on July 17, 2005
Half-Blood Prince is easily one of the better books in the Harry Potter series, though each is a masterpiece. But the 6th installment of a 7-part series is bound to be full of great moments in the story. There remains a great deal unanswered in this book, however, and the 7th will surely need to be no smaller than an average encyclopedia. Somehow as I was reading this book, I felt that I was learning more and at a quicker rate than in Order of the Phoenix, but so many of Harry's problems and questions took so long to reach any sort of answer or resolution that I still ended up not knowing many of the secrets I expected to be revealed in this book. It must be that Rowling, in her grand scheme, is saving much for the last book. One thing seems to be for certain, though, and that is that Rowling will never lose that special touch, that supreme and genuine interest in the story and its characters that makes the writing so engrossing. After completing this book, I was in a state of total shock and to this moment I wish only to read the seventh book.
Half-Blood Prince is dark; I mean far darker than the last. This is the time I have always known was inevitable in the Harry Potter world, at last we are seeing chaos and war and battles break out within the walls of Hogwarts itself. Several of the chapters are particularly well-written, with great suspense and imagery; an example would be the time Harry and Dumbledore spent in the cave. Relationships blossom in this book at last, including Harry suddenly falling in `love' with Ginny Weasley, Ron dating Lavender Brown, Pansy and Draco clearly going out, and some serious hinting at a possible romance between Ron and Hermione when he gets rid of Lavender. Some of the focus on their teenage jealousies and squabbles, and their newfound interest in dating and `snogging,' was a cute touch, but admittedly not what I was exactly looking for. After all, it was more fluff than anything else, and certainly none of it was real love. Then, the useless couple of Tonks and Lupin was introduced in the end; all well and good, I suppose, but again not something that overjoyed me. The end of the book is very sad indeed, yet, I was not crying--I was merely shocked, flabbergasted at the circumstances. A Snapeless, Dumbledoreless Hogwarts that Harry Potter is not intending to return to next year? Yes, you heard right. Harry wants to go off and find all of Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes and face the final battle on his own.
Much of the book is devoted to Harry witnessing important memories in the Pensieve with Dumbledore so that he can gain a greater understanding of his enemy, the Dark Lord. Now, I have long been a fan of Severus Snape. I admit I love him. Most of my reasons for loving Harry Potter center on him. And while much was learned about him in this book, much is still unknown, and what we do now know is shocking. To begin with, we learn the names of his parents, muggle Tobias Snape and witch Eileen Prince (yes, Snape is the Half-Blood Prince.) It is also known that Snape overheard the prophecy regarding Harry & Voldemort and told the Dark Lord about it; however, supposedly he showed enough remorse after Voldemort used the information to kill Harry's parents that Dumbledore forgave and entrusted him. Many are accusing Dumbledore of naivety for this, but I believe that they are only looking at what is plainly on the surface of this book and forgetting many things. I will explain later why, amazing as it may seem, my love for and faith in Snape remain unshaken despite the fact that this book, from its beginning, seems to be saying that he is still on Voldemort's side. I believe it's too simple for Rowling to be writing that he is, after all, evil. To me it seems a set-up. Additionally, I was expecting a surprising reason for Dumbledore to trust Snape, not a simple apology. There must still be more to this than meets the eye.
Before I explain my case about Snape, I'll mention some of the things that remain a mystery after this book. Sev's patronus and greatest fear don't come up (in fact, while Tonks' patronus is revealed, Boggarts don't receive any mention.) Some interesting information is supposedly going to be divulged regarding both Lily and Petunia, but neither of them played much of a role in book 6.
So on to my favorite character, who ends up being the Prince mentioned in the title. When I first finished this book, I was somewhat upset because while I still loved Snape, I was aware that what he'd just done was not steering in the direction of redemption, as I had hoped to see him going. I also knew that, at least until some point in Book 7, almost everyone (in the books and in real life) would turn against Snape and regard him as a treacherous dog. Yet, after composing myself and reviewing what I'd read, I realized that I just cannot accept him as truly evil, or Dumbledore as an old fool.
