Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a breathless ride, from the first couple of sequences involving the Muggle Prime Minister and then Snape performing a mysterious Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy to the heartbreaking funeral of one of my favourite characters.
It seems as though Rowling has achieved once again the tight plotting and exciting storyline that she managed in the Prisoner of Azkaban - this sixth book in the series is by far the best since that highlight.
Here we explore a great deal of Voldemort's back story through the use of memories that Dumbledore has collected from various people who had dealings with the Dark Lord. I loved delving into the why of Voldemort and how he became the pale and snakelike creature he now is from starting out as Tom Riddle.
As well as this, Rowling introduces the idea of Horcruxes - unlike some of the other items she has introduced into previous books just to fulfil some specific use, the Horcrux is much more than this and pulls together the plotlines that have gone before (e.g. the diary of the second novel). I enjoyed how Harry had to pursue Professor Slughorn in order to gain the final memory that would reveal Voldemort's plans.
Slughorn was an interesting addition to the cast of characters - a genial and rather shallow man, weak and somewhat cowardly. His arrival allowed Snape to finally take on the role of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, and pushed Harry into taking Potions and thereby discovering the textbook that was once owned by the Half-Blood Prince of the title.
I adored the fact that Hermione was deeply jealous of Harry's newfound ability in Potions. I also liked the way that Harry used the notations of the Prince in his textbook - although this lead to one rather nasty and gruesome moment.
In fact, this book is heavy on the nasty events. It is emphasised how much the wizarding world has changed and grown more distrustful. Some pupils are no longer allowed to attend Hogwarts; each day Hermione scans the Daily Prophet to see who has died; and there are gory moments in the plot (such as when Draco and Harry face off against each other).
There are many moments that make this book one of the best in the series. For instance, I deeply appreciated the beautiful touch of Dumbledore saying, at the start of the book, that Harry would be safe because he was with Dumbledore - and then at the end of the book, Dumbledore says that he knows he will be alright because he is with Harry. It is a very poignant moment and reveals the deep feelings of love and respect that Dumbledore has for Harry.
I enjoyed finding out why Tonks' appearance and Patronus had changed, and I rejoiced when Harry and Ginny finally came together. Another paragraph that had me close to tears was when Harry realised that Luna and Neville were the only two members of the DA who had responded to Hermione's summons - very moving and honest.
Once again, the gloom of the book is disappated somewhat by some comedy moments - these included the Apparation lessons and test, and Ron's whole relationship with Lavender (pure comedy gold at times - Won Won!)
This book is excellent - thrilling and emotional in equal measure. And I defy anyone not to feel a tremendous sense of loss when they realise that the seventh book will not include Hogwarts, by now a character in its own right. I look forward immensely to the climax of the Harry Potter series.