Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: review

I thought about lacing this review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with spoilers since almost everyone knows which character dies and how, but I'll refrain because the book only just came out, and some of you might still be reading.

As you might've guessed, Half-Blood Prince was nearly impossible to put down; I somehow managed to do so in order to get some shut-eye, but went right back to it as soon as I was awake enough to continue. Rowling's prose, simple and unpretentious, is still nothing special in itself, but the woman knows how to tell a story, and that's what matters.

Instead of tossing spoilers around, I'd like to concentrate on some themes and tropes I thought I saw while devouring the sixth book over the past 24 hours.

One major theme in this book is war, and how life proceeds in the midst of one. Rowling has put herself in an interesting position: if the press is right, she's not a fan of Bush or Blair, and is probably against the project in Iraq, but she's written a series that, like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, boldly proclaims that there is such a thing as evil and that it must be unquestioningly fought. To her credit, Rowling gives hints that war isn't clear-cut, but she never strays far beyond George Lucas's or JRR Tolkien's primary-colored moral spectrum. Perhaps she can't: it's a children's series, after all.

But one question adult readers will bring to the Potter series is whether or not war is, by its nature, somehow stupid and pointless. Rowling's books-- all of them, I believe-- answer this in the negative, and I expect the seventh installment to support my contention clearly: the cause against Voldemort is just, even though Dumbledore has warned that evil can never be completely vanquished, but can only be combatted and contained.

Another theme in the sixth book is love, and I've been troubled by this since Book 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). In Book 5, Dumbledore tells Harry that he, Harry, has the ability to love, which is a power Voldemort neither possesses nor understands. But readers know that Harry is also quite capable of hatred, which perhaps sets him apart from more saintly heroes in literature and film.*

According to the prophecy we hear in Book 5, Harry must either kill or be killed. Book 6 attempts to weasel out of this somewhat by sneaking in an argument about human freedom-- how the consequences of our choices set us on collision courses. Nice try, JK, but the question then is whether Book 7 will continue to follow the weasel's path and end in a totally unexpected way, or whether it'll end in the expected way, with either Harry's or Voldemort's death.

If Harry's victory follows the prophecy literally, then he won't be sacrificing himself out of love for his fellows: he'll be killing Voldemort, likely rejoicing over his dead form. So far, in six books, Harry hasn't been a killer, despite having been willing to kill on several occasions. Will he ultimately "kill for love," whatever that might mean? Is Rowling willing to make Harry a murderer at last?

On top of this is a special problem: Harry doesn't strike me as any more or less capable of love than any of his close friends or surrogate family. I'm still not sure what sets him apart from everyone else. Mrs. Weasley, for instance, loves Harry to death. Ron and Hermione (and now we should add Ginny) would die for him. As Harry himself notes toward the end of Book 6, plenty of people have already stood in harm's way on his behalf; what, then, makes Harry any more likely to defeat Voldemort than any other character in JK Rowling's universe? This doesn't seem clear to me, because we haven't seen evidence that Harry is especially endowed in the love department: we have only Dumbledore's word that Harry is somehow unique.

Assorted observations: Book 6 is well-paced, very readable, but talky at times. The Pensieve has by now been overused as a plot device; I hope it'll be avoided in Book 7. Tonks's romance-- something we don't hear much about until the end-- threw me for a loop because I was convinced she was flirting with Mad-Eye Moody in Book 5. I was right, however, to surmise that she digs much older men. It was good to see more of the Draco Malfoy angle; unlike Snape, Malfoy has always had more potential to be a sympathetic character.

If you haven't gotten your hands on Book 6, go grab a copy and entertain yourself. You'll need the background from Books 1 through 5, of course, but I assume that most Book 6 readers are already diehard Potter fans. They-- you-- won't be disappointed by Rowling's latest effort.

*Obviously, the prime template here is Christ, but cf. also Neo's self-sacrifice in the face of Smith's onslaught in "The Matrix Revolutions," or the wizard Ulrich's self-sacrifice to defeat the dragon in the movie "Dragonslayer." See also Thomas Covenant's sacrifice at the end of the Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and Father Karras's solution to the problem of Regan's demonic possession in "The Exorcist."


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