Just a reminder: THIS IS NOT SPOILER-FREE!
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has been my least favorite book in the entire series for as far as I can remember, and so I was very curious to see how my feelings would change upon reread, since the last time I’d read HPB was probably 2005. And interestingly enough, almost 12 years later, Half-Blood Prince remains at the bottom of the list.
I’ll be blunt: your enjoyment of this novel is directly correlated with your enjoyment of the romances. If you’re deeply invested in Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione, Lupin/Tonks, and their various journeys to finding true love, then this is the book in which it all finally happens (or at least the groundwork is laid). However, if you, like me, find the romances (and the drama that comes with them) to be irritating and poorly developed, then Half-Blood Prince is the equivalent of a bad teen comedy mixed with flashes of brilliance.
Let me discuss the elephant in the room first, by openly admitting that I hate almost every single romance in this book and in the Potterverse. I’ve said many times previously that I find J.K. Rowling to be a very weak writer when it comes to writing romance. Her pairings lack chemistry, seem to come out of nowhere, and are told not shown. Needless to say, her strength lies in writing friendship.
The most obvious example of this is with Lupin and Tonks, who are supposedly in love with each other after a grand total of the five interactions we saw them have in Order of the Phoenix. It wouldn’t have bothered me as much had their romantic conflict not been a rather large plot point, but not only does it constitute as one of the many mysteries in Half-Blood Prince, it is also an injustice to Tonks’ character. She spends a majority of this novel moping around because Lupin won’t marry her, and while it’s believable she’d be upset, it is less so that her patronus would change or that she’d lose her ability to transform. Maybe I would have been more understanding had I seen the relationship between the two grow and develop, but since that is not the case, I was left with little patience for JKR for turning the lively, vibrant, Tonks of OotP into a dull, romance driven character in HBP.
Harry and Ginny’s relationship also feels forced, as Harry’s crush on Ginny appears suddenly, and no indication is given that Ginny likes Harry back (there’s a throwaway line at the end of the book about how Ginny never got over her childhood crush on Harry which is, frankly, just ridiculous and feels like JKR didn’t realize until later that Ginny liking Harry was abrupt and so she threw something in there to close that plot hole). Though we’re told that Harry and Ginny spent all summer together, we don’t see any of it, and so the credibility of their romance is entirely dependent on your personal ability to imagine their interactions and the way they are with each other. Even once they’ve started dating Rowling does nothing to expand on their relationship and show them flirting, comforting or confiding in each other. Again, this is all left to the reader’s imagination.
While there have been steady hints about Ron/Hermione blossoming romance in the past few books, I strongly dislike the way their relationship disturbs and ruptures the dynamic of the Trio. I mentioned above that JKR’s greatest strength is her ability to create rich, complex, and heartwarming friendships; as a result, Half-Blood Prince greatly suffers because the romance drama between Ron and Hermione causes the Trio to splinter. Ron and Hermione spend a large portion of this novel at odds with one another, and consequently both characters are worse for it. Ron becomes rude, immature, and utterly unsympathetic. I’m sad to say, he has now become one of my least favorite characters of the series. His behavior in this book makes it even harder for me to see how Hermione could have ever fallen for him. Hermione, on the other hand, is left to glaring, crying, and nagging Harry, and neither she or Ron is pivotal or contribute to any of the action.
As if all that weren’t enough, the romance drama in this book means that it falls prey to the dreaded trope that pits women against one another. Both Fleur and Lavender are relegated to one-dimensional love interests, and are portrayed in a negative light. Fleur is hated on by Mrs. Weasley, Ginny, and Hermione for no apparent reason (she is also constantly compared to Tonks who is supposed to be superior of the two women for reasons unknown), while Lavender is depicted as the ludicrously superficial and jealous girlfriend- in other words, everything that Hermione is not. Though fortunately Fleur is given some redemption at the end, Lavender is sadly not. I expect better from you, Jo.
And yet, despite my incessant rambling about the many flaws of HBP, you might be surprised to see that I gave the book a five star rating. Part of that is the nostalgia (I said at the beginning that there would be no true objectivity here), but part of that is also due to the excellent plotting and character development that occurs in this one. Malfoy, Snape, and Voldemort all become much more fleshed out, as does Harry’s relationship with Dumbledore. By the end, all the pieces for the final battle are in motion.
Although Draco never gets a proper redemption arc, there are intimations that betray his fear, sorrow, and loneliness, despite the deeds he commits and his opposite demeanor. In short, I sympathized more for Draco than I did for Ron. HBP, in a way, is largely Snape’s story, as he is the “Half-Blood Prince”. The parallels between him and Harry are also very clear, and even when I originally read this, I don’t think I truly suspected him of working for Voldemort. And now we come to Voldemort. It would have been impossible to go into the seventh book without delving into who Voldemort was, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing his and his family’s history; of course, the reveal of the horcruxes is amazing as well.
Even more so, is the way in which Harry and Dumbledore’s connection grows. Dumbledore is a character whom I dislike very much, and though he is a master manipulator and makes many errors in this novel and in other, there are a few powerful moments that show just how much Harry cares for him, and they are enough to move me. It seems almost cruel that just when we’ve heard Harry tell Scrimgeour he’s “Dumbledore’s man through and through” and Dumbledore says he’s not worried because he’s with Harry, another crucial mentor and protector is ripped from Harry’s life.
For all of its faults, Half-Blood Prince is an emotionally rich journey that does an excellent job of setting the stage for the finale. And it also gives us this exchange, between Harry, Ron, and Hermione:
“‘We’ll be there, Harry,’ said Ron.
‘At your aunt and uncle’s house,’ said Ron. ‘And then we’ll go with you wherever you’re going.’
‘No-‘ said Harry quickly; he had not counted on this, he had meant them to understand that he was undertaking this most dangerous journey alone.
‘You said to us once before,’ said Hermione quietly, ‘that there was time to turn back if we wanted to. We’ve had time, haven’t we?’
‘We’re with you whatever happens,’ said Ron.”
If you’ll excuse me, that is the sound of me sobbing.