Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Well it wasn't how I was going to spend the day, but after Amazon's delivery man (or rather Royal Mail's) had stuffed a card through more door and ran away early today, I went to pick up Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince from the parcel office, and thought "what the hell". It was a gorgeous day for sitting in the sunshine in a pub garden with a Pimms (tried it today, once was enough) enjoying an unchallenging but entertaining read.
Furthermore, it is wonderful to think that tens of thousands of people, of all ages, all around the world, were doing the same today. The hype does get a bit wearing, but the fact that the world is getting this excited about a book can only be a good thing.
On most levels, The Half-Blood Prince is more of the same old Potter. The standard of writing is as before: simple and a bit clunky - how you'd love to get in as an editor to tighten it up and straighten it out; the story lines are getting a bit repetitive in their twists and turns - one lot of magic seems much like another.
But the story has moved on with the age of its characters. It does end with a funeral, with the emotions of those watching fully described (no don't worry, I'm not going to tell you who is interned), although there seems to be less gory action than in The Order of the Phoenix.
Boy-girl relationships too are a large part of the story (which is I fear certainly going to put off boy readers). These are, however, curious. In their depiction of early teen, confused, messy, lasting days or weeks, the form seems accurate, but they are curiously bloodless and passionless. That might, from a charitable view, be a deliberate attempt not to lose the younger readers, but I'm not sure it will work.
What is very different this time is a distinctly political tint. Most younger readers are going to be puzzled by the opening scene, not Privet Drive and the unlovely but entertaining Dursleys, but what looks very much like No 10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister is waiting anxiously after a terrible week. Then he's interrupted by his "magic" (and of course more powerful) compatriot, the Minister for Magic, or rather the former one, who's just fallen in a political coup:
"Fudge was looking distinctly careworn. He was thinner, balder, and greyer, and his face had a crumpled look. The Prime Minister had seen that kind of look in politicians before, and it never boded well."
That sounds very like descriptions of Tony Blair during his recent bad patches, and the Prime Minister waiting hopelessly in No 10 while waiting for a more powerful government to tell him what is going on and what he should do - well the comparisons are obvious.
That continues even when we finally get to Privet Drive, where a purple leaflet lies on the floor of Harry's room, titled "Protecting Your Home and Family Against Dark Forces". It suggests a collection of obvious or ridiculous safety measures, much like the ones the British Government sent thudding through our letterboxes after 9/11.
It is gently mocked soon after by Dumbledore:
"I received one myself," said Dumbledore, still smiling. "Did you find it useful?"
"No, I thought not. You have not asked me, for instance, what is my favourite flavour of jam to check that I am indeed Professor Dumbledore, and not an imposter."
"I didn't ...," Harry began, not entirely sure whether he was being reprimanded or not.
"For future reference, Harry, it is raspberry ... although of course, if I were a Death Eater, I would have been sure to research my own jam-preferences before impersonating myself."
The political references continue, on a lower key, through the rest of the book; the new Minister for Magic, effectively the magic world's prime minister or president, keeps trying to enlist, by devious means that Harry immediately sees through, his support to shore up the government's position. It is suggested that he might just be seen going in and out of the ministry a couple of times, in a classically Alastair Campbell-style piece of spin.
Harry is even showing a nascent political sensibility. When tackled by the minister to become his instrument of spin he keeps returning to Stan Stunpike, the Night Bus conductor, who's been imprisoned for months even though everyone is sure his links to the dark forces were pure adolescent boasting. Almost the last action of the book is a confrontation between the minister and Harry:
"So," said Scrimgeour, his voice cold now, "the request I made of you at Christmas -"
"What request? Oh yeah ... the one where I tell the world what a great job you're doing in exchange for -"
"-for raising everyone's morale!" snapped Scrimgeour.
Harry considered him for a moment.
"Released Stan Stunpike yet?"
Scrimgeour turned a nasty purple colour highly reminiscent of Uncle Vernon.
"I see you are -"
"Dumbledore's man through and through," said Harry. "That's right."
This is a new J.K. Rowling, and an interesting one: a satirical novel for grown-ups from her might be an interesting read. Having reached the penultimate book in the planned series, it is possible to start to imagine a writing life for Rowling after Harry Potter. There are just faint hints in this novel that if she can branch out, break away from the boy wizard's spell, the results might be worth waiting for.