Some strengths of the 6th book:
- The romantic antics that dominate the story are frothy and fun. Ron’s ill-advised fling with Lavender Brown is hilarious
- Voldemort’s backstory is touchingly rendered.
- The introduction of the horcruxes is both good and bad. On the good side, it’s a nice way to raise the stakes and give Harry a strong goal for the seventh book.
- The journey to the lake full of zombies is scary and thrilling...
- ...So is the final fight in the castle. Getting death eaters to attack inside the school was a great escalation.
- There a nice subtle theme here of cheating— Harry uses Snape’s old textbook to cheat at potions, then cleverly boosts Ron’s Quidditch confidence by convincing him that he’s cheating when he’s not.. Voldemort and Slughorn are both cheaters, in very different ways. Even Dumbledore has been cheating, which gets hinted here and confirmed in the next book.
Some weaknesses of the 6th book
- Harry is even more passive than he was in the fourth book! There, he didn’t try hard enough to solve the mystery, but here there’s basically no mystery to solve (other than “who’s chemistry book was this?” and “what’s Draco up to?”, but neither are big enough for a whole book). After the urgency of the last two books, we’re suddenly sleepwalking through a whole year.
- Harry spends that year waiting calmly for occasional invites up to Dumbledore’s office to watch a the next pre-packaged episode of his favorite TV show: “The Life and Potential Death of Voldemort.” Couldn’t all of that have been covered in one day? Why dribble it out all year? Better yet, why can’t Harry uncover this stuff on his own?? And if these memories can live outside of Dumbledore’s head, why do we need Dumbledore there to show them to Harry?
- Harry transformed into such an active leader in the last book, so it was a shame to watch him regress back to simply being a follower: playing Quidditch, worrying about classes, totally relying on Dumbledore for safety and information. All of the stuff Dumbledore does behind the scenes in this book (figuring how to stop Voledemort) is what Harry should be doing.
- I must confess that I never understand why Hermione would only have eyes for Ron the bumbler instead of Harry the dashing hero. I could have bought it, but I needed at least one “I understand you better than Harry does” moment from Ron. For that matter, Harry would benefit from an “I’m the one who really understands you” moment from Ginny, too. A convincing love scene can’t be about “I like your looks” or “I like your status”. The subtext must be: “We surprise each other by understanding each other.”
- The problem with the the horcruxes is that they turn the whole story into “How can we kill Voldemort?” Is that really what this is all about? Is this just a “kill him before he kills us” story? What about learning, growth, redemption, souls, good vs evil?
- I suppose I can forgive Rowling one cliffhanger ending, and it was certainly a shocker, but a good unhappy ending is just a happy ending that’s been snatched away at the last second, not an abrupt end to a shapeless story. And it was too obvious that something was up between Dumbledore and Snape. There was too much well-established trust between these characters, so few readers doubted that Snape had a good reason for his shocking action.
My version (this is rather convoluted because I wanted to keep the same ending, but without Dumbledore, which is hard.)
- Voldemort seems to be recuperating somewhere from his near-death, according to Harry’s psychic glimpses. The big question: we’ve basically killed this guys twice, so how does he survive? Meanwhile, the ministry is finally on board and the full scale warfare is breaking out everywhere.
- We pick up in midsummer with the reading of Dumbledore’s will. The ministry is there to seize anything that can help their search for Voldemort, no matter who Dumbledore gives it to. The will is read: To the ministry, Dumbledore offers definitive proof of Sirius Black’s innocence. To Hogwarts, he only leaves a request that they fulfill his final staffing wishes: promote Snape to Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor and hire Horace Slughorn back to teach potions. To Harry all he leaves is a farewell message and his pensieve, but none of the memories-in-bottles that go into it, all of which he seems to have emptied. The ministry lets Harry have the pensieve, which seems worthless.
- Harry still hasn’t cried over Dumbledore. He explains that he knows Dumbledore’s portrait will appear soon in the headmaster’s office and he’s looking forward to consulting it, but they point out that Dumbledore was not headmaster when he died (Umbridge was), so no portrait will appear. Harry is still certain that Dumbledore will re-appear in some way...
- Harry is very happy to see Sirius take over decisive leadership of the now-legal Order of the Phoenix. …But he is unhappy with all of the other news. Though Harry knows that Dumbledore trusted Snape, Harry never will. Meanwhile, the new potions teacher plays favorites, and the pensieve means nothing to Harry.
