Or, “My weekend with the new Harry Potter book”.
Spoilers abound, so avert your eyes if you want to remain innocent of the plot details.
At the beginning of the book, Rowling appeared to signal that the status quo in Potterland was about to change, which was something of a relief, after the wheel-spinning of the last book. Still, I have to confess that I was still thinking she’d probably back off by the end, that Snape’s situation would once again be returned to mysterious ambiguity, that Voldemort would receive some minor setback, that Hogwart’s would go on as it has. I knew someone was supposed to die, and that the money was on Dumbledore. After the first four chapters or so, I was thinking instead that it would probably be Draco Malfoy.
Fooled me. Rowling really does seem to be building the narrative towards conclusion, and I am very glad for it. I’m still vaguely nervous that she’ll somehow backslide and revert the whole story to the Hogwarts’ norm, or that Dumbledore will just have had a comic-book death from which he can be resurrected (or a Jedi death so that he’ll be a blue glowie advising Harry from beyond the grave). The latter seems particularly possible, given the mysteries about the false Horcrux that Harry and Dumbledore secured. I hope not.
The most likeable thing about the book is that it carries forward Harry’s classically adolescent behavior from the last book but suddenly Harry finally breaks through to a maturity of his own. For the first time, after Dumbledore explains to him how Voldemort has forced the terms of the prophecy to come true, Harry seems to actually be an active protagonist. Up until now, the character has always ridden on the plot’s rollercoaster, a slave to its conveyances. He’s never really done anything, just had things done to him. It’s one of many weaknesses of these books, the previous predictability of the narrative structure and Harry’s passivity (coupled with his author-manipulated thick-headedness or cluelessness) within the plot. But the clouds break here and the sun comes out. Harry knows enough to act and has an independent sense of what he has to, wants to, achieve.
Moreover, assuming that everything about Malfoy and Snape is as it appears in the plot’s climax, Harry also knows that his own judgement of the situation is superior to everyone’s, including Dumbledore’s. The book sets you up for much of its length to think that Dumbledore, Hermione, and Ron are correct in their skepticism about Harry’s suspicions of Malfoy and Snape, and then abruptly reveals that he was perfectly right all along. Harry’s become the Captain Kirk of the plot, with Hermione his Spock and Ron his McCoy.
I was a little surprised at how simple Snape’s actions at the end turned out to be. It really doesn’t matter now what we find out about Snape later: this pretty well seals the character’s fate and status within the story. He’s flipped to being a straightforward antagonist. Which makes all the effort lavished on Snape up to this point a bit odd, as if Rowling changed her mind about him. It’s one of the problems with the books in general. They’re partly driven by the public-school, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, setting, which requires at least one sadistic schoolmaster who hates the protagonist. Fine, that’s Snape. But up to this point, Dumbledore has also been in the Mr. Chips’ role as headmaster, and when there’s a kindly headmaster who has a deep personal connection to the protagonist, the continued employment of the sadist becomes a bit harder to justify unless the sadist has some kind of hold over the kindly headmaster. In the last book, Rowling finally explained why Dumbledore allowed the Dursleys’ torment of Harry to continue so long (and there’s a nice, brief, sharp exchange about that in this one as well) but now Dumbledore’s faith in Snape simply seems a bit weird and his tolerance for Snape’s abusiveness even more so. I assume there’s more to come on this in the next book, but it does feel now as if a good deal of set-up went to waste.
The book ends with the clear sense that the next book will not be set at Hogwart’s. I hope Rowling can carry through on that. It would be really annoying to have Harry constantly getting demerits or whatever because he’s sneaking off to find Horcruxes. I was hoping a bit also that at least some government officials would finally align usefully alongside Harry: the incompetence routine is getting a bit old. Maybe in the next book.
A final thought. At least to me it seems very possible now that a long-held speculation about Voldemort and Harry is true: they’re related by blood. In fact, my guess is that Voldemort is Harry’s uncle. We know very little about Harry’s mother even now, and I suspect that’s by design. Note that we’ve seen nothing of Voldemort’s father’s family: it would be very easy for Lily to turn out to be Voldemort’s half-sister.