The sixth installment of the Harry Potter series is quietly one of the best. It does seem like Rowling gets better with each release, so at the end, The Half-Blood Prince may be the second-best HP novel, but again, it does so quietly. Borrowing, or continuing, I should say, the urgent, “darker” tone from The Order of the Phoenix, HP6 picks up right away and never lets the reader stop for a breath.
Yes, yet another quirky character is introduced; this time it’s Horace Slughorn, an old friend of Professor Dumbeldore’s who agrees to reclaim his old post at Hogwarts as Potions Master. But his eccentricities are just side stuff for his real purpose: Slughorn holds a key piece of the puzzle to ultimately destroying He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Speaking of Voldemort, it is quite impressive that Rowling is able to write this entire book, and fill it with great suspense, phenomenal storytelling when it comes to unveiling Voldemort’s personal history, and the last 50 or so pages of quality wizard battles, and not have one appearance of the present Dark Lord himself. This speaks to Rowling’s personal maturity and discipline as a writer: she is able to keep the reader enthralled with what is going on without resorting to an appearance by the super villain.
But one could easily be of the opinion that not too much is going on. Voldemort has shut his mind off from Harry’s mental eavesdropping and so the reader is unable to find out what he’s up to. And so we get another year of Hogwarts, complete with updated lessons, advanced magical teleportation, and a slowly unfolding account of what Draco Malfoy is up to.
But we again return to the urgency with which the words are expressed. The tone makes everything seem important, and of course, it ultimately is. Slughorn is immensely important, much more so than Dolores Umbridge from the previous book. Harry’s old Potions book helps him become a fantastic potion maker (is it cheating if the notes in the book tell him how to work more efficiently?), and the identity of who actually wrote those notes plays a profound role in the conclusion of the novel.
And with this seeming lack of plot, the emphasis, then, is on character. And thus we see the true depth of Harry’s and Dumbledore’s magical capabilities and trust in themselves and each other. We see Draco Malfoy finally turning into a legitimate hazard for Harry. We see Professor Snape caught in between and forced to make a decision that will alter Harry’s future dramatically. We see the teens fall in and out of love but at the same time show their loyalty to Harry and each other.
Rowling seems to know that she doesn’t need hundreds and hundreds of pages of wizards fighting each other to keep the reader interested. She seems to know that six novels in, she has created such an expansive list of imaginative, awesome, and deep characters that she only need to sit back and let them carry the plot themselves. And they do it remarkably well.
I’m sure The Half-Blood Prince isn’t everyone’s favorite HP book, and I’m sure those who want fantastical and magical fast-paced action will favor The Goblet of Fire over this one. But after reading through, Rowling’s talent is readily apparent in her sixth HP novel, and it may be her best one. She doesn’t need to rely on crazy spells or epic battles or ancient tournaments to carry her story. She need only get out of the way and let Harry and Co. do it for her.