Raising a young hero can be a tricky business - even without the use of magic. Many authors avoid fictional growing pains by either freezing their characters in time, à la Peter Pan or Alice, or shuffling them off stage when they get beyond that wide-eyed precocious stage, as C.S. Lewis did with the four young Pevensies.
(In fact, Lewis went so far as to punish Susan for growing up by denying her access to Narnia in "The Last Battle.")
Frankly, creating believable teenagers in fiction is a tougher job than is usually acknowledged. Which is why it's nice to see that Harry's turning out so well.
His (admittedly justifiable) sullen anger from "Order of the Phoenix" is gone, and in its place is a determination to enjoy life. As a result, the first half of the book offers a sense of lightness to balance the ominous doings to come. Savor the trip to the Weasley twins' new prankster emporium, as well as the banter and the teenage crushes, because, as Rowling has indicated, the casualty list continues to rise, and Book 6 does not come equipped with a happy ending.
Actually, it doesn't really end - the reader just runs out of pages. More than any of the previous books, "Half-Blood Prince" is a cliff-hanger, setting up the climactic showdown to come.
The first two-thirds of the novel focus mostly on life at Hogwarts. After the battle at the Ministry of Magic that ended "Order of the Phoenix," Harry, Ron, and Hermione try to resume lives as ordinary teenage wizards, albeit amid heightened security and a seemingly never-ending series of tragic headlines in the Daily Prophet. (I won't belabor the obvious parallels to life after 9/11.)
Except Harry can't quite pull off "normal" anymore: It's hard to focus on Quidditch when you're convinced that there's at least one Death Eater among the student body. And when the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is none other than Professor Snape.
In addition to his usual studies, Harry and Professor Dumbledore are trying to learn all they can about Voldemort's personal history through Dumbledore's Pensieve (a scrying pool that serves as a dandy flashback device).
The knowledge gained about the Dark Lord's so-called immortality leads them on a quest for artifacts in which Voldemort has secreted pieces of his soul.
Throughout the novel, Rowling draws together plot threads she's spun as far back as "The Chamber of Secrets," and it's exciting to see the tapestry taking shape.
Adult readers may find that she's telegraphed a few of her moves too heavily (you can tell who's not long for the world by Chapter 10), and the novel gets a little exposition-heavy in spots.
Also, there are so many characters now that a few old friends don't get to do much but wave hello. (Personally, I can never get enough of Fred and George Weasley, and while some readers found Luna annoying, I plan to dedicate a shrine to her.)
But as always, Rowling excels at propelling the action forward, and her creativity is undiminished. Also, she raises some interesting questions about the perils of believing the best in others, and whether the possibility of redemption is always worth the cost.
And there's a hint that the themes of trust and redemption may be developed further in Book 7, which, to my thinking anyway, would add a greater layer of nuance and complexity to some characters who could sorely use it.
Adults and teen readers can skip this paragraph, but parents of young Potter-maniacs, this means you: Several of the scenes are pretty tough going, and one of the characters killed is dearly loved.
Parents might find it helpful to read the book first and make sure that their young reader can handle the material. (They'll also need to provide hugs at the end.)
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.