Now, before reading this book, if I had to make a list of impossible things that could never happen...Snape killing the Headmaster and fleeing the school with a bunch of Death Eaters, would have been right at the top of the list. But, I'd have been wrong. I had a very strong feeling that Dumbledore would be the one to die in this book. But I never saw the way it happened coming. In the beginning of the story, Snape came in rather quickly. Once Harry was at school, Snape finally got the Defense Against the Dark Arts post he'd longed for. I was cheering. (Yes, he is no longer Potions Master.) But it turned out not to matter. In the second chapter, Narcissa Malfoy and her sister, Bellatrix Lestrange, visit the home of Sev and he makes with Narcissa (possibly out of love) an Unbreakable Vow--that Snape will help her son Draco carry out a task ordered of him by Voldemort, and will complete it himself should Draco prove unable. The task, it seems in the end, was to kill Dumbledore. Draco does prove unable, and Snape carries it out. Yet, it cannot be this simple. Dumbledore may have been aware of the task, and the Vow. From the moment Dumbledore returns from the cave, weakened, having drunk an unknown potion set by Voldemort to guard a Horcrux, he says he needs Severus. He never says what for, never asks to be healed. When Snape arrives Dumbledore calls his name and says 'please' (pleading for his life, as everyone assumes, or something else?) before Snape aims the curse at him that kills him.
This seems twisted, monstrous, unforgivable, no? Exactly: No. Not in my opinion, at least. I do not think it was Snape's choice to kill Dumbledore, but that the Headmaster had at least one reason for telling him that he must do this horrible deed. Of course from Harry's perspective (Harry, who has inherited, as Lupin says, a prejudice against Sev) it was cold-blooded murder and betrayal and he now wants to destroy Snape as much as Voldemort. But this too is far too simple; clearly, as the book ends on this note, there are things Harry does not understand about what has happened.
He has forgotten, for instance, about the argument overheard by Hagrid, between Snape and Dumbledore. This point never was addressed again, yet amidst all the turmoil, who can blame it for being overlooked? Consider it. Dumbledore telling Snape he must do something that Snape does not wish to do. For several reasons I can think of (mainly involving the Death Eaters and the Malfoys), this argument connects directly to the death of Albus. And what of the mysterious order given Snape at the end of "Goblet of Fire," at which he turned pale? Clearly he is being asked to do things most difficult, to make great sacrifices; how can the most enigmatic person turn out to be clear-cut evil?
Read carefully and you'll see that Snape has hatred and revulsion etched into his face when he performs the fatal Avada Kedavra. I see these emotions not as directed at his target, which Harry naturally assumes, but stemming from the act he is about to commit. It never really occurs to Harry that Sev may have been feeling the same things he'd been feeling when he was bound by his promise to force-feed the convulsing Dumbledore, does it? Probably far worse.
Snape acts rather outrageously for the remainder of his time in the story, not shockingly, yet he refuses to allow any harm to come to Harry (clearly Dumbledore would've wanted that). He seems to be in pain and becomes furious at the mere suggestion that he is a coward--because he has just done the most difficult and least cowardly thing ever asked of him. Dumbledore has repeatedly stated that Harry's life is more important than his own, and that Harry understands less than he. And the facts remain that he has in the past done much good despite his suspicious nature, & that not everything he told Bellatrix about staying loyal to Voldemort can be true. My final point has to do with the words Dumbledore cried while drinking the potion in the cave. I don't know why, but I feel these words are important, and that after the escapade Dumbledore may have known the end was near.
Thus I rest my case. Avid Harry Potter readers will want to dive into this one, I'm certain, and those who haven't yet discovered it should do so. Only possible complaints? 1) Too short; 2) Not enough anticipated answers given, yet new questions raised, 3) Disturbing ending leaves you frustrated waiting for the next book.
on July 20, 2005
I've just finished reading the latest installment of the Harry Potter chronicles. My chest feels as though my heart has been torn out from the book's tragic ending as I sit here typing, hopelessly admiring the tactic Rowling used to achieve her greatest success to date in this much loved children's book series.
Children and adults who read this book alike will be left reeling in its aftermath. As an adult I was first attracted to the Harry Potter series quite inadvertently. I had adamantly refused to read any of the three Harry Potter books published at the time until I was required to in college in my children's literature class. Almost instantly I was spellbound by Rowling's nostalgic narrative. Children of course (and quite a few adults as well) delighted in the fantasy and Harry's and friends' magical misadventures. However, I think much more alluring to adults is how Rowling's writing somehow manages to transport us in time to a much simpler, secure, and magical era in our own lives.
