The penultimate book. It was at this point that fans of the Harry Potter series wanted to freeze time; we could see the end fast approaching, and we were desperate to let it linger. We wanted to see the tale through to its conclusion, but we weren’t ready to admit that the final installation was riding close on its heels. Even as the pace demanded that we press on and reach the impending battle, we craved time to bask in that world.
In that way, we were just like Harry.
Because the Half-Blood Prince is the beginning of an ending, it is hard to judge on its own merits. While Rowling delivered as usual on the development of her characters, the emergence of new faces and the building of an epic conflict, the story carries all the pauses and meditations of a silence-before-the-storm period. Critiqued as a book by itself, some have found it lacking for that reason. But judging it as one cobblestone on the road of myth, it is a truly special story.
Because the Deathly Hallows was always going to be a journey toward the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort and would not have time to dwell on other aspects of impending adulthood, Half-Blood Prince was more concerned than any of the other books with romance. Not the infatuation, confusion and embarrassment of first crushes and bad dates, but the growth of real feelings between maturing people. Harry may only be sixteen, but he’s seen quite a bit more than most kids his age, and he knows what is important to him. His love for Ron’s sister, Ginny, is fulfilling on many fronts; it grounds him, it allows him to experience a kind of love that he hasn’t been exposed to before, and it affirms his place as a member of the Weasley family, something that he has wanted since he became friends with Ron that first day at Hogwarts.
The most satisfying aspect of his relationship with Ginny is that their love is a comfortable, easy thing once it begins. They joke and kiss and sit together in the Gryffindor common room for hours. Ron, on the other hand, is learning about love the tried and true way; not having to grow up as fast as Harry means that he makes all those typical errors in courtship. It’s important for him to do this—no matter how much Hermione may care about him, he’s not ready for her yet. Ron’s journey is about gaining experience in love, and though he stumbles badly, you still love him because you recognize his mistakes.
Harry’s morals solidify during this story; the little boy who was once so concerned with fitting into a brand new world now thinks nothing of defending his more off-color peers to other students. This is the Harry who takes Luna as his date to Slughorn’s club dinner because he knows that she’s going to be more enjoyable company than anyone else there. The hero that his readership has been waiting for slowly begins to emerge, not through his valiant deeds, but through his character. I remember feeling incredible swells of pride throughout the book at Harry’s newfound awareness, at the way he handles his grief and his choice to keep his friends closer than ever. The angst-ridden, screaming teenager of Order of the Phoenix was fascinating and essential to the development of the story, but the Harry of Half-Blood Prince is the one who will defeat Voldemort.
The anxiety of wielding newfound power is a theme that runs deep in the novel. Harry struggles with choosing the easy way out when he discovers the annotated secrets provided by the Half-Blood Prince’s old textbook. His mishandling of those lessons leads to him brutally injuring Draco Malfoy in a fit of pique. Draco is also facing difficult decisions, arguably for the first time in his life, railing against a fate chosen for him by his family due to their position in the darker parts of the wizarding world. His fear over the task he has been given by Voldemort and the Death Eaters proves that, despite Draco’s more despicable characteristics, he is not the villain that Harry believes he is capable of being. This is paralleled in the journey taken years ago by Sirius’ brother, Regulus, in his desire to relinquish his role as a Death Eater. However, Regulus made the active choice to give up his power in favor of doing the right thing. Draco is absolved of ever having to make that decision outright, and he is poorer for it.
But, of course, the real tragedy of this book is Dumbledore.
I confess to being prepared for his passing; it’s standard mythical practice. The wise guide is always lost after giving the hero all the knowledge he requires for his journey. Dumbledore was never going to see Harry through his final year at Hogwarts and wait for him with a quiet smile at his headmaster’s desk after the final battle. But unlike so many similar figures who died before him, Albus Dumbledore is an exception because of how close we grow to him as Harry’s bond with him deepens, the time we spend in his company.
Gandalf is never truly powerless. Obi-Wan dies before we ever really get to know him. Merlin spends most of his time babbling incoherently about a future he hasn’t yet lived. But Dumbledore is a fully fleshed out human being whose heart we can glimpse, regardless of the unfathomable power he wields. He pays for his flaws, he admits his mistakes, he grieves for what he has done to Harry. We witness his terror, his shame, his resolve. We mourn him because we know him, not just because we feel for Harry when he loses his mentor. And even though the Deathly Hallows reveals a part of the great man that he would perhaps have wanted to remain hidden, we cannot fault him for his weaknesses. Albus Dumbledore is a treasure, and prepared as many of us were for his final performance, it still hurt to discover that sudden gap in Harry’s world.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ends on the edge of the abyss. There is no haven to hide in. There is no more time left to grow up. There is no pretending that someone else holds the answers. And like Harry, we are left holding our breath—
—unwilling to believe that it will all soon be over, one way or another.
Emily Asher-Perrin has a hypogriff tattoo on her chest. (Not really. Though that would be pretty cool.) You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.