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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

by JK Rowling

(Bloomsbury, £16.99, 607 pages, hardback, June 2005.)

Review by Gary Couzens

This review contains spoilers for previous Harry Potter novels, though none for Half-Blood Prince itself.

cover scanThe sixth and penultimate book of the series (has anyone called it a heptalogy yet?) finds Harry mourning the death of Sirius Black. By the end of the book he will face the death of someone else close to him. In the meantime Harry is less of the stroppy teenager he was in Order of the Phoenix; he now knows what he's up against and with Dumbledore's help finds out more about the nature of his adversary Voldemort. Meanwhile, the wizarding community faces the prospect of all-out war with the forces of darkness.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series began as a children's book, and has mutated along with its hero into partly a teen novel that's read by adults, and partly a genre unto itself. Although it's 180 pages shorter than Order of the Phoenix -- which is to its benefit -- it's still, at some 180,000 words, well beyond the normal length bounds of children's fiction. And as with that novel, there's some distinctly non-PG material here: I'm thinking particularly of Umbridge's detention punishment for Harry in Order of the Phoenix. On the other hand, Rowling seems mindful of the children who began as her primary readership: as you might expect of sixteen-year-olds, there's a lot of boy/girl interaction but it doesn't get beyond "snogging" (to use the word Rowling seems to have few synonyms for), much of it involving Ron Weasley.

As I write this, over two and a quarter million copies of Half-Blood Prince have been sold, which makes for a lot of people agog for the final volume, which if it's on schedule should appear in mid 2007, ten years after the first publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Once that book is here, we should be able to assess Rowling's achievement. And achievement is the word I mean to use. It's easy to knock Rowling's success. No-one should pretend that she's any great stylist, and I won't. Her bad habit of overusing speech adverbs (a sure sign of weak dialogue) will infuriate you once you notice it. But on the other hand, she does present us with a fully imagined world (one that crosshatches with the real one) that's as immersive as any in fantasy. You could argue how derivative it is -- especially by referring to Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones -- and no real argument will come from me. The Harry Potter novels are not the greatest fantasy series ever committed to print. But they work. I read Half-Blood Prince in five days, and if I hadn't had a day job to go to, could easily have read it faster.

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