The Harry Potter phenomenon is against the writing of this review. Ardent fans of J.K. Rowling's enterprise cannot bear to hear a word of what goes on in the novel without having read it themselves. Be assured, this review will not divulge any spoilers, but will, regrettably, discuss the plot. To shame, I know; but it shouldn't matter anyway--you've read the book already, haven't you?
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is another compelling dive into Rowling's mysterious world of witchcraft and wizardry. Our protagonist, along with his "best mates" Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, return for their sixth and penultimate year of magical enlightenment at the Hogwarts School. For Harry, the burdens continue to mount. The "Dark Lord," Voldemort, whose return was discovered by Harry at the end of year four but not acknowledged by the Ministry of Magic until recently, has led a series of attacks already, his forces continually growing stronger. Harry recognizes Voldemort's desire ultimately to kill him, and must always been on guard.
The novel veers from the structure of past episodes by developing its existing characters more fully, rather than introducing new ones and arbitrarily fitting them in the puzzle. (A notable exception is the oddly likeable Professor Horace Slughorn, who takes over as Potions master when Professor Snape, a key figure, is finally given his dream job of Defense Against the Dark Arts master). Several of the most mature scenes Rowling has yet written come when Headmaster Dumbledore and Harry trace Voldemort's past to develop a theory about the Dark Lord's supposed immortality. As a result, the more we learn about how passionately the mysterious villian strove to dehumanize himself, the more humanized he appears to the reader. And in the time Harry and Dumbledore spend together, more is revealed about Dumbledore as well, and the two forge a unique friendship.
While the Half-Blood Prince is, perhaps, a bit more amorphous than the last few installments, it's also better. Rowling has eliminated many of the superfluous subplots that bloated the last two works, instead choosing to notch up the complexity of her most important, and strongest, characters. She rarely beats you over the head with one concept, as is her worst tendency, and neatly ties her narratives together, as is her best. Harry himself is much more affable here, carrying his burdens with a respectable civility (if you remember in the last book, Harry whined much more frequently than many readers were willing to bear).
The end of the novel is crushing, but necessary. But don't scream in anger over the perpetrator immediately--Rowling may have a masterful trick up her sleeve, as always.