Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Okay, now that I've finished the book, there are major issues to cover, so it's all getting stuffed below the fold, with serious serious spoilers
. Come to think of it, I'm not sure how many readers here actually went out and read the book this weekend, so maybe I'll have to repost this in a few weeks if I want comments. Or after the movie comes out three years from now. Ah well...
The big question, of course, concerns Snape: has he really gone over to Voldemort's side, or is he still a secret agent for the Order of the Phoenix? I'm inclined to think the latter. Yes, true, he killed Dumbledore in this one; but he also had to: it's clear that Draco wasn't up to snuff, and Snape had made the Unbreakable Vow to jump in if Malfoy couldn't do it. Snape would've died otherwise (that's how Unbreakable Vows work!). The other point here is that Snape could only remain a serious mole on Team Voldemort if he killed Dumbledore. Otherwise, he'd be exposed as the Dumbledore-lover he really is. In fact, when Dumbledore was mumbling, "Severus, please..." just before he got zapped, my hunch is that he was asking Snape to remember just this very fact.
It sounds implausible, perhaps. And the book really keeps Snape's loyalties ambiguous right up through the end, though Dumbledore never doubts him. But consider this. When Snape is chatting with Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange in the second chapter, and rationalizes all his past actions to them, so as to convince the two Death Eaters that no, no, he's really working for Voldemort. (i.e. "I didn't know that Voldemort wanted the Sorcerer's Stone," and "I've been working at Hogwarts to remain a spy...") Right. All of his past actions can be explained convincingly in this dark light, except one. In the fifth book, remember, Snape quite clearly alerted the Order to the fact that Harry had gone to the Ministry of Magic to save Sirius, after Harry hinted as much in Umbridge's office. Snape didn't have to do this. In fact, had he been genuinely working for Voldemort, it would've been in his interest not to tell anyone and instead let Harry bite it right then and there. But Snape told Dumbledore. So I'm convinced he's still a Dumbledore guy. He's angry and bitter, sure, and probably hates Harry Potter like none other, but he's still going to be a double agent for the home team. That said, it's possible that he could've gone over to Voldemort between Book 5 and Book 6, but why? Nothing in the book suggests a reason for the change of heart.
Also, a friend suggested the theory that Snape was in love with Harry Potter's mother way back in the day, which would be consistent with: a) Snape telling Voldemort about the prophecy and then b) regretting it after Lily gets killed, along with c) still bearing a grudge against Harry.
Meanwhile, Draco Malfoy became a very interesting figure in this one, no? Perhaps not so in bed with the Death Eaters after all. It's quite clear that in the next book, Voldemort's Machiavellian approach towards his friends—it's better to be feared than loved—will be his undoing. Malfoy could be a big part of that. I don't know.
Will Hogwarts be open for Harry's senior year? I have a hard time believing that McGonagall can hold down the fort as headmistress, and it would be awfully odd and cheap if in the next book we see the same motifs as before, i.e. Gryffindor winning Qudditch as usual, trip to Hogsmeade, etc. etc. Plus, there are still at least four more Horcruxes to hunt down. My guess is that Harry leaves school. But no Hogwarts? That seems steep.
Structure-wise the sixth was one of the stronger in the series, and the glances back into Tom Riddle's childhood and history helped carry things along nicely, while the romances were amusing—even if I have a hard time believing that these kids are sixteen. (I mean, in this day and age...) On the other hand, the big "plot twist" in this one—that Rosmerta had been under an Imperius Curse—was a little lackluster, and other than that, this was much less suspenseful than some of the others. (I have a hard time believing anyone was genuinely surprised by the fact that Harry knew what Draco was up to all along.) And on the imaginative side, we weren't introduced to significantly more of the Harry Potter universe in this book, as we have been in previous installments. (The Quidditch World Cup, or the Ministry of Magic, or St. Mungo's, etc. etc.) The opening chapter, though, with Tony Blair or whoever, is a nice touch.
One other point: Harry Potter is really atrociously written. The way Harry has dealt with Sirius Black's death is nothing short of embarrassing, especially when he starts SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS, to alert us to adolescent anger. Now obviously this is all very much beside the point but it should be said, and it also makes me cringe when I realize that the inevitable Hermione-Ron hook-up in Book 7 will be depicted rather crudely. That said, Harry himself was also much less of a little prick in this one, and really grows up nicely in many respects.
UPDATE: Crikey. Rumor has it that the mysterious "R.A.B." featured at the end of the book is probably Regulus Black, Sirius' brother who was once a Death-Eater but tried to leave and was supposedly killed. Intriguing!
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