HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
By J.K. Rowling
Scholastic. 652 pp. $29.99
"Harry comes of age in a year's time," Albus Dumbledore informs the Dursleys, Harry's guardians, early in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the solid, somewhat predictable sixth volume in J.K. Rowling's blockbuster series. "In the Wizarding world, we come of age at seventeen." The journey from child to adult is tough enough for ordinary mortals, but the trip has been unusually hazardous for the world-famous wizard-in-training. Rowling shepherds her hero's arduous trek to maturity with her customary grace and good humor, though she has infused her story with more bone-cracking and blood-spattering than may be tolerable for many of the young readers who have followed Harry's adventures so far.
Of course, Rowling warned us that the series would grow more sinister over time, and she has kept her word. The increasing violence she portrays fits within the story line and never seems gratuitous. Even so, some passages can be startling and hard to stomach. Perhaps the most troubling of these are scenes in which Harry and his longtime rival Draco Malfoy go wand-to-wand, and those featuring Fenrir Greyback, a ravenous werewolf with a taste for children.
How else, it is fair to ask, can one depict a world where evil forces threaten to overwhelm the innocent? That's precisely the scenario as the new book begins. The wizard world is in "a state of open warfare." Lord Voldemort, "the wizard feared above all others," is back. His followers, the Death Eaters, are wreaking havoc and killing Muggles.
Dumbledore, aging headmaster of Hogwarts and the only wizard who may be more powerful than Voldemort, seems especially vulnerable. Could his skills be declining? Or is he just a terrible judge of character? According to Severus Snape, potions teacher and another of Harry's nemeses, Dumbledore's greatest weakness is that "he has to believe the best of people." Even Dumbledore himself admits to Harry that he has begun to make the occasional misstep. "Being -- forgive me -- rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger," he explains. Making matters worse and intensely personal for Harry, all summer long he has had to deal with his knowledge of the prophecy revealed in the preceding book, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix": Neither he nor Voldemort can live while the other survives.
Although Harry's life is "in even greater danger," as Dumbledore puts it, readers know that he will live on to face Voldemort in the next and ostensibly last book in the series. That certain knowledge, reinforced in book after book, can't help reducing the suspense factor this time around. Similarly, familiarity occasionally replaces the outbursts of delight and surprise that made the first three books so vivid. By now the major characters have been established, and the new ones, such as new potions teacher Horace Slughorn, do little to advance a story that is well underway. As in the previous book, Rowling could have avoided the occasional creep of monotony by eliminating some extraneous story lines -- such as the romance between Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour -- thereby producing a leaner manuscript. That said, readers who have followed Harry's quest thus far will find nothing here to discourage them from continuing to the end.
But before Harry gets there, he has some growing up to do. He has developed from a timid little novice in the first book to a bad-tempered pubescent whose tantrums quickly grew tiresome in the last. Now exceptionally gifted at wizardry, he has yet to grasp the full extent of his powers. "You are still too young to understand how unusual you are, Harry," Dumbledore tells him. Nor has Harry, or anyone else, come to understand exactly what role Snape plays in the battle of good versus evil. Whose side is he really on? Harry thinks Snape is loyal to Voldemort; Dumbledore insists on his innocence. When the school year begins, Dumbledore rewards Snape with his dream job: teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts.
Freed from Snape's malicious glare, Harry becomes a standout in potions class. To the chagrin of his old friends Ron and Hermione, he excels by secretly relying on inventive formulas scribbled in the margins of his textbook. The old primer was formerly owned by someone -- an apparent genius at potions -- who called himself "the Half-Blood Prince."
Harry supplements his studies with private lessons from Dumbledore. These sessions make use of the Pensieve, a way-cool magical device introduced in the fourth book, "Goblet of Fire." Harry and Dumbledore's journeys into the Pensieve enable them to relive other people's memories and gather clues to Voldemort's apparent immortality. The key to his power is a Horcrux, "an object in which a person has concealed part of their soul." Dumbledore believes Voldemort has stored pieces of his soul in seven of the objects, three of which have already been found. The others "would have to be found and eliminated before there was even a possibility that Voldemort could be killed." Because her novel of suspense is also a tale about teenagers, Rowling devotes many pages to the rush of hormones and their effect on adolescent hearts. In the common rooms at Hogwarts, there's a lot of "snogging," or making out, going on. As Harry grapples with his destiny, he also wrestles unsuccessfully with his growing affection for Ron's sister Ginny. He spends sleepless nights "trying to convince himself that his feelings for Ginny were entirely elder-brotherly." (Are you wondering about Cho Chang, Harry's former crush? She's history, mate.) Harry finds that Ginny "kept cropping up in his dreams in ways that made him devoutly thankful" that Ron could not read his mind. Rowling handles much of this hot-and-heavy stuff with discretion and wit. For example, when Ron disengages from a long kiss with his girlfriend, there is a "noise like a plunger being withdrawn from a blocked sink."
All of this leads to the climactic battles at which Rowling excels. The momentum picks up considerably in my favorite chapter -- when Harry accompanies Dumbledore to a cave in search of a Horcrux -- and seldom subsides until the end. Yes, another major character dies, but this time Harry is hardened by the loss. "There was no waking from this nightmare," he realizes, "no comforting whisper in the dark that he was safe really, that it was all in his imagination. . . . " A terrifying epiphany for a boy, perhaps, but Harry is no longer a child. He is not yet 17 when the book ends. But there's no denying he's come of age.