It is the summer before Year 6 and Harry is back at his aunt and uncle's house and he is waiting for Professor Dumbledore to come and get him to take him to the Burrow. Everyone in the wizarding world is nervous and know that he is "The Chosen One" because that is what is being printed in the Wizarding Newspaper. When he returns to Hogwarts he is treated differently and he is suspicious of Professor Snape and Malfoy. He begins to try finding out what they are up to and still go to all his classes.
I borrowed the audio version to go with my Kindle version so I could listen to Jim Dale tell the story while I was driving (back and forth to KY and Columbus, OH). I would read the book version when I was able to sit quietly somewhere (like home after the kids were in bed). I do enjoy hearing Jim Dale tell the story he is a master at the art of storytelling and I do enjoy the Harry Potter books very much. They are kind of a mind candy.
The review below was based on my first read of the Harry Potter books, ages ago and in Dutch. Updated reviews will follow after a reread (in English) I plan to do.
After the first time I read the series, this has remained one of my favourites, even though the ending must have been spoilt to me at least a hundred times, so that part didn't come as a surprise. However, I really liked this book and I think it contains some of the most compelling scenes from the series.
Of all the books in the series so far, this is by far the one with the unhappiest, and least satisfying, ending. It seems to me that it is in fact the first half of a two-book arc rather than a closed tale in itself, which is not in any way uncommon in fantasy fiction, but took me slightly by surprise in this series because the other novels have been so self-contained.
Spoilers ahead for the two or three people on the planet who have not yet read the books/seen the films/absorbed the gist from the general cultural soup. The biggest surprise to me in this novel was the death of Dumbledore, not because I wasn't expecting it (if ever there were a sacrificial king-figure set up to be replaced by the younger, stronger king, it is he), but because I was expecting it in the last book, not here. I was therefore slightly stunned and spent the fairly lengthy denouement of the story vaguely hoping that there would be some magical resurrection. I rather admire Rowling for not falling into that temptation. Dumbledore is not Aslan, Christ or Gandalf, it seems.
That Snape is a double agent being set up for redemption in the last book seemed to me also reasonably clear as I was reading this volume. That being the case, it was necessary to give him some very pressing reason to commit the ultimate treason - the murder of his leader - and that reason was the preservation of the nasty child (but still a child) Draco Malfoy from the consequences of being forced into that same act. I would have been happier if we had seen Snape make his irremediable vow to Dumbledore himself, rather than to Draco's mother. However, introducing the "mother's protective love" element resonates with Harry's story, I suppose.
Unusually, I found the unfolding of this novel a bit clunky - the long flashbacks to Voldemort's past seemed very expository. Perhaps this is because I was not terribly interested in having Voldemort's character fleshed out, preferring to have him as a featureless monster. I know for a fact that my other complaint of tedium is entirely my own bias: I am simply not interested in angsty teenage romance, which drives much of the Harry, Hermione and Ron part of the plot. The obligatory new professor (this time a pompous social climber named Slugworth) wasn't terribly memorable, either - but at least he wasn't Dolores!
All that said, tedium here is a relative concept. I still found this novel a page-turner, and I liked the nice clear metaphysical problem laid out (the soul divided in seven, each part enclosed in an object to be destroyed, the last object being Voldemort himself). The fact that that particular task is not completed by the end of the novel was enough to drive me forward quickly into the last instalment.
Seriously, he figures out Draco's a Death Eater based on absolutely nothing but suspicion, but he can't figure out the potions master did all the scribbling and refining of potions instructions in the old potions book. *sigh* Oh, Harry, Harry, Harry.
Also, Snape's an ass for never sharing those refined potions instructions. They clearly have never updated that textbook ever. He just hoarded all that knowledge to himself. Great teaching method there, dude.
Of course, the other half-blood "prince" is Voldie. There's a lot of focus on him here and how he went from being a little dark princeling to becoming the Dark Lord. While the setup is important to the next book, it's not particularly interesting to read here, though Jim Dale's narration certainly does give those sections more verve.
Harry's "little monster" jealousy of Ginny's boyfriends was a very silly way of explaining that Harry's developing feelings for her. They're 15 and 16 here, not 12 and 13 anymore. This came out of nowhere and was just manufactured to give Harry yet something else to angst over - and it's completely unnecessary. The boy's got PLENTY to angst over already. Putting them together made no sense. Breaking up with her was just stupid. Don't even get me started on the treatment of Lavender and Fleur, which annoyed me much more this time around than it did the first time through.
So yeah, this is both a filler book and a setup book. You can't skip it, but you sometimes wish you could. Still a good book, because it's JK Rowling.
Though I'm happy to say that Jim Dale tweaked Luna Lovegood's voice, so she no longer sounds like a chain-smoking 60 year old in this book. :) He's truly one of the best narrators I've heard, and he's great with all these characters and getting the feel and tone just right. Another A+++ performance.