The Half-Blood Prince
A friend wrote to ask what I thought about the new Harry Potter book, and I thought my reply sufficiently lengthy (and spoiler-free) to post here, even if it is a few weeks late. I apologize for the lack of blogging the past few weeks. My wife and I closed on a condo two days after the bar, and we've had a busy time with painting, buying furniture, and moving.
Anyhow, on to Harry Potter.
I finished it just after the bar exam. I was not terribly impressed, which was also how I felt about Order of the Phoenix. Strangely though, for opposite reasons. I though OOTP was much too convoluted, with too many characters, too many plots, and a loss of focus on the central themes and characters of the earlier books.
With Half-Blood, I thought there was too LITTLE action, and too much rehashing the central themes of the earlier books without adding much. Giving JKR the benefit of the doubt, I assume books 6 and 7 will ultimately be best read together, and that would explain why there was so much setup in Half-Blood without much payoff.
I did like that she returned to a slightly more complex take on Snape, who I've always thought was the most interesting character in the books. I thought he came off just childish in OOTP. Obviously that was not true in Half-Blood. Still, I continue to be afraid that his complexity will never fully be explored.
In fact, that last point, combined with my distaste for the silly romantic entanglements in OOTP and especially Half-Blood, has reminded me of a rather obvious point about the books: they are written for children.
Now of course, all of the books in the series have been written for children. Why then did I find the earlier books (esp. 2-4) so much more compelling that the most recent? I think it has to do with the expected pace of evolution in the story and the characters.
In a long children's story, the amount of complexity that will be explored as the story progresses does not increase nearly as much as in an adult novel or series of novels. Thus while a children's novel might be expected to reach and maintain a lower plateau of sophistication, an adult novel can be expected to provide increasingly high-level payoffs as it gets to the fifth or sixth volume.
While the main characters in the Harry Potter books have certainly aged, and thus the things that concern them have changed since they went through puberty, the level of sophistication in dealing with those issues has not changed much at all. Thus the discussions of death and sex in Books 5 and 6 seem about as sophisticated as the discussion of evil relatives and bullies in the first book.
Thus an adult reader can read the first books and enjoy the relatively unsophisticated approach to what are, essentially, unsophisticated problems. Now that the series is attempting to deal with truly difficult issues, the books seem a bit, well, mediocre.
That's what I think, anyway.