But in her latest achievement Rowling departed from her usual safe, magical, nostalgic atmosphere, instead embracing all too real themes prominent in the world at large. The opening chapter in her book portrays the muggle world hopelessly searching for answers to inexplicable acts of terrorism. In doing so, she has effectively raised the stakes in this book. No longer is it just the wizarding community in danger, but ours as well. It seems the ever present daily fear that magical characters live with is a very familiar echo of own terrorist fueled anxiety in this perilous new world we live in.
Gone is mystery obscuring Voldermort, who until this book, moved quietly(with a few notable exceptions) in the shadows of uncertainty and doubt. Every witch and wizard alive now knows Voldermort is back and that they all are in "mortal peril". Potter and Dumbledore themselves take further steps to pierce the veil of mystery that has always opaqued this character. Acting very much like FBI profilers the two reconstruct recollections of Voldermort's past, uncovering the truth about how a modest muggle born Tom Riddle became the scourge of the wizarding world, with unimaginable consequences for both.
Perhaps the darkest (and most beautifully poignant) aspect of this novel is the way she strips Potter himself of callow illusions of safety. In the first book Potter's mother had imparted some magical shield to him through her death at Lord Voldermort's hands. Indeed all Potter had to do to vanquish the Voldermort specter was touch him. Even when Voldermert was resurrected in the flesh in later books, Potter still had layers of protection consisting of members of the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore himself. But in this book every ounce of protection once had, whether real or imagined, is stolen from him, in one fateful moment atop Hogwort's castle. The ultimate irony of this scene is that it is Dumbledore's trusting optimism, in which Potter found some sort of emotional respite in earlier books, which tragically leaves Potter very much alone. By the end of this emotional epic Potter has become a man, abandoning all desperate hopes of shirking his final confrontation with his arch nemesis and accepts his destiny with ironclad determination. For adults, Rowling has successfully tapped into our own memory of whatever tragedy or trauma caused us to cease to believe in magic and forget childish illusions of security in our own lives.
This is not to say that the book is completing lacking in humor or the lighthearted moments we have come to expect from Rowling's writing, this book seems to be an effective amalgam of both. From family squabbles over Christmas dinner to hormonal teenagers taking lusty refuge in each other's arms in darkened classrooms or abandoned hallways this book had more than enough comical highlights. Ron and Hermione in their mature(or lack of it) relationship provide a great deal of humor in this novel.
However great this story might be or how well it sets the stage for the final epic showdown, this book may not be for everyone. It seems that Rowling is writing for adults or at least the children (now teenagers) that read the first book in the series when it was originally published. The vocabulary that Rowling uses is quite extensive and one should be prepared to have a dictionary on hand to discern the full meaning out of certain passages. Furthermore, as the characters have grown up so too have the series themes matured. Our teenage protagonists are now involved with romantic rivalries, rebelliousness, and quite a bit of making out. As mentioned before the themes and mechanisms Rowling utilizes in her writing may be too mature for younger readers. While this book will surly present hours of enjoyable entertainment to adults, parents would be well advised to wait for the eager younger readers to be a bit older before presenting with this wonderfully written all too real fantasy masterpiece.
on July 16, 2005
I'm one of those who couldn't wait until the morning to get hold of this book. I literally battled rain and cold weather with my sister to get our copies at 12.15 am, July 16, in a local bookstore in Argentina. According to my dad, I'm slightly nuts for doing that :)
In my opinion, though, this book was well-worth the extra effort. After picking it up, I returned to my house and started to read it. I just finished it, and I can sincerely say that it is simply outstandingly good. Yes, the other books were awesome too, specially the 4th and the 5th, but I think that Harry's world is becoming more defined with each book, and that makes for a thoroughly engaging reading experience.
