Great escape

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

J K Rowling <em>Bloomsbury, 607pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 07475

It has happened so often, that I now recognise each stage. I pick up the new instalment of Harry Potter with a mixture of intense curiosity and bitter professional envy. I tell myself that it's a ridiculous, overhyped fuss about nothing. And five minutes later, I am fathoms deep in a story that has me by the throat.

Essentially, that woman with far too much money has done it again. The opening chapter of her sixth book is a superb blend of comedy, mystery and cunningly packaged information. The Prime Minister of the Muggles (who could easily be Tony Blair) is fretting over certain horrible, inexplicable happenings in the "real" world, when a stranger in a lime-green bowler hat suddenly appears in a puff of smoke. It is Cornelius Fudge, Minister for Magic. He has come to warn the PM that there is severe trouble brewing in the unseen wizarding community. Some junior critics have already complained that there is "too much talking" at the beginning, but take no notice - J K Rowling needs this device to bring us up to date, so that we hit the ground running when the plot really kicks in.

The wicked Lord Voldemort is on the rampage again. His tireless adversary Albus Dumbledore (headmaster of Hogwarts School) interrupts Harry Potter's holiday with his unlovely Muggle relations so that Harry may assist him in the penultimate stage of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil.

The pace is swift, the setting is vividly evoked, and all our old favourites obligingly jump through their accustomed hoops. Ron Weasley is still Harry's faithful, red-haired Dr Watson. Hermione Granger is still a diehard bluestocking. And nasty, sinister Severus Snape, now teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts, is still heavily involved with the followers of You-Know-Who (Alan Rickman, who plays Snape in the films, might like to know that he has some nice work lined up).

Harry and his chums are now 16, and Hogwarts is theoretically heaving with hormones. Suddenly, everyone is snogging - but Dumbledore must have put something in the tea, because it never goes any further. Murders happen at Hogwarts, but not teenage pregnancies. Harry has a crush on Ron's foxy little sister, and Ron himself acquires a girlfriend, but the jiggery-pokery is confined to a few seemly, tongueless clinches. Rowling never forgets that she is writing for pre-pubescent children, and this is part of her appeal. We all want to escape back to that sunlit time before the hormonal tsunami. As a culture, we are obsessed with sex, but the Potter phenomenon is a symbol of our collective desire to get away from it. Like C S Lewis's Narnia, Rowling's parallel world is comfortingly sex-free.

Rowling has acknowledged her debt to C S Lewis, and in this book she openly pays tribute. There is a direct and charming reference to the singing Merpeople at Cair Paravel, and Dumbledore has more than an echo of Aslan. "You remain pure of heart," he tells Harry, explaining why he has been chosen to fight Voldemort: ". . . he was in such a hurry to mutilate his own soul, he never paused to understand the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole".

Harry is like Tennyson's Sir Galahad, whose strength was as the strength of ten because his heart was pure. No matter how hard Rowling strives to maintain Harry's boyish normality, he never quite shakes off the aura of clean-limbed, Edwardian soldier-saint. Yet this is why we love him. The fate of the universe is in his hands, and you wouldn't want to see the job left in the hands of a "normal" teenager.

This book, though shorter than Rowling's last, is very long. It would not matter if we got pure action, but nearly every important scene is hobbled by paragraphs of waffle that could easily have been cut. A typical example, picked at random: "Did this mean that Dumbledore had indeed ordered Snape to find out what Malfoy was doing, in which case he had already heard everything Harry had just told him from Snape? Or was he really worried by what he had heard, but pretending not to be?" Good grief, are we Iris Murdoch? A good editor could have tightened up the action and saved a few forests.

Not that this counts. I swallowed this latest instalment with greedy pleasure, waffle and all. J K Rowling is a brilliant storyteller, and her imagination is extra-ordinary. Like the rest of the world, I have to know what happens next. I can't bear to wait another two years for the next fix.

Kate Saunders's latest book for children is Cat and the Stinkwater War (Macmillan, £4.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain is great