J.K. Rowling promised from the beginning that the Harry Potter novels would grow progressively darker and that important characters would die. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince she's kept that promise with an intensity that may trouble younger readers.
Hogwarts School remains the familiar setting for most of the book, but Ms. Rowling seems bored with it. She throws in familiar bits-quidditch, Dobby the house-elf, oddball teachers, spells-gone-awry-and adds romance, with Harry and his best friends all developing crushes. But war in the magic world overwhelms cuteness, and that war has spilled over into the ordinary world: The book opens with the prime minister weighed down by worry because (due to magic, he learns) a bridge has recently collapsed, several people have been murdered, and a gloomy mood has settled on London.
Harry, of course, is the "Chosen One" who will battle the evil Voldemort, and in this book Professor Dumbledore steps up Harry's training, bringing him in for "lessons" that reveal crucial details about Voldemort's past. Although Harry learns that he and Voldemort have much in common, Dumbledore explains that Harry has a "pure soul," which shows itself in his capacity to love. Love separates him from the Dark Lord, who has become increasingly twisted and evil in his quest for immortality.
In the last hundred pages the dark forces appear to gain the upper hand and Hogwarts is left in disarray. Judging from the ending, Harry might not be back at Hogwarts for his last year. Ms. Rowling suggests that Harry, like a hero in a revenge Western, won't rest until he brings the murdering Voldemort and his followers to justice.
Critics are falling all over themselves to praise this latest Potter, but the book has all the moral problems of earlier volumes with considerably less charm. No matter how many times Ms. Rowling is compared to Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, Roberta Green Ahmanson's column in WORLD three years ago needs to be taken seriously: "Ms. Rowling has created a character who truly goes where fairy tales have never gone before: Harry, the character every child reader identifies with, the character every child internalizes, is a sorcerer."
Before reading the latest Potter, readers should wrestle with the implications of Ms. Rowling's success: Does facile acceptance of Harry's world-one that resembles this world with its God-established moral order, while throwing off its basic definitions-"put our children in spiritual danger by saying, implicitly, that it is safe to be a sorcerer"?