- With Hermione and Ron’s help, Harry realizes Dumbledore’s will had hidden riddles in it. As the friends solve them, they discover various pensieve memories hidden throughout the school—this was Dumbledore’s way of secretly passing on to Harry his unfinished investigation into the history of Voldemort, without it falling into the hands of the ministry. Herminone notices that, in the flashbacks, Voldemort occasionally mentions something called horcruxes.
- At one point, they are led to a memory by why appears to be a new ghost, and Harry hopes it is Dumbledore, but it is just an illusion he left behind…
- Now, in addition to searching for more hidden memories, they decide that they must discover what horcruxes are. They realize that this is the mystery Dumbledore was chasing, and that’s why he wanted Slughorn re-hired, so they press Slughorn for what he knows.
- Sirius, meanwhile, leads the Order on daring raids of pockets of Voldemort supporters. They arrest the Malfoys (though Draco remains free and furious), trying to squeeze everyone for news about where Voldemort is recovering, and why he keeps surviving.
- Sirius is about to use his new info on another raid and Harry wants to skip school and join them, but Sirius tells him that Dumbledore obviously wanted him to stay at Hogwarts solve the horcrux mystery that he never could.
- On the day of the planned raid, Harry and his friends finally trap Slughorn into revealing what Horcruxes are—a kind of immortality that comes from investing parts of your soul in different objects. They realize therefore that Voldemort is not dying but reviving. Harry gets a flash of a revived Voldemort waiting to ambush Sirius.
- The kids rush there to save Sirius and the Order, aborting their mission by blowing their cover just before ambush can be sprung.
- Sirius is furious with Harry, but Harry brandishes his evidence to prove that Voldemort can only be killed by destroying the Horcruxes. Sirius, humbled, agrees to help Harry seek out the horcrux in the cave in order to test out Harry’s theory.
- Harry and Sirius go to the zombie-filled lake and find the locket, but get caught by one of the booby traps set by Voldemort. In order to save Harry, Sirius must drink the deadly water.
- Harry rushes Sirius back to Hogwarts hoping Slughorn has a potion that can save Sirius, but Sirius rasps that they should go to Snape instead, and Harry reluctantly agrees that Snape is actually better with potions than Slughorn.
- They arrive at Hogwarts to find that Draco has smuggled Death Eaters into the school and there is a pitched battle going on in the halls.
- Harry and Sirius make their way through the battle to Snape’s room, which still houses his personal apothecary. Snape listens to Sirius, who rasps whispers into his ear to tell him what happened. Snape gives him something. Just then the Death Eaters burst in. They find Snape helping Sirius and accuse him of being a traitor. Snape acts indignant as they move in for the kill… then Sirius turns black and demanding to know what Snape gave him, holding up the empty bottle he just drank. As Sirius dies (to Harry’s horror), the death eaters snatch the bottle away and roar with approval when they realize that Snape gave Sirius something to kill him rather than save him. Snape slowly smiles...
- Just then Voldemort himself enters to kill Harry. Harry figures out how to destroy the horcrux locket, which is real, and Voldemort collapses in pain. The Death Eaters panic and leave. Snape goes with them.
- Cleaning up the wreckage of the battle at Howarts, Harry finds one hidden memory vial he missed before. He puts in his pensieve. Dumbledore tells that if he is seeing this, then Voldemort has killed him. He left the school not because Umbridge kicked him out but because he knew his research was about to be seized by the Ministry, so he had to hide it around the school for Harry to find, then run away to distract the Ministry from it. He says that Harry is now the only one who can defeat Voldemort—not because of any prophecy but because he’s shown more courage than any wizard Dumbledore has ever met. The others leave Harry alone, but Ginny won’t and tells Harry he needs to finally cry. Harry finally breaks down and weeps for Dumbledore (and realizes that he really loves Ginny).
- After Sirius’s funeral, Harry announces that, having proved his horcrux theory, he is not staying with the Dursleys, but will instead spend the summer hunting horcruxes. Ron and Hermione agree to help him. They agree to go find ways to protect their loved ones and reconvene at Ron’s in two weeks.
(I didn’t have room to work in a “Hermione realizes that only Ron understands her” moment. I’m sure there would be a place for that somewhere.”)