After pre-ordering the book two months before the release, staying up long nights wondering what on earth Dumbledore meant when he tapped at one of his silver instruments and muttered, "In essence divided?" (in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and chewing my nails, as I watched the clock ticking very slowly, I finally got my copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on July 16, 6.30 am.
The first chapter, titled The Other Minister, is brilliantly written, as it describes the slowly dwindling divide between the Muggle world (What? You haven't heard the word Muggle? You either have a volatile memory or must be from a planet zillion miles away from earth) and the wizarding world. Muggles who knew about the existence of the wizarding world and put all their energies into pretending that it didn't, are now are forced to believe that the wizarding world is at war, and the war is not likely to remain within the boundaries that demarcate the wizarding and the muggle world. I couldn't help but feel that the England described by JK Rowling in the opening chapter bears a close resemblance to post 7/7 England.
Though there's a good possibility that a witch or a wizard is likely to be kidnapped, tortured, let alone murdered, and the gloomy weather surrounding them mid-summer is constantly reminding them of dark times, life goes on. It goes on in the sense that people still get to taste mead, they still have romantic interests (although I might agree with Mrs Weasley that people are afraid of being murdered, so they rush to get married) and there is still plenty of Quidditch happening at Hogwarts.
Harry Potter realises that there is no use crying over spilt potion (ie: There's no use blaming people for the murder of Sirius Black, his godfather) and doesn't remain his pig-headed self anymore. In Sirius' words, "A lot of people behave stupidly when they are 15 years old." Thankfully Harry grows out of it, and gets ready to shoulder responsibility, probably because he realises that he has no choice and if he can't, nobody can.
Whether he inherently behaves much more sensibly or whether the passage of time can bring about such a change in anyone, it's a welcome relief from the 'Hot-Potato' Harry of the Order of the Phoenix. In fact he is much more like the 11-year-old boy we met a long time ago. And like his younger self, he listens, at times with immense curiosity, to his mentor, the headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, and agrees to private lessons with him and behaves like how an introverted and orphaned Dickensian boy is expected to behave.
Their relationship, which Dumbledore admits in the Order of the Phoenix "was a little closer than merely between a teacher and pupil," strengthens. In one dramatic sequence, Dumbledore actually says, "I am not worried, Harry. I am with you" --reminiscent of Tolkien's books, for beneath the guise of a school-story and epic-fantasy, themes of friendship, loyalty, courage and faith can be found in all Harry Potter books.
One can't help but wonder about Dumbledore's logical approach towards an emergency. He is not panic-stricken, for he is responsible for the safety of the thousand odd students studying at his school. He remains calm, and like his pre-Goblet of Fire self, likes sweets (this time, it's Acid Pops) and mead, and collects every shred of information available that might prove handy in the yet to come, nevertheless inevitable, climactic battle between Voldemort and Harry, making shrewd guesses that turn out to be true. Above all, like an ideal teacher, he encourages Harry to think of his own ways of getting valuable information.
But even the best of us are expected to behave foolishly and recklessly sometimes, and with Dumbledore, his weakness turns out to be that he is a trusting man, often putting too much faith in people and expecting them to have reformed completely. While this has proved to be dangerous before (in trusting the fake Mad-Eye Moody and Quirell) this time, it claims his life, as he is caught on top of a tower, wand-less, exhausted from battle, and in a state completely opposite to that of his brave, "I've captured the death-eaters with an anti-Apparition jinx" Dumbledore (not to forget the one-on-one duel with Voldemort at the end of Order of the Phoenix).
Severus Snape, who won the headmaster's trust some 16 years before, kills him, even as Dumbledore pleads. A dramatic turn of events. The death, while many may decide against it, had to happen.
There can't be many people standing behind Harry, patting him encouragingly, and telling him how to 'vanquish' Voldemort. That would be against the spirit of the books. Frankly speaking, I suspected this death to happen at the end of Order of the Phoenix itself. But this way was better. And I agree with Dumbledore when he says in Philosopher's Stone, "the ones we truly love never leave us". True indeed.
A vicious werewolf, the one responsible for Remus Lupin's condition, is introduced to the readers. His name Fenrir Greyback. Anyone familiar with Norse mythology will notice the Fenrisulfr connection. Rowling borrows names too. This time, it's Proudfoot (a joke at this expense can be found in The Lord of the Rings).
The author leaves us vague hints at the end of the book that Harry Potter might visit Godric's Hollow, the place where his parents where murdered, or the place that may seal Voldemort's fate as it happened once before. More clues are left in the end regarding the possession of a piece of Tom Riddle's soul in a locket -- also known as a Horcrux, two being destroyed and four being still at large -- the locket being one among them. One cannot help but be amazed by the author's meticulous planning.