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Monday, May 5, 2014

Guest Review: Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (Reviewed by Achala Upendran)



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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Order Of The Phoenix

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Dark Lord is back. The Ministry has accepted the truth. And Harry Potter is being publicly hailed as the Chosen One. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens with the sense that things are finally moving in the wizarding world. The Muggle Prime Minister has been informed of the rise of Voldemort and the wizarding community is on edge, alert for any signs of Dark activity. But strangely enough, Voldemort seems to be making no direct moves.

Harry Potter, always at the heart of events, finds himself in a curious position at Hogwarts. Gone are the glimpses of the Dark Lord’s mind that he had been treated to all of last year. Along with his regular classes, he is being coached by Albus Dumbledore himself, given lessons that will lead, he fervently hopes, to uncovering the secret to destroying Voldemort.

In the mean time, Harry discovers an unexpected talent in a subject he had earlier betrayed little skill in: Potions. Staffing changes at Hogwarts have resulted in Professor Snape, the loathed Potions master, being shifted to the Defense Against the Dark Arts position. Professor Horace Slughorn, name-dropper and ‘people collector’, presides over the steaming cauldrons in the dungeons instead, and whether it’s his encouragement or a mysterious book Harry finds in the store cupboard, the Chosen One is suddenly doing a lot better with his brewing.

Of course, no year is ever purely fun and games (and academic achievement) at Hogwarts. Harry is certain that Draco Malfoy, his longtime schoolyard nemesis, is up to something sinister. True to form, no one else seems to believe him (despite his newly re-recognized hero status) and it’s up to Harry to get to the bottom of Malfoy’s mysterious behavior.

Half-Blood Prince is alternately chilling and comic. What I most enjoyed about it was the very ‘high school’ flavours that it had. Rowling spends a lot more time on the social dynamics and burgeoning love lives (and hormones) of her characters than she has in any of the previous books. If Harry was doing his ‘growing up’ in Order of the Phoenix, battling the onset of teenage surliness and angst, all his friends seem to join him in this book. Ron and Hermione step into the dating pool (sadly, not together) and Ginny blossoms into a very attractive young woman (in our hero’s eyes). Nor is all the growing up related only to romance. Draco Malfoy, for one, a figure we’ve only seen as a swaggering bully, seems to facing trials that rival those of Harry himself.


The parts of the book I found particularly chilling were related, mostly, to Voldemort. Though he doesn’t appear onscreen (directly), he exerts enough of a sense of menace to more than make up for it. Harry’s ‘lessons’ with Dumbledore reveal some very disturbing secrets about the Dark Lord’s past, and I must confess that, the first time I read the book, I was quite blown away by the revelations Rowling presents therein.

Given the aura of martial preparation and fear that hangs over the community at the start of the book however, very little seems to actually happen. Half Blood Prince seems a book more rooted in the past than in the very quickly darkening present; we are more invested in the Dark Lord’s history than in what he’s doing at the moment. I suppose a great deal of this has to do with the aforementioned fact: Voldemort does not appear directly on-screen. But it might have been exciting to see what exactly the Ministry is doing, actively, to deal with the menace he presents. Panicked people and reported disappearances are all very well, but this is a fantasy novel, not a cloak-and-dagger espionage affair.

I found it rather difficult to like Harry in this book. He was an emotional powerhouse in  the Order of the Phoenix, but his new position as Chosen One, popular boy and (not least) Gryffindor Quidditch Team Captain seemed to build a wall between us. He wasn’t so troubled anymore, which is great, really, on a personal level, but a little hard to take in a fantasy hero who is supposed to be a sort of everyman, someone even the most socially ostracized schoolkid can relate to. This is partly why, I think, Draco shone. No longer a boy completely assured of his place in school and the world at large, Draco seemed to take up the lost lamb burden that Harry had magnanimously chucked his way.

This is not to say, of course, that I love Harry any less. There are more than a few moments where his long-celebrated curiosity and thick-headedness tugged at my heart-strings. What I really love about him, as a character, is his ability to carry on believing what he thinks to be right, regardless of whether or not he is supported by his friends. After years of going through doubt and rejection on the part of his peers, it’s amazing that his self-worth and intuition haven’t been dented. Perhaps that’s what, really, is so heroic about him at the end of the day.

CONCLUSION: The Half-Blood Prince is, ultimately, a preparatory book. It’s a break from the emotional intensity that hung over Order of the Phoenix, it is a springboard to the ultimate challenge that awaits our hero in Book 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Let Harry enjoy his laurels (and his romances) while he can. It’s only going to get darker for him further on.

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GUEST REVIEWER INFO: Achala Upendran is a freelance editor and writer based in India. She blogs about fantasy literature, with a special focus on the Harry Potter series, at Where the Dog Star rages. You can also follow her on Twitter at @AchalaUpendran

Achala will be reviewing all of the seven Harry Potter books, so enjoy her thoughts as she brings a special focus on the series, characters and world that have enchanted so many of us.

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