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Review: Charm still strong in sixth 'Potter'

Mysterious 'Prince' prepares stage for final episode

By Curt Merrill
CNN

Editor's Note: The following Harry Potter review may contain spoilers. If you'd rather not know anything, stop reading now.

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Review
J.K. Rowling

(CNN) -- Harry Potter's name may be on the cover, but the star of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is his black-hearted nemesis, Lord Voldemort.

As the sixth volume in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series begins, murders by Voldemort and his Death Eaters have created a blanket of fear that stretches beyond witches and wizards into the world of Muggles, or non-magic users.

It's a long way from the hopeful beginnings of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the series' first volume. Times are bad; even the gloomy weather in "Prince" reflects Voldemort's return.

At the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the noble Headmaster Dumbledore and Harry try to piece together Voldemort's patchwork past, hoping to find clues to any possible weakness.

But Voldemort's past isn't the only thing on Harry's mind. As usual, there are Quidditch matches to play, new spells and potions to learn, and Draco Malfoy to keep an eye on. This time around, Malfoy, Harry's longtime rival, occasionally disappears from the school. Given Malfoy's malevolent bent, Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, suspect he's up to no good.

And then there are the emotional tensions of adolescence. Harry and his friends are now 16 and their hormones are running wild. Hermione becomes insanely jealous when Ron participates in public make-out sessions with a classmate. Harry can't stop thinking about a certain Gryffindor girl.

At one point, one character even calls another a "slut" -- harsh language for a Harry Potter character.

Simmering cauldron

At 652 pages, "The Half-Blood Prince" is shorter than the fifth book, 2003's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (870 pages), and Rowling keeps them turning.

She cuts down on details and exposition, which are occasionally missed -- without the aid of memory charms, remembering some plot points, previous characters and their significance is harder than an O.W.L. exam. But it also prevents the book from getting bogged down, as portions of previous volumes were.

Harry's visits with Dumbledore are most memorable. After five books, fans know about the elaborate contraptions and packed shelves of the headmaster's office, so Rowling gets straight to the good stuff: Learning about Voldemort. Rowling paces her delivery of information so that readers don't get any information ahead of Harry. We struggle to connect the dots of Voldemort's mysterious past right alongside the young wizard and then get to share his "eureka!" moments.

The last pages of "Prince" are a simmering cauldron of sorrow and hope, brimming with anticipation. Hogwarts may not reopen next term, Voldemort's power is growing and Harry has lost someone dear to him. For glass-half-full types, though, there's a wedding on the horizon, Voldemort's weakness has been discovered and Harry is, for the moment at least, happily in the company of friends.

The brooding story and teenage angst in "Prince" may not be appropriate for the youngest readers, but anyone who's followed the story since the first book is well-prepared for the new developments.

Now, where can I pre-order book seven?

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