I just finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The first question my wife asked me was "how did it rank with the other books?" This is very hard to answer, because it is very different from the first five. Each of the first five was fairly self-contained. There was a dominant story cycle that came to closure at the end. Yes, there was still Valdemort running around out there, but that was kind of just like knowing that Blofeld and SPECTRE would still be a villain in the next Bond movie. The best comparison I can make, for people of my generation who saw the original Star Wars movies as they came out, was that the first 5 Potter books were like the New Hope, while this book is Empire Strikes Back. The only problem was that Empire Strikes Back stands out as perhaps the best Star Wars movie, and this definitely is not the best Harry Potter book. In a real sense, book six is really part 1 of a two-part finale that presumably ends with book 7. I was left with the same thought as at the end of the LOTR Two Towers movie: OK, so when does the last one come out?
I found a couple of things about the book unsatisfying. The mystery of who is the half-blood prince does not really drive the story as well as other mysteries, like say how the Sirius Black mystery or Chamber of Secrets mystery or the Tri-Wizard tournament drove other books. This book is driven more by revelations about Harry and Valdemort, and by the time these play out the identity of the Half Blood Prince is kind of a letdown, or more precisely, irrelevant. More unsatisfying to me was that this book is mostly about Harry. While stuff is happening to all the traditional suspects, the mysteries are being solved by Harry alone, not by the traditional Harry-Ron-Hermione team. Harry has always had to stand alone at the end of each book, but Ron and Hermione contributed to his getting there in the middle, and there is less of that here (Ron and Hermione, as well as everyone in the book seem distracted by their hormones).
I guess I would say that a number of the traditional Harry Potter story elements were kind of half-hearted, even the Quiddich. Rowling is obviously trapped by the need to get a lot of exposition done to bring the 7 book series to a close, and as a result the book never really gets moving until the final few chapters, and then all-too-much occurs in a few pages.
This will never be considered the best book of the series, but the best spin I can put on it is that it was probably essential to start driving the series to a conclusion.
Update: Several folks have argued that I am missing the point, that quiddich and friends and school stuff are fading in the background as part of the wizarding world going to war and Harry coming of age to face his destiny. This hypothesis about the ending is very interesting but only if you have read the book, it is FULL of spoilers. If he is right, then it may be possible to look back and find this book more interesting in light of what we learn in book 7. We'll see. I still stand by my statement that the first 3/4 of the book is much less satisfying than the previous books.
2nd Update: I guess predictably, various groups on opposite sides of the political spectrum and the Iraq war are claiming that Rowling is supporting them with this book. Jeez, can we politicize everything? Here is what are two clear tenants of the book:
- There are times you have to actually fight evil, rather than just hope it goes away or is not really there
- Governments can't really be trusted to do #1 responsibly
If my reading is correct, you can see why there is a bit in it for everyone.