Shrouded in a cloak of pre-release secrecy that the CIA would envy, the penultimate Harry Potter adventure was at last released in the summer of 2005 to tumultuous fanfare. Sales records toppled like the walls of Jericho. Nine million copies were snapped up within the first 24 hours, a figure that is simply stupefying in these days when most authors dream wistfully for sales of 50,000.
Let's put aside the perennial discussion about whether or not Rowling is any more deserving of this kind of success than any other author, and accept that a) this is the world we live in and b) one could probably name dozens of bestselling authors over the past decades who haven't possessed a whit of Rowling's genuine gift for storytelling. Let us simply address the book itself, how it fits in with the rest of the Potter saga, and where it may indicate the series will end up.
What was most striking to me as I began this book was its sharp shift in tone, particularly from the breathless and frenetic pace of the previous two entries. As has been the blueprint for the entire series so far, as Harry has grown up, so have the books. Half-Blood Prince is a much quieter and reflective (and shorter) volume than either Goblet of Fire or Order of the Phoenix, its secrets lurking beneath a deceptively placid surface, waiting until the very climax before bursting forth in a frenzy of action. Emphasis is even more strongly placed upon the characters' relationships than ever before, both in a whimsical sense (Rowling finally gets around to addressing long-held speculations among fans about what level of attraction Ron and Hermione might have for each other) as well as an ominous one (the backstory of Voldemort, what's really driving Snape and Harry's bête noire Draco Malfoy). Even the Quidditch matches have a sedate feel to them. Because over everything hangs the shadow of the prophecy that Harry might be the "Chosen One" to defeat Voldemort once and for all, and the even grimmer fact that Harry knows only one of them — either Harry or Voldemort, but not both — can survive their final encounter.
And yet Rowling's satirical sense is not dimmed in the slightest. Half-Blood Prince is the first book in the series to hint openly at an awareness of the post-9/11 global political climate. An amusing opening chapter — which, nonetheless, hints at many not-at-all-amusing incidents, particularly considering how closely this book was released to the July 2005 London terrorist bombings — that gets in a clever dig at Tony Blair serves to paint Voldemort as an invisible but omnipresent figure of menace not unlike Osama bin Laden. The new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour, meets with the unnamed (but, come on...) British Prime Minister to discuss random acts of violence that have occured around the countryside, even drawing the attention of the Muggle world. But Scrimgeour's policies in handling this apparently Voldemort-led activity have been no more effective than those of Bush and Blair towards bin Laden and the War on Terror: indiscriminately throwing wizards into Azkaban prison without bothering to ascertain whether they really do belong to Voldemort's dreaded gang of Death Eaters, and so on. The parallels to current events are as overt here as Rowling has ever allowed them to get.
Mostly, though, the story sets the stage for the final conflict, to be fought in book seven. Though numerous little subplots pepper the narrative as they have always done, the central plot thread revolves around the mysterious title character, a self-styled half-blood "prince" (there is no actual royalty among wizardry) whose hand-scrawled spells and notes in Harry's potions textbook lead our adolescent hero down paths of knowledge he would never have discovered otherwise. You think the Half-Blood Prince's identity is easy to guess, but Rowling manages to steer you off track well enough. Harry also teams up with Dumbledore in an attempt to discover exactly why Voldemort has seemed so difficult to track down and kill over the years; he must be protecting himself magically, but how? Only a glimpse into the memories of Hogwarts' new potions master, Slughorn, appears to hold the answer, but Slughorn himself has blocked those memories, ashamed of what he once revealed to the student who became the ultimate in evil.
There's a little more exposition throughout this volume than there has been in the others, and it's never a good thing when a book is too talky. But the pacing hardly ever flags — fans will find themselves blazing through Prince's pages as briskly as ever — and it quickly becomes clear that Rowling has been saving her energy for a bravura climax that, while it may seem inevitable in retrospect (indeed, there's one way in which it's a little predictable that works against the book's being considered an unqualified success), still delivers a punch that will have every Harry Potter fan, young and old, wailing and gnashing their teeth and setting discussion boards and mailing lists ablaze with speculation about the last book.
Part of the reason, I think, that Rowling's series has managed to remain so consistently strong when so many other long-running multibook fantasy sagas tend to falter after only two or three volumes, is that Rowling has had a definite plan, a clear blueprint for how her epic was to unfold through each volume (this is also the case with George R. R. Martin). Many fantasy writers, I fear, don't seem to think much beyond a book or two ahead, waiting to see how the sales pan out first before committing themselves to the rest of the story. Half-Blood Prince ends with a clear indication that Harry Potter's final adventure will be a powerhouse, and one that will place the capstone on a series that has made its mark, not merely on the bestseller lists, but on the hearts and imaginations of a generation of readers.