What is new in this book?. Well, after having to come to face with the fact that Lord Voldemort is alive, the wizard community is in an uproar, and quite frightened. Cornelius Fudge has been sacked as Minister of Magic, and an Auror has been named in that position. Harry, Ron and Hermione get their O.W.Ls (Ordinary Wizardry Levels), and have to decide what courses to take for their N.E.W.Ts (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests), something that will define their future careers. Plots abound, and danger is omnipresent throughout the book. There is a new teacher of Defense against the Dark Arts, and also an eccentric new Potions' teacher. Of course, there is much more, including a death that I bet will make you cry, and that hurts Harry enormously. I won't tell you who dies, only that the event involves the Half-Blood Prince, and that I think it was a sacrifice rather than a murder.
But what's the point of telling you all this if you can read the book, and enjoy it as much as I did?. Suffice it to say that this is a worthy addition to the Harry Potter series. There is adventure, some romance, and many more elements that add up to make the kind of book that you simply must read. And now, after staying up all night in order to read this book, I really need to catch up on my sleep. If you haven't guessed my opinion on "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" yet, I'll say that I highly recommend it. Run to get your copy, if you don't already have one, and share the magic :)
on July 17, 2005
While the book was well written.. it did not seem to have a very thick plot. It was not multi-layered and filled with abrupt surprises as the old books.
This one actually proved fairly predictable. The beginning with a few added details point straight to the ending. I suppose it will provide a dark and exciting novel for its target audience. But the original fans are obviously growing older and reading comprehension developing further, so I would expect Rowling to remain more ambiguous, but I suppose she is saving that for the final novel.
I will not deny the book is entertaining and serves it purpose, it does set up the 7th book for a dark and adventurous finale. However, its approach to its conclusions were too direct and numerous.
on July 20, 2005
For me, the engine that has moved the plot through the entire series has been the question of whether Snape is evil or just hateful. This is the crux of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. All the evidence we have points to the former. But ... how much do you trust Dumbledore's judgement? If he was wrong about Snape, it throws into question his conviction that love is more powerful than evil. On the other hand, Dumbledore tells Harry that, as he is a lot smarter than the average wizard, his mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger. Can you swallow a mistake that huge?
In many ways I like this book the best of the series. It feels a lot leaner (and is a lot shorter) than the previous two because J.K. Rowling has dispensed with the subplots that were so entertaining/extraneous. The battle lines are clearly drawn, and the atmosphere in the wizarding world is post-9/11 Washington: shell-shocked, anxious, with many official attempts to appear to be managing a mostly invisible threat. Harry's personal life, however, has gotten a lot better. He's been largely freed from the familiar sources of persecution, and he's getting the respect he's earned from teachers, students, and even the press. He and his friends have the increased freedom and independence you would expect for sixteen-year-olds; many of the few lighter moments come during the wizarding equivalent of driver's ed.
If you're inclined toward the philosophical, you'll find grist for your mill in this book. If you're not, you'll just gulp it down as fast as you can and then wish for more.
on July 17, 2005
JK Rowling has clearly grown as a writer. Comparing "The Half-Blood Prince" to her earlier books shows Rowling's enhanced skills at setting scenes and shaping the mood. Unfortunately, this book does little to advance the overall store arc beyond where it was left at the end of book 5.
I can best compare "The Half Blood Prince" to a highlight episode of "Survivor". You tune in expecting another new episode that advances the plot, and instead you get a "clip-show" that does nothing of the sort. While it may effectively recap how we arrived at this point -- and fill in the backstory with additional details -- at the end we are left no further along that where we started.
It appears that Rowling wrote too much in book 5 (hence its length). As a result, she had already reached the point where book 7 should naturally begin and bring us to conclusion. So, she instead engaged in a well written, but meaningless, "summary" book -- a Harry Potter 'cliff notes' of books 1-5 -- that will delight those who wished to know more details about the Past in the Harry Potter universe, but that does little to satisfy those who were looking forward to advancements in the Present and movement towards the Future.
The "big event" at the end came across as a bit desperate; as though she felt she had to provide SOMETHING new in this book, if only to keep the masses off her back for the next two years as they wait for the finale.
In the end, I found "The Half-Blood Prince" to be repetative and underwhelming. Rowling clearly has a firm understanding of the world she created, but found herself without enough of a story to exend over the full promised seven books, and so took a shortcut with this one.
Oh well, maybe another two years won't seem that long ...
What an incredible book!
