I have to say it. I'm sure your boss, your grandma, the barista at your favorite coffee-shop and your 8-year-old niece have all told you, but I have to say it: if you haven't read these books yet, you need to. Badly.

And this book, the latest, Book 6, is marvellous. Heart-breaking, ball-your-eyes-out, take-your-breath-away marvellous. And I can't tell you why without spoiling it for you. Instead, I turn to the previous 5 books and say:

The first 3 books (The Sorcerer's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets & The Prisoner of Azkaban) deal with dark forces, very big things, yes, but the fourth book is pivotal in that Harry's struggles suddenly become serious--not "no more messing around" serious, because Rowling still keeps her wonderful wits about her and cracks plenty of jokes, but serious in that Harry Potter can no longer have any illusions about being a normal kid--not even a normal wizard. Harry's character is changed by the events of Book 4 (Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire), and while plenty might argue that the change is for the worst, I must say--though he's no doubt a little grumpier, a little less pleasant to be around--that I think he's a much stronger character for it. His weaknesses start coming out, finally, which makes him feel like a complete, honest (however adolescent) character. The first 3 books made him out to be a bit of an accidental hero--always prepared, always brave, always (he says it himself) a bit lucky--while this book puts Harry to the test, literally, to see how he reacts when he sees what really rides on his bravery, luck and skill.

HALF-BLOOD PRINCE is a little like that: pivotal. Big things happen, and Harry is, as always, in the thick of it. This book answers a lot of questions, but asks plenty of new ones as well; it introduces some terrifying new characters (Fenrir Greyback) and develops some whose half-existence has been bothering me for years (Narcissa & Draco Malfoy).

And here is one of the (many) things I love about J.K. Rowling: she gives you these wee insights into even the most terrible characters, the ones you love to hate (think Book 5, The Order of the Phoenix, "Snape's Worst Memory"), so that, whether you like it or not, you often end up feeling a bit of pity for them--remember the way Lucius Malfoy talks to Draco in Book 2, like he thinks Draco's an annoying little prat, too? That's gotta sting, having your dad talk down to you like that, and it explains a lot about why Draco's such an arrogant punk--he has to get respect somewhere, even if he's only forcing it from those he thinks beneath him. But just wait--Rowling's got more on Draco coming up.

Another thing I love about Rowling: every question you could ever have gets answered, eventually. Dead serious! Every time I come up with some doubt, or some little bone to pick with her plotlines or characters, she addresses it--even if I have to wait a few books for an answer. An example: "Is it really likely that Harry could be so constantly the center of attention, finding himself in these race-against-Voldemort circumstances every single year at Hogwarts?", I found myself wondering after the fourth book, and the fourth year of a plot against Harry, etc. Well, J.K. Rowling came back with a snappy little (okay, 800+ pages) Book 5 that addressed just that: why, precisely, Harry can never quite have a Voldemort-free existence, and why he finds himself, always, whether cast in a positive or negative light, a celebrity. Why Harry will always be more than even "The Boy Who Lived."

In closing, THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE is everything I hoped it would be. After Book 5 (with no Quidditch, very little Dumbledore, Harry on the Black List, and that damned Dolores Umbridge), Book 6 takes its time getting going so that we get a lovely, refreshing, few chapters of normal life at Hogwart's (I know I missed it, didn't you?) and plenty of Dumbledore (who is wonderful, as always, and heart-breakingly scarce in Book 5) before Book 6 takes off to the mad beat of jungle drums, and leaves you breathless and weak. The greatest compliment I can pay to J.K. Rowling is this: for a minute there, she had me convinced that absolutely anything could happen. I believed she could kill off all the best characters, I believed that good might not be enough to win, I believed that there might actually be no coming back, no happy ending, nothing.

I really did. No matter how I looked at it, logically, when I started or finished the book, I believed that she could break all those plot rules about who has to survive and who can be killed. I say nothing of whether there is or is not a happy ending--read it! Please, just do!--only of what Rowling achieved in pulling me so fully into the story that I was able to lose sight of the laws of fairness and forget about Book 7 for a second and see it as real life where, really, good doesn't always win--where there doesn't have to be a sequel. Kudos, my dear--my hat is off to you!

HARRY POTTER & THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE may be (do I dare say it?) Rowling's very best yet.


I have a theory about Crookshanks--wanna read it? Click here.

For fun extra stuff (back stories on obscure characters and Rowling herself, cut scenes, any and all things Harry Potter) check out Rowling's official site: jkrowling.com.

For you Hogwart's fiends, who just can't get enough, check out the Warner Bros. site. You can enroll in Hogwarts, try on the Sorting Hat, shop for wands, try out for the house Quidditch team, and even more stuff that I haven't figured out yet (I'm in Gryffindor, my wand's unicorn hair/willow/10" and I play beater on the Gryffindor team, if you must know). A true nerd experience, and very cool.

Lastly, for a really good sorting quiz, click the pretty Gryffindor picture!

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