For most adults and many children, it will seem a familiar story. The chosen child cast out into the wilderness alone, his loyal band of followers depleted in number, preparing for a battle against ultimate evil.
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth and penultimate of J. K. Rowling's bestselling fantasy series, the boy wizard falls in love, has his faith sorely tested and loses someone very dear to him. Harry becomes an adult, and faces the betrayals and deceptions of the adult world. And, along the way, he kicks some wizard butt and gets to face an army of zombies.
Ms. Rowling's novel may contain magical potions that shift time and mess with minds, but from the very first sentence it feels firmly placed in contemporary events. "It was nearing midnight," Chapter 1 begins, "and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind."
The world of Muggles -- flesh-and-blood humans, that is -- is in disarray, reflecting the chaos in the world of magic in a seeming allegory of our times. Wizard is at war with wizard, and you're either with them or against them. Harry, at the story's outset, receives a pamphlet from the Ministry of Magic warning of invisible traitors in his midst: "Should you feel that a family member, colleague, friend or neighbour is acting in a strange manner, contact the Magical Law Enforcement Squad at once."
Homeland Security, then, has come to Harry's world.
Now 16, Harry is waiting to return to his school, Hogwarts, for the sixth year, and still reeling from the revelation that he is fated for a showdown to the death with He Who Must Not Be Named, a.k.a. Lord Voldemort.
By the end of the book, after a series of nail-biting set pieces and fight scenes, Harry has been stripped of much that he holds dear, and is "more alone now than he had ever been before."
Although it's been two years in the writing, it's difficult to read The Half-Blood Prince without thinking of the events of the past 10 days in London. The British Prime Minister is in crisis, having suffered through several catastrophes that have severely shaken his confidence. He is visited by a wizard from the Ministry of Magic, who tells him that a force of evil is at loose in the world, "a wizard who has eluded capture for almost three decades!" The wizard may be Voldemort, but the feeling off the page is Osama bin Laden.
Harry doesn't even appear until Chapter 3. He is still living at the home of his loathsome aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, but increasingly fretful about his time there and eager to return to Hogwarts, where he will once again meet up with his friends Ron and Hermione.
After battling Voldemort in the last novel, and surviving the worst the Dark Lord could throw at him, Harry has now been dubbed "the Chosen One" by the magical press. It's a title that irks, but one that proves only more apt as the book progresses. Harry now knows that a prophecy foretells his battle with Voldemort, the killer of his parents, and that only one of them can survive.
As always, Harry is surrounded by mentors, like headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Professor Remus Lupin. The cryptic figure of Severus Snape, trusted by his colleagues at Hogwarts but viewed with suspicion by Harry, becomes even more crucial to the story in the Half-Blood Prince. The climactic battle scene, which involves a betrayal followed by a protracted and heart-rending death, is sure to leave fans shaken and stir up discussion on the Internet's many Potter websites.
As Harry comes to terms with his destiny and his role as a leader, he falls in love . . . and not with the person you might think. He soon realizes, though, that his powerful enemies will use this against him, and decides to renounce his love -- at least for this book. He is 16 after all; the object of his affection is bound to return in the next, and final, instalment of the series. In other Potter relationship news, Tonks the clumsy witch and Lupin the reluctant werewolf are spotted holding hands.
Love, in fact, is one of the crucial elements in the story, and you don't need to be a theologian to draw parallels with the world we live in. "You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!" Dumbledore tells Harry. "The only protection that can work against the lure of power like Voldemort's! In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, just as pure as you were at the age of eleven."
Harry is even able to feel empathy, at the novel's end, for his archenemy Draco Malfoy, whose fate is left hanging, reserved for a truly Manichaean conflict in the seventh novel. The boy wizard, in this sense, is growing up, even if the moral geography of his world becomes increasingly flatter.
Without giving away developments that will figure in millions of bedtimes around the world during the coming months, it is safe to say that Harry's tale concludes with equal measures of menace and optimism.
"In spite of everything," Ms. Rowling concludes, "in spite of the dark and twisting path he saw stretching ahead for himself . . . he felt his heart lift at the thought that there was still one last golden day of peace left."
In every Potter novel there are momentous revelations, and the Half-Blood Prince is no exception. Avert your eyes now if you like all your secrets to unfold on the page. In this book the reader discovers something heretofore unknown about Albus Dumbledore: His favourite kind of jam is raspberry.
You thought maybe we'd reveal the identity of the Half-Blood Prince? Go, read the book, find out for yourself.