Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K.Rowling
Created: Tue Mar 23 11:49:29 2010 | Last modified: Tue Mar 23 11:49:29 2010
Without doubt and without hesitation I would say this is the best Harry Potter book of the series so far. Not only does this book tie up all the loose ends that "Order of the Phoenix" should have, this is also a better build-up to the final showdown between Potter and Lord Voldemort. It also fleshes out the villain by giving him a back-story and a believable history although the plot device used to do so is a series of thinly veiled flashback sequences (using the Pensieve). In this plot too, we start moving towards the battle between good and evil but JKR uses this more as a device to tie up all the loose ends left behind by the previous books, most particularly the Order of the Phoenix.
The mystery about the Half-Blood Prince is an important, but nevertheless secondary plot. And some surprising characters become more important while a few who had reasonably important roles in earlier novels fall by the wayside. The relish with which JKR cuts down the size of some of her characters feels almost sadistic in a way. In particular, Hagrid is now a mere appendage to the plotline and we even get to see Harry use a tragedy in the half-giant's life for his own ends (albeit for a good cause). Even the pretention of Hagrid having some important role to play has been dropped here.
We see the evolution of Harry Potter as a character but also JKR as a storyteller. There is much less of the irrelevant crap that was found in the Order of the Phoenix and much more sense. The nature of evil is also something that JKR discusses here, and although I disagree from a realistic point of view of life in general (who said JKR was a psychologist!) it works well for the fantasy world that she has built up over the series. But to her credit, we can also draw parallels between Voldemort's hatred of muggles and "half-bloods" and Hitler's hatred of Jews. In fact anybody with any knowledge of history would come to the same conclusions. But what is uncanny is that the human, less powerful and younger Tom Riddle (Lord Voldemort) is much more disturbingly evil than the supervillain-style, inhuman Voldemort can ever aspire to be. I suppose we could say that Hitler in his youth when he formed his violent and hateful ideas is sometimes more disturbing than the senile old Hitler who spent his last days cooped up hopelessly in his Underground Bunker as his enemies moved in.
And that's where the novel really works. We finally have a reason to really hate Voldemort because of what he's done in his life to attain his goals. And the key of this story is precisely that: what Voldemort's goals are and how he goes about attaining them. And that's how Harry learns of the mission he has to accomplish as Dumbledore gives him a lot of information he denied in the Order of the Phoenix. Maybe it works better for the series as a whole, but is very contrived and feels too cinematically artificial (the way Dumbledore prepares Harry to take on Lord Voldemort). As expected there is a death in the climax. But this time it has been handled in a much better and more sensible way than the climax of the Order of the Phoenix.
JKR has matured as a writer and it shows. There are not so many ALL-CAPS dialogues in this novel and the fast-paced action is more precise and less awkward. The dynamics have been handled better overall and best of all, the editing work is good. This feels more like a fantasy novel along the lines of the epic "Lord of the Rings" by JRR Tolkien than say, a schoolboy fantasy tale. And that's why I prefer this book to all the previous books. Because the pretention of complexity has finally been shed and the battle-lines between good and evil are drawn.
How else could you expect a fantasy novel to be structured? It was always going to be the showdown between good and evil ultimately and isn't the action as exciting as the build up? That's what I think JKR has finally understood.
To be a good fantasy writer, you have to shed a lot of layers of detail and get down to the meat of the story which is adventure and romance. Not some typically contrived manor-house English mystery or a boarding school story with too many irrelevant classroom lessons and childish rivalries.