the Bildung is ready for a quest.
If there's only one volume left, this quest will be truncated indeed. I know that Rowling contracted with Scholastic for a seven-volume series, but there are four Horcruxes extant, one of which is in Voldemort's current body. Maybe that's one more volume. We'll see.
[UPDATE 2: As the always perspicuous yet generous reader Jenny D points out in comments, the jury could still be out on Snape's moral character and Dumbledore's judgment. A very knowledgeable set of commentors at Alas, A Blog predict the moral showdown of volume seven, tending to substantiate Jenny's interpretation of Snape as perhaps the most important secondary character in the series. The commentors also take, as Kakutani does, the long view of the series, which is perhaps more fair than my above comments do. Let's just put it this way: when all the books of the series are published, I doubt that volume six will be the one I compulsively reread.]