With the exception of 2002’s “Order of the Phoenix,” a slight hiccup in quality for the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling’s seven-part arc about a boy wizard’s battle to vanquish evil has been the rare artistic steamroller: both infectious and surprisingly enduring. So without further adieu, we can safely say that “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” lives up to the significant expectations of millions of fans, and might just be the best book in the series so far.

There has been much talk leading up to the book’s release that this addition to the series is darker than any other Potter book. Certainly the grim tone is set early on. We find out many important and powerful witches and wizards have been killed as the fight against the Dark Lord Voldemort has gradually broken into open war. At Hogwarts School, several students receive the dreaded news that a family member has been murdered, and there are rumors of a dark plot to infiltrate and capture the school.

Yet even in the darkest of wars, in the bleakest of times — as the book’s jacket says — life goes on. Indeed, whether following the hilarious mishaps of adolescent wizards in love for the first time or gaining vital insights into the life of a young Lord Voldemort, the reader is lulled into a false sense of security, one that comes crashing down in the final few chapters. It’s hard to believe that this late in the series, when we already know so much, Rowling is able to pull off a thrilling and unexpected twist ending and make it wholly believable. But somehow, that’s exactly what she does.

Though there are some laughs along the way, the book as a whole is a story of war and all its tragedies, and readers, the young especially, will be overwhelmed by the final chapters. It goes without saying that parents need to judge their own child’s sensitivity when putting a tome this dark in their hands. Make no mistake, it’s a dark beyond dusky: people die, the bad outweighs the good, and even Harry borders on unlikable in places.

The flow is much different from that of any other book in the series. Instead of getting all the action and answers at the end as readers are used to, things are revealed early and often in this book, and there are times when readers will almost feel guilty for knowing so much so early. Quidditch is given much less focus than usual, and a lot of the action doesn’t happen in front of the characters eyes, but in memories or in the background, while our young hero is unaware.

Rowling has a knack for infusing her side characters with very real personalities, many of which highlight the worst in human nature. In book two we met self-promoter extraordinaire Gilderoy Lockhart, in book four it was nosy reporter Rita Skeeter and shrewd politician Cornelius Fudge, and in book five it was the poisonous Delores Umbridge. Here, it’s the over-the-hill professor Horace Slughorn, whose dire need to be surrounded by important people is dually sad and oddly humorous.

“Prince” is certainly the best of the Potter books in terms of plot, but lacks a little something in other respects. Because the situation in the wizarding world is now much more desperate than before, Rowling is limited in using humor in her dialogue, which is unfortunate because it’s one of the best parts of her writing. But while “Prince” might read slower than its predecessors “The Prisoner of Azkaban” and “The Goblet of Fire,” the compelling plot stills make it next to impossible to put down.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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