I don't know where to begin. Let's begin at the beginning, shall we? "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" opens with an amusing scene with the "Other Minister," who is actually the Prime Minister of England, being visited by the new Minister of Magic. I just pictured Tony Blair the entire time, especially when he was lamenting over an impending phone call from that "wretched" man who was the president of a powerful yet unnamed country...J.K. Rowling certainly has a sense of humor!
Let's get back to the main story. Lord Voldemort's followers are gaining power, and people everywhere (wizards and Muggles alike) are in danger. In order to help Harry learn as much as possible about the history of the Dark Lord, Professor Dumbledore enlists in the help of his pensieve to take Harry back in time to the days when Tom Riddle was just a young man. Harry eventually embarks on a journey to help his professor find four missing Horcruxes, which are magical objects in which He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has extracted parts of his soul in order to secure immortality.
There are many additional developments in this novel, too. The sixth-year students all receive the results of their O.W.L.S. over the summer, and they become more focused on the intensive classes that will prepare them for their N.E.W.T. exams the following year. Harry comes across a mysterious potions textbook that is marked as the property of the Half-Blood Prince. The book contains a bunch of shortcuts that make potion-making a breeze for Harry, but the identity of its previous owner remains a mystery, and Harry eventually gets more than he bargained for when one of the Prince's spells goes awry.
Hogwarts students receive a new Potions instructor when Professor Snape takes over as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher...a move that has Harry and his best friends, Ron and Hermione, absolutely befuddled. Draco Malfoy, Harry's nemesis, has been acting very strange all year. Harry believes that Draco has joined legions with the Death Eaters and is planning some sort of attack on the school, but there's no real evidence to support that theory, and Harry has a hard time getting anyone to believe him. There is also romance in the air at Hogwarts...love potions become very popular, and new couples are formed, some of which are better pairings than others. Harry finally chooses the girl that he was meant to be with from day one, but Ron makes an arse out of himself for the majority of the book, which is painful but also quite humorous (I know he'll set things right in Book Seven!).
The novel becomes darker and more somber as it progresses. There are many more deaths in "Half-Blood Prince" than any of the previous Potter novels...and that's saying a lot! Someone is bewitching objects and launching attacks on Hogwarts students...one of the most popular characters becomes gravely ill as a result of drinking a poisoned beverage. When Dumbledore and Harry set off on their climactic quest at the end of the book, the horrors they encounter are too gruesome to put in words. Young readers will ultimately be disturbed by what they read. (I'm a 25-year-old reader, and I'll probably be having nightmares for weeks! Seriously, when it comes time for "Order of the Phoenix" and "Half-Blood Prince" to be made into movies, I don't see how Warner Brothers will manage to avoid "R" ratings.)
Ultimately, the end of this novel is the most tragic and heartbreaking of any book in the series so far. It was also the most shocking. Personally, I had a feeling that I knew which character was going to die...it made sense to me that Harry would need to go into Book Seven as utterly alone as possible, and Rowling set it up so that's exactly what will happen. However, I was absolutely stunned when the final death took place, and that's all because of the second chapter of the book, when Snape meets with Bellatrix and Narcissa and pledges an Unbreakable Vow. Now, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Snape. (I think it's partially because I adore Alan Rickman, but I see now that my logic was incredibly stupid...this is a book, not a movie!) I always thought that there was something very important about Snape that readers were not privy to, and that the information would somehow redeem him. I also thought that since Dumbledore was such a great wizard, he was right in placing so much trust in Snape. I always thought that Snape really was a loyal member of the Order, and that he was putting himself at great risk by maintaining ties with the Death Eaters.
When Snape pledged the Unbreakable Vow to Narcissa, I had a feeling that he had majorly done himself in, and that he would be totally screwed over in the end, especially since it is revealed later in the book that people who break Unbreakable Vows die. Well...I don't want to spoil things by saying more than I already have, but things did not work out exactly as I had thought. Regardless of what I have ever thought about Snape, I never expected that he would behave the way he did at the end of the book. I was absolutely stunned. BUT...it will be interesting to see what happens in Book Seven. The reason Dumbledore finally gives for trusting Snape is incredibly flimsy...perhaps there's something more to it than meets the eye...maybe Snape actually proved himself to be the most loyal member of the Order by carrying out Dumbledore's orders at the end! I have no idea how that theory will play out, but it's just an idea...with J.K. Rowling, anything is possible. We will see!
