Welcome back to Hogwarts, wizards, witches, and muggles alike. You know you’ve read a heavy book when you get to the next one in the series and think, “Only 650 pages? Thank God, a short one!” The first half of the sixth book brings a lot of setup for the all out war in the seventh book and a heaping dose of raging teenage hormones, about which I have some thoughts. Also, Albus Dumbledore remains a mother-effing boss. Let’s swoop on into it, shall we?
I thought the opening conversation between Scrimgeour and the Prime Minister was a nice way to acknowledge that events in the wizarding world have an effect on those in the Muggle world. We don’t need to spend all day on it, but it is nice of Rowling to let us know she did think about that part of the story. It also serves to explain how big a deal Voldemort’s return to power is, as it necessitates a rare interaction between these two. Another way she shows this awareness of the larger world is in Arthur Weasley’s promotion. Wizards taking advantage of the situation to turn a selfish profit is another very realistic detail. To borrow from another fandom, as the Doctor once said “When you find something brand new in the world, what’s the next thing you look for?...A profit.” I was also pleased to see the positive flip side of this idea in Fred and George selling actually useful protection magic. Who would have known at the beginning of Sorcerer's Stone that Percy would turn out to be the disappointing Weasley son and Fred and George would grow up to make their parents proud?
Obviously Snape is a central figure in this book. Reading this book with foreknowledge of coming events makes him so much a more impressive character. Just imagine the conversation that had to have happened between he and Dumbledore in anticipation of Snape’s conversation with Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix at his home in Spinner’s End. It makes it so much more intense and when you put yourself in his shoes, you have to love Snape. He is impressively sneaky and it’s amazing how well his cover stands up under Bellatrix’s scrutiny. And when you get to his encounter with Draco the fuckboi during Slughorn’s Christmas party, you have to have some sympathy for Snape. He has to put up with so much of Malfoy’s bullshit to maintain his cover for the Order. His frustration is palpable. And then there’s the true identity of the Half-Blood Prince. It makes you look at the book in a whole new way when you wonder how Harry would react if he knew who the Prince was from the jump. And then when you consider Snape’s true motivations, it gives you yet another way to look at the book, wondering how Harry would feel if he knew about all that as well. Impressively complex, well played Rowling.
When we first encounter the pairing of Harry and Dumbledore, Harry’s refusal to believe Dumbledore is really coming to get him is a good way to establish his lack of trust. Dumbledore’s understanding about his feelings makes an excellent beginning at attempting to regain it. I also appreciate Harry’s nerves at encountering a respected figure outside of his usual context. It’s a very coming-of-age moment. Once we get to Slughorn’s, we get to see how clever Dumbledore is, knowing he couldn’t convince Slughorn to come to Hogwarts but that the opportunity to teach Harry would be too tempting to resist. He is a smooth mofo and it’s kind of amazing to me that no one in the entire wizarding world has yet caught onto him completely.
As we begin his private lessons with Harry, I love Dumbledore’s honesty about his assumptions when history cannot be confirmed by facts. It’s the kind of openness he should have had with Harry the whole time, but as a parent, I can understand how it’s hard to fine-tune that distinction of how much detail kids are able to comprehend at what level. In retrospect, Dumbledore should have erred in the opposite direction, but it’s easy to understand why he did what he did. But it makes one wonder how the story would have turned out if Dumbledore had been open with Harry from the jump. I’m undecided on how I feel about the use of Pensieve as an exposition tool during the lessons. By this point in the series, it starts to feel a little overused, but I’m hard pressed to think of another way to get so much necessary information about past events to the readers & characters effectively. Dumbledore is right to share these memories, even if Harry is too naive to understand why they are so important (though Hermione is not, because she’s amazing), so I guess in the end I have to give it a pass.
The other major figure that plays a role in this book is everyone’s hormones. It starts to ramp up at Quidditch tryouts, when Hermione equates Ron’s happiness about being on the team with preserving the safety of the entire school in terms of reasons to break the rules about what you can use magic for. Around this point, I began compiling a list of alternate titles for this book.
Harry Potter and OMG Raging Hormones Everywhere
Harry Potter and Do I Have to Smack Every Single Teenager (Except Ginny) in the Head?!
Harry Potter and OMFG, You Fucking Idiots
Harry Potter and JUST KISS ALREADY. NO, NOT HER!
Harry Potter and Teenagers Who are Stupid and Mean To People They Like
Harry Potter and If You Just Thought About It For a Second, You’d Realize You Both Like Each Other and If You Cut the Crap You’d Get Together a Full Book Sooner
Harry Potter and My Regrets About How I Handled Myself With Boys During My Adolescence
Harry Potter and The Realistic Depiction of Hormonal Teen Behavior That Still Might Have Been Better If Handled In Another Way
Most of the crap that gets pulled in the name of hormones in this book gets a pass, but there’s one particular incident that bugs. Hermione invites McLaggen to the Slugworth’s Christmas party to make Ron jealous. It’s not the most admirable behavior, but she’s a vulnerable, insecure teenage girl, not an idol of perfection, so fine. However at the party, she ducks McLaggen and here’s where I have a problem. When Harry finds her, her appearance is described as disheveled and we learn that all McLaggen wants to do is talk Quidditch and make out. She then spots him looking for her and proceeds to run and hide. Girl, NO. You are Hermione FUCKING Granger and you do not put up with unwanted sexual advances. Tell him in no uncertain terms that is not OK, jinx the FUCK out of him if he tries anything else, and MOVE ON with your day. Doing otherwise is uncharacteristic of her, a betrayal of an awesome character, and irresponsible of Rowling. I see myself in her reaction and wish I’d had an example of saying no to look to when I encountered situations like that in my youth.
While Hermione’s character suffers some minor damage, this book is where Ginny really comes into her own. Reflecting back to her first appearance, her development from tiny scared girl to badass self-assured young woman is totally natural and wonderful. I love that she dates other boys instead of just pining away for Harry when he’s not aware of or interested in her. Harry’s jealousy upon seeing her involved in the Slug Club is subtle and well done. It’s clear she’s been watching Hermione when they team up to scold Harry about taking direction from mysterious handwriting in a book (and also really nice for both of them to have that sort of sisterly friendship, since neither really has any other female peers to relate to). Her awesomely empowered response to Ron’s bungled attempt at being a protective older brother when he catches her with Dean is the only thing about the whole hormonal debacle that is not dumb (though she might have been kinder to Ron). I loved Ginny before, but I never quite realized how awesome she is until this point in this reread. It’s also worth noting that, knowing what’s coming, Harry trying to control his feelings about Ginny is kind of hilarious.
Anger aside, the nonsense with the hormones is well placed, because it’s immediately followed by Harry secretly observing the apparent scheming of Draco and Snape. Shit is officially about to Get. Real. and Harry and Co. have dropped the ball in getting distracted by girls, boys, and quidditch. We get a nice balance of comedic distraction and dramatic importance and this scene serves as the wake-up call. We all know what’s coming by the end of this book, so hold onto your butts and join me next month for the exciting, sad conclusion.