And so, we arrive at the darkest hour. Albus Dumbledore is dead – and Voldemort has set the Death Eaters free from Azkaban. Indeed, Dumbledore’s death was at the hand of Harry’s bane, Severus Snape – and he is now on the run. This is particularly a stomach punch of an ending as for the most part, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is something of a breather after the ridiculous pace and tension of the last two books. It is, for the most part, much more a companion to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a largely Voldemort free episode of the saga where we get a lot of useful exposition, but at the expense of a riveting tale. As these books get longer, this matters: Rowling is asking a lot of our time, and so this was relatively difficult to slog through. You basically get a spectacular finish to an otherwise unremarkable tome.
Obviously, as we left everybody after the last book – it seems awfully hard to picture returning to Hogwarts. How do you go back to school when you know that people in rival houses want you dead? Of course, Harry has had a staredown already with the Malfoys – but certainly Draco starts to obsess him, including a particularly dangerous mistake early on. He seems to be going off the map frequently – what is he hiding and what is he up to? Certainly his mother is very worried, as was shown in the first chapter.
But even with this over his head, he has to start working on his upper level classes. This includes Potions class with the new instructor (no Snape? Save that one), Professor Slugworth – who provides Harry with an old Potions book. The text is heavily annotated by the Half Blood Prince, and somehow Harry becomes a potions genius just following these notes. Curiously the margins also seem to contain some of the darkest magic he has had to work. Slugworth is a former Slytherin head who seems like a very interested name dropper – Dumbledore brought him in for some specific information he has, but Harry has to figure out how to get it.
Dumbledore is also giving Harry special lessons, and in some ways this is the heart of the year at Hogwarts. Dumbledore is not teaching Harry skills – but history, the history of Voldemort. Harry, via the Pensieve, starts to see scenes from Tom Riddle’s childhood. How did a half-Muggle become the ultimate booster of pureblood wizarding. How did he get so cold, and what is the pull of Hogwarts? He and Harry have a lot of parallel history – orphans discovering their powers by accident, displaying special skills that Hogwarts seemed to help really reveal. But the key lessons start to relate to talismans which Voldemort found valuable, and one in particular which Dumbledore brings Harry along to check out.
And of course, there is the continuing mystery of the relationship between Harry and Snape, which is the real driving human conflict at this point (it has been building such). Harry is continually convinced of Snape’s evil intention. Clearly Snape is not at all sympathetic to Harry outwardly – and now as the Defense Against Dark Arts teacher, he is ever more so. But he is an Order member, and there is a nagging feeling that there is more. After all, he has been able to kill Harry for so long and has not done so. Dumbledore still trusts him implicitly. That said, in the spectacular conclusion to the book as Harry returns to Hogwarts and Dumbledore dies – some very serious questions come up on Snape. Certainly the other Order members’ trust is strained, and Harry’s own negative suspicions have much more credence. It is hard not to think that there is still more left.
This stuff is all very interesting of course, but it is just Dumbledore showing Harry about it. It is a lot of inside baseball, and frankly only of interest if you have been intimately familiar with the series. Yeah, new people are not going to pick up the series here, but it prevents the book from being a great self contained entertainment, which it really ought to be for its doorstop size. The book is fine enough and moves the ball forward – and since I’ve read the seventh book, by no means can I say that you should stop the series here or anything. But while I have a ton to say about the resolution of the series, we could have gotten to where we are now without so much bulk.