The end of the book is unbelievably sad and depressing. It made me cry even though I saw the whole thing coming. I don't think I've been that sad since the spider died at the end of "Charlotte's Web".
"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is amazing. It is mature and moving and is by far the best book in the series so far. There are a lot of open-ended questions that are leading up to Book Seven...will Harry and his friends return to Hogwarts for their final year? Will there even be a Hogwarts to go back to? How on earth will Harry manage the impossible task that lies ahead of him? One thing's for certain...I can't wait to find out!
on July 17, 2005
Despite what respected, venerable, and self-proclaimed unbiased people might say about HP and the Half-Blood Prince, I feel it a duty as a die-hard fan of Rowling (and also a horribly dismayed reader of a few reviews) to write that this book was no disappointment.
Admittedly, certain parts made me cringe; adolescent love and pining do not mix well with the mature themes of death and loneliness. Some of Rowling's sophisticated humor was missing, and her attempts fell flat, especially with the "Lav-Lav" and "Won-Won" dynamics, but that is excusable. After all, not too many people can be expected to laugh and make jokes with the threat of Lord Voldemort looming over their shoulders.
There is less of a storyline in this book, but there is much progression within characters and their relationships. Harry is not quite the explosive, angsty teenager as in book V, and by the end has become a decisive and altogether admirable hero. The readers will find it more believable that such a young man has to battle Voldemort in the finale. Dumbledore plays a larger role as Harry's guardian after Sirius, but Harry becomes capable of dealing with emotional blows and terrifying revelations on his own. He is not the whining, self-absorbed 16-year old that is the figurehead of this generation. Being his age myself, I find it satisfying to see his portrayal of a strong-willed person determined to face whatever the prophecy holds for him.
Ron and Hermione have taken tentative steps in their relationship, but it is not a major plot. They serve their role as a stronghold for Harry well, and a few heartwarming sections revolve around the golden trio. After book IV, it was no big surprise to me that Harry's two best friends would end up with each other. However, they spend an alarming amount of time trying to make each other jealous (which I find slightly out of character with Hermione. Oh well.). Ginny's debut in book V prepared me for Harry's relationship with her, but I still try not to think about the jarring nature of this development, especially with the backdrop of Dark Marks hovering in the distance. I forgive Rowling because this is, after all, a children's book that shouldn't focus too much on depressing subjects. Overall, I feel that Rowling has done well in bringing up the characters. I mean, I HAVE literally grown up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
The pace of book VI is rather slow up until the last few chapters, but they make it worth the wait. Dumbledore's death certainly made me go into shock for a few hours, but it is a crucial part of Harry's weaning himself from other people. The Horcruxes are a bit far-fetched. I realize that a fantasy writer's prerogative is to make things up, but that is what makes the majority of them weak. Rowling manages to pull it off however, also tying off a few loose-ends. She leaves the book off where several questions have been answered, but also where more have surfaced. I have no qualms about confidently stating that the last of the HP books will be wonderful. It is perfectly staged for an amazing finale.
I have been as brutal as I can possibly be concerning HP, but I need to do the book justice. It is as unforgiving as this review. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is risky, unsettling, and possibly one of the most carefully-constructed novels of the current six. It is at the same time desperate and hopeful, overwhelming and satisfying.
on September 8, 2005
You ask if I am over 13. Heck, I am over sixty-seven.
What a delightful romp through a very sensitive portrayal of school life, despite the witch- and warlock-craft. I am told that American pubishers have finally stopped translating these volumes into a language that our American schoolchildren can understand, and that's nice, because a little exposure to something other than our culture won't damage them permanently. Exposure to failure is also a positive learning experience, as is the death of Dumbledore, if he is in fact dead.
Well and bravely done. I hate to admit it, but my life may be a little emptier without another chapter to read tonight.
on July 20, 2005
By now you've read that Book Six is a lot of set-up, back-story, character history, etc. While it's true many people--especially kids age 9-14--expect and demand highly-anticipated "action sequences" like the chaotic spell-zapping ones climaxing Books 4,5, and now 6, the simple act of telling a tale has for millenia engaged and entertained people. Rowling's long passages delving into Voldemort's "back-story" will entertain you not only because Voldemort's life story is interesting, but because she tells the story so well.
