The Personal and Political Ramblings of one guy in Texas.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Sorta-Not-Quite Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince 

Let's see if this works this time. Last time I tried typing up my thoughts on the latest Potter, a freakish bolt of lightning caused a power flicker that zapped my document, despite the fact I was certain I'd already hit the save button a time or two.

This is not really a review. This is more of a discussion of what I thought, good, bad, and interesting, for Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince. We were in California at the time it came out, and so we dutifully trekked out to the Torrance Barnes & Noble to get my seven-year old son's midnight copy (mine was pre-ordered from Amazon almost from first day you could pre-order). I put him to bed on our return, but he started in on it Saturday morning and finished it Sunday evening at 5:20pm. Then I picked it up, and starting from about chapter 8 (I had read the first seven chapters Saturday night after Jake went to bed) and read until I finished it around midnight, with a small break for dinner.

A page-turner it is without a doubt. We both enjoyed it. So let that be clear. I don't want to give any false impressions of my overall enjoyment if my dislike section gets too big.

So without further ado, a spoiler warning for The Half-Blood Prince and possibly the other five books as well…

Okay. I suppose I'll start with dislikes, since one has to start somewhere.

Much of has to do with romance. Amoure. Or perhaps hormones. Some of these folks are teenagers.

I felt the romance with Ginny Weasely was forced. Not that I dislike the Ginny character (she proved a spitfire in OotP) or disapprove of matchmaking (I'm not generally a 'shipper, but I do approve of a well-done romance). In many ways, Ginny is a great match for Harry. Clearly smart and tough (she fought with Dumbeldores Army at the Ministry), spirited (told him and her brothers off at different times), plays and enjoys Quidditch, and also obviously a bit of a looker, its hard not to see Ginny as a great catch. The problem is that we see no sign Harry has the slightest notice of Ginny as a girl until about a quarter of the way in to HBP when he sees her kissing someone. Suddenly he's head over heels. Part of what followed was well done, Harry's trying to ignore his feelings due to concern for his friendship with Ron, but in the end, Ginny's feelings for Harry came pretty much out of the blue as well. Okay, we are told that she continued to carry the torch for Harry we learned about way back in CoS, but the prior evidence of that was pretty minimal, to my thinking. The upshot of all this is, when we suddenly got the romance, there was no emotional payoff for this reader. Or not much of one, anyway.

Speaking of payoffs, have you noticed that Ron and Hermione are still frolicking 'round the notions counter, one-two-three? We've had three years of meaningful glances and odd comments, and still they aren't an item? Sheesh. And don't tell me those bits after Dumbeldore's funeral were it. Maybe, maybe not, but every one of those things are things you would do to comfort a friend, as oppsed to a romantic partner. I'll buy that means something when I finally see them snogging in the next book.

I was also rather disappointed in the situation with Tonks. It really looked like Something Was Up with Tonks, the way she turned up unexpectedly (I know, she was part of the team watching Harry/Hogwarts, but still, why always her instead of another Auror?), and looking pretty out of it. Only we find out she was just pining for Lupin! I happen to like Lupin a lot and certainly don't begrudge the fellow his happiness, but where did that come from? Unless this is a set-up for something in the next book. We know Rowling does that sometimes...

Fleur and Bill I figured for comic relief, so I won't go into that one. Perhaps the argument could be made that some of this hooking up was intended to show "life going on" despite the troubles, but it didn't work for me.

Something I missed from this book, as well as OotP, was the old sense of fun we got in the first three. I wondered if she would try to go back to it, even if it was even possible, but it seems to me the answer here is no. The reasons are totally understandable. Harry and his friends are sixteen or seventeen. They've fought some of the darkest evil there is, seen people die or be nastily attacked. They are in a war now, and trying to ignore it and pretend to be engaging in school pranks would feel pretty false (assuming Hogwarts even reopens in the next book, and of course, Harry has said he doesn't intend to return there anyway, at least until Voldemort is dealt with). The last real bit of fun along those lines came in OotP, when the Weasely twins and the rest of the school united to drive Umbridge crazy. Though HBP lacked the unrelenting grimness of mood that characterized OotP, it also lacked even that moment of lunacy. I lament this loss, even as I recognize its necessity. Serious books are still good, but fun ones are also…fun.

It strikes me that there were also fewer set pieces this time around. Less Quidditch, fewer chase scenes, etc. Naturally, much of that went to telling us some of Voldemort's backstory. I don't know how much of that we had to be shown, in quite the way it was shown, for Rowling to be able to use in the final book. I'm also not sure to what degree this is a criticism. Dumbledore could simply have told us much of what we saw through the Pensieve, and with fewer words than Rowling actually used, but there is no denying the power of what she chose to do.

Certainly there were important improvements to this book over the last. A big one for me is that IIRC, there was no duex ex machina rescue of Harry. He got into trouble, he got himself out or there was a reason for someone to be there to help him. Another thing I liked was that when he suspected something he told a grown up. How much trouble was caused in the past by the kids NOT telling Dumbledore or someone else what they thought was going on? The closest candidate for that I can think of at the moment was the Potions book that had belonged to Snape. But other than good notes in the margins, there wasn't anything there to make anyone but the hyper-cautious Hermione nervous; no magical effects, or odd messages, etc. etc.

Dumbledore's death caught me slightly by surprise. Granted we knew someone was going to get it in HBP, and Dumbledore character was precisely the sort of mentor character that often has to die (see also, Kenobi, Obi-Wan) in order for the hero (Harry) to come into his own. Still, I had old Albus going down sometime in the middle of the book seven. Got that one wrong.

And what of Snape? Good or bad? Evidence for bad: he did Dumbledore. Evidence for good: He didn't do Harry or anyone else, and he could have, very easily. Good: Dumbledore trusted him. Bad: Dumbledore admitted that when he made a mistake, it was a doozy.

We still do not know what it was that caused Dumbledore to trust Snape. Oh, we've gotten some things tossed out, but there is no bloody way that what we've heard is the whole story. The question we have now in addition to what is it that made Dumbledore trust Snape, runs thusly: Dumbledore expected to die at any time. How is this evidence going to get to the rest of the order? Albus made mistakes but he wasn't stupid. He knew that the members of the Order trusted Snape only because he trusted Snape. Further, if Snape was good, he would have informed Dumbledore about the Unbreakable Vow, and D. would have known that at some point Snape might be in a position to have to kill him. If that happened Snape would be in deep kimchi without something ironclad to get him out of hock.

My personal theory is that D. has a memory stored someplace very safe containing the reason he trusted Snape, and that Harry will eventually receive that memory in a bottle, get to a Pensieve and see it. The Pensieve has played an important part in the story since at least book three; I think it has at least one more part to play. And how Harry deals with this information will be an important bit of development for him.

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