Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

by JK Rowling
199 pages,
ISBN: 155192756X

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Kids' Lit
by OR Melling

"Where is that person leading our children?" asked the people of Hamelin. I asked myself the same question as I read this sixth installment of the Harry Potter series. Dark and disturbing, it patently paves the way for a final showdown between Harry and his arch-enemy Voldemort; it's a confrontation that can only bring our hero terrible suffering and possibly, in the tradition of mythic sacrifice, death. Since Harry and the books about him have been steadily maturing along with their initial readers, I have no qualms in stating that this penultimate book is unsuitable for anyone under twelve, and I am horrified to hear of parents reading it to younger children. At the same time, as an aside, I'm beginning to wonder if herein lies the reason why a modern Canadian children's writer has yet to achieve real international status. Both writers and editors of Cankidslit tend to play it safe, protecting their readers. A quick glance at world class rankings shows authors doing the opposite, e.g., JK Rowling, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman. Rightly or wrongly, these writers appear not to worry about the effect they might have on children who follow their stories into the darkest of places.
Back to the book at hand. Here's an odd thing. On my first reading of it, I thought it less captivating than its predecessors, unremittingly dark with none of Rowling's trademark humour, tediously overweighted with expositional dialogue (its chief flaw) and generally banal in prose. I wondered if I was suffering from series fatigue or inevitable disappointment due to unreasonable expectations. Then, upon a second reading, my opinion changed utterly! As I was no longer in a narrative panic-impaled and impelled by the plot, desperate to know what happened next-I was able to savour the story, to admire its construction, and to enjoy the fun (there is a lot, surprisingly, in what is a harrowing tale) while also marvelling at the author's grasp of teen psychology, envying her astonishing inventiveness, and ultimately agreeing with my own teen reader that a plain, direct style was appropriate for such dark material.
It was this book, too, which underscored for me the degree to which Harry is fundamentally alone in the universe as he faces his fate and the cruel fact of death. Is this the truth behind Rowling's phenomenal success: her unique creation of a secular enchantment? For she has made a magical world in which there is no God or religion or formal ethos or ideology. (Note: her references to Christmas are entirely about gifts and the "power of love" as professed by Dumbledore exists in no consistent or ubiquitous form.) Perhaps this is also the real reason why the Christian fundamentalists and the Vatican denounce her? And is this why she crosses all cultural and national boundaries, and why youth in particular, who are secular at heart, respond to her?
A final point: Even on second reading it was not obvious to me where the story was going. That Rowling can do this, extend the mystery and suspense over so many books-and such large ones at that-shows the magnitude and ingenuity of her vision. This is an epic tale with a vast cast of fascinating characters and creatures. I am surprised and dismayed at the general refusal of other writers and critics to recognize what she has accomplished as a literary feat, regardless of her worldwide recognition and absurd sales. Insistence on the flaws is no excuse. What perfect book is she being measured against? No matter what the begrudgers, anti-popes, and psychobabbling Byatts have to say, this series is a masterpiece.

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