Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on July 18, 2005
. . . from one hero to the other - that's what Half-Blood Prince is all about. Dumbledore, wisest of wizards and most heroic of Harry's "helpers," literally and symbolically turns things over to Harry at the end of the 6th book in JKR's series. The stage is thus set for the final battle we all knew was coming from the moment we completed Book 1. Harry will face Voldemort alone - Book 6 makes that possible.
I do like this book - it's exciting, fairly well-plotted, and it's nice to see Harry thinking about things most normal 16-year-olds think about (like kissing girls, for example!). It is, however, hampered by an excruciatingly slow opening (we don't even hear Harry's name for over 40 pages) and a bit too much Shyamalan-style trickery meant to suck the reader in before the trap is sprung in Book 7. The opening chapter at first intrigued me - Rowling gives us our first-ever look at the real relationship between the Muggle government and the Ministry of Magic (along with a nicely veiled reference to the unholy alliance between the Muggle Prime Minister and "the President of a far distant country" . . . I wonder if Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush caught on???). The rather silly conversation between Fudge and the Prime Minister, however, only serves to open up a huge can of worms Rowley simply isn't prepared to deal with. What exactly IS the relationship between the Muggle world and the Magic one? Come one - once you start filling in heads of state about the existence of magic and sorcery there's no way to keep all this quiet! What's happening on the Internet? I picture Muggle teenagers Googling "Dumbledore" and "Sirius Black" and plotting schemes to sneak onto the Hogwarts Express. Reading the first chapter of Book 6, you might assume Rowling was ready to jump into the inevitable clash between the two worlds - the real one and her invented one. But no, the Muggle world is forgotten the moment Chapter 2 begins.
Which brings up the trickery. Chapter 2 was written solely to inject more doubts about the trustworthiness of Severus Snape. Snape is one of Rawling's most interesting and fully-developed characters - he has just cause for hating Harry's father (in a way, James created his own enemy by taunting and bullying Snape - just as Voldemort has done by targeting Harry). And we, as readers, have just cause for being suspicious of him - in each of the five previous books, Snape has done questionable things. The fact that Dumbledore has always trusted him has never really satisfied us - remember, even Dumbledore admits to making real mistakes - even serious ones (like keeping Harry in the dark through much of Book 5). So, when Snape makes the "Unbreakable Vow" that he will protect and aid Malfoy in some unidentified evil deed, we are closer than ever to believing that Dumbledore was indeed wrong about Snape, and that Harry has always been right.
The trap is sprung in Chapter 27 when Snape kills Dumbledore with the "Avada Kedavra" curse - and a "stupefied" Harry sees it all. Rowling must be smiling in secret satisfaction as her readers conclude (as do Harry, his friends, and the members of the Order of the Phoenix) that Snape is a traitor who has always been doing Voldemort's bidding. It's not true, of course. But we won't find that out until Book 7.
It's quite clear that Snape did what Dumbledore asked him to do - he killed the Hogwarts Headmaster to set the ultimate stage for a final showdown between Harry and Voldemort. It's no accident that Dumbledore took Harry with him on his last adventure - a harrowing Indiana Jones-style quest for one of the 7 "Horcruxes" holding elements of Voldemort's immortal soul. It's no accident that a severely weakened Dumbledore demanded that Harry fetch Snape, and not Madame Pomfrey, when they returned to Hogwarts. It's also no accident that Dumbledore silently immobilized Harry just as Malfoy and the Death Eaters raced into his office, leaving himself doubly vulnerable to attack. It's all very clear - Dumbledore WANTED Snape to kill him. It was necessary - it was all part of the plan! Snape didn't want to do it (thus his argument with Dumbledore several chapters earlier), and Dumbledore had to beg him in the end ("Severus . . . please . . ."), but in the end Snape did what his master ordered him to do. Think Judas and Jesus here, from the "Jesus Superstar" perspective - it's a huge master plan, and both the betrayer and the betrayed are playing their designated roles. Snape kills Dumbledore, yes - but he also pushes Harry to the next phase in the story. Dumbledore's death leaves Harry as the sole defender of the forces of goodness and love (as he must be to beat Voldemort). By the end of Book 6, Harry is determined and focused - he will find the remaining Horcruxes and he will face Voldemort, one on one. That was the plan, and Snape's part was necessary. Snape's apparent betrayal protects his cover, which will allow him to remain close to Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Again, it's part of the plan.
Actually, I'm quite certain Snape will play a valuable role in what happens between Harry and Voldemort in Book 7. He WILL choose sides then and we'll see that he was always Dumbledore's man (just as Harry is). Rowling has set this up very well - most of her readers are now convinced that Snape is a villain who is a threat to Harry. Many won't realize the trap they've fallen into until Snape proves himself in the end - my guess is he won't survive the final book (some heroes must die before their heroism is understood). The fact that the trickery was so obvious to some of us is a bit of a problem - then again, the book IS written for children!
Half-Blood Prince is a good read. I do wish Rowling would give us a bit more about the Muggle-Magic interplay, but I guess that isn't her area of interest (while I wasn't at all surprised by the Harry-Ginny pairing, I was actually hoping Harry would find himself in love with a Muggle girl - all the focus on "half-bloods" and racial purity seemed pointed in that direction). And the trickery is a bit annoying - like Mr. Shyamalan's films, it's too easy to see the "man behind the curtain," so to speak - it would be nice to have a little more wizardry and a little less con. Still, in the end, you won't be disappointed.