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harry potter and the half-blood prince

24 July 2005

It took me over a week to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but only a brief sitting to read its last 150 pages – a fact that may be just coincidence, but may point to what both irritates and attracts about the novel and the Harry Potter series overall.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens with a conversation between two government ministers, of the sort of endless bureaucratic chatter that characterizes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000). Not a good sign. Half-Blood Prince continues with a chapter where we discover that a character we've always thought was bad, though he always turned out to be good in the long run, is really, after all, bad. That's about the last twist that J.K. Rowling can wring on on that theme, because after one more swing back to the good, everybody will stop caring.

There follow about 500 pages of exposition (to be charitable) or just padding and vamping (to be realistic). The central plot of Half-Blood Prince involves a mystery. There are certain objects that Harry Potter must find (not to spoil the plot too much). When Harry starts to look for said objects in earnest, on about page 500 or so, the action moves quickly and the suspense is considerable, the more so because everyone on the planet who cares has already heard that a favorite character may buy the farm in the pursuit of these little tchotchkes.

But here's a hint for mystery writers: if you have a reasonably exciting mystery, that's OK; if you take 500 pages to reveal to your audience what the mystery is, you may lose some of them.

Meanwhile, as we wait and wait to find out what the book is even going to be about, we are treated to the anxiety over homework, the emotionless teen love interests, the pointless Quidditch, the dull sneaking around dormitories and being given detention and having ten points taken away from Gryffindor that seems to have gone on for about 3,000 pages because in fact it has.

I like Harry Potter a lot; I've read all the books, some of them twice, and have stuck with the series long after my now-teenage son has moved on to The Great Gatsby and Gabriel García Màrquez. But I'm glad that there's only one more in the offing, and that one is odd-numbered. Reversing the notorious pattern of the Star Trek movie franchise, Rowling's Harry Potter books are becoming predictable: odd numbers are good, even ones weak. Sorcerer's Stone was an intriguing development of a new, if pastiched, fantasy world; Chamber of Secrets was the same story again. Prisoner of Azkaban deepened and darkened the Rowling world; Goblet of Fire was a brutally talky thing to sit through. Order of the Phoenix, though it will win no originality prizes, at least kept the action going; Half-Blood Prince puts it decidedly on pause. We have something to look forward to in #7.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005.