First, Rowling does not rely on expository; she does not subject readers to long passages of description and set-up in which no one but an omniscent narrator speaks. Instead, she uses the clever device of the Pensieve (a bowl-like receptacle for threads of people's memories) to plunge both Harry and the reader directly into the memory/back-story. What we end up with is witty dialogue and character set-up to rival any of the scenes taking place at Hogwarts in the "present." For example, the scene in which the Gaunt family is introduced is quietly compelling; consider the rawness of the setting and characters, Mr. Gaunt's abusive behavior towards his family, and the pathetic young daughter whom we can sense will later become important. That Mr. Gaunt can be so derisive towards Muggles and Half-Bloods while himself living in utter squalor is consistent with contradictory human nature; Rowling knows humans are more entertaining than character types, and her writing here reflects this.
The "memories" which reveal Tom Riddles' childhood are the best.Tom Riddle is fascinating, much more so than Lord Voldemort. This is one of the reasons why Chamber of Secrets held so much interest for me; despite the childish characters and less-mature themes, we got to meet Tom. Now, in Book 6, we really get to see Tom Riddle in action. The Pensieve reveals to us a portrait of villainous boyhood, and that's just plain chilling. Because modern society socializes us to associate childhood with innocence, "bad seed" children are both completely shocking and completely compelling. Rowling effectively demonstrates this with her crafting of the Tom Riddle persona.
Back at Hogwarts, Rowling's choice of romantic interest for Harry is appropriate and consistent with his character and previous books. You might be a little alarmed at the speed at which the young lady jumps from secondary character of intermittent significance to "Love Interest," but by the last scene at the funeral, you'll be fairly convinced of the depth of Harry's emotion for this girl.
Professor Slughorn is a delightful character, and has displaced the acerbic McGonagall and erudite Lupin as my favorite of all Hogwarts professors. The brandy-sipping, clotheshorse, gourmand Slughorn is essentially a LUSH, which is always funny, but it's his witty and genial manner--even while outright "dissing" students, staff, or Hagrid's pets--that makes him so amusing. Rowling is good at portraying him as an essentially good-natured--if hedonistic--man whose tendencies have led him to make some disturbing and potentially devastating choices. We'll probably see in Book 7 if his nature will be a help or a hurdle to Harry and his co-horts on the side of good.
To sum it up for you sans "spoilers": Voldemort as you are used to him does not put in an appearance here. Evil is revealed in other ways and through other individuals. Tom Riddle's story will chill and ensnare you. You might end up feeling rather sorry for Draco Malfoy. And if you're nine, a specter more disturbing than Voldemort might be the mental images of your heroes and heroines "snogging," arms and limbs "entangled."
Topics and themes explored include: the ineffectiveness of government and infrastructure in the face of chaos, human weakness as a window for evil, Bad Seed-type origins of evil (Nature or Nurture?), Mentor-Apprentice/ Father-Son relationships, feminist critiques and critiques of feminism (Hermione is offended women are less likely to be thought capable of evil), free will vs. prophecy.
You will be treated to witty and inventive byplay throughout. This is probably the most amusing (in terms of dialogue) of the books thus far; even Ron and Professor Trelawney have a dry rejoinder now and then ("Essence of Insanity?"; "bedbugs, my boy.")
No,it is not the *best* book thus far. In some ways, it is not even perhaps an improvement over Book Five. You may be slightly dissapointed if you expect lots of Quidditch, lots of "action," or drawn-out and complex climax scenes. You may feel confusion over Rowling's choices here, some of which may feel inconsistent or out-of-the-blue (like the afore-mentioned Harry Love Interest ambush, Harry's sudden maturity and comparative lack of anguish over the death at the end, the reason behind Tonk's recent apathy, etc.), but if you have loved any of the previous books, you probably have the patience and appreciation to stick with Rowling and trust she has more tricks up her sleeve.
Like Slughorn would, I hope Harry Potter connoisseurs take the time to relish Book 6's intricacies of character development, dialogue, and, yes, plot.