Within 24 hours of its release, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince—the sixth book in J.K. Rowling's mega-bestselling series about the education and coming of age of the titular boy wizard—had shattered all previous book-sales records, including those set by its predecessor, 2003's Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. Clearly, Potter fever hasn't yet peaked, though it's curious to see more people drawn into buying each successive novel. As the series nears its end, the books become more impermeable for anyone not already thoroughly steeped in the Potter mythos, so by any known law of entropy, she should be losing adherents at this point rather than gaining them. Particularly in this latest, most streamlined (in spite of its 650-page heft) installment, there isn't much to attract new readers, as Rowling sheds her usual detailed world-exploration and relegates most of the ancillary characters and plots to the sidelines. Still, the rewards for Potter addicts are significant as she barrels forward with an unusually propulsive story meant to set up the series' seventh and final installment.
In its broadest particulars, Half-Blood Prince follows much the same pattern as its predecessors: Harry begins the book in the care of his noxious relatives the Dursleys, then returns to his magical studies at Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry, where he faces off against his enemy Draco Malfoy and alternately squabbles and cooperates with his pals Ron and Hermione. He plays a little Quidditch, learns more about his evil archenemy Voldemort, uncovers the mystery hinted at by the title, and ultimately takes a few more steps toward terrifying adulthood. Every element of the formula is in place, but at times, it feels like Rowling is zipping down a checklist of familiar names and situations, giving them each one brief moment in the sun before she gets back to her central plot. This rapid service doesn't do justification to many of her long-running storylines; some characters appear to be making contractually mandated cameos, the unmasking of the mysterious Half-Blood Prince is forced and abrupt, and Harry's latest romance amounts to a few vague, unexplored longings and some offstage conversations.
But by ditching or dashing off many of the side-plots, Rowling makes way for a slick novel that reads effortlessly and intensely, packs in the revelations, and ramps up the tension. While she seemed to be trying for more complicated prose and more sophisticated storytelling in each of her previous series installments, Half-Blood Prince jettisons all such efforts and charges full speed ahead. Longtime fans who fixate on anyone but Harry himself may be disappointed that their favorite character doesn't get more face time, but in the end, the only way Half-Blood Prince really disappoints is in how quickly it reads and how fast it's over.