Clearly, I'm going to have to go back and reread all the Harry Potter novels. In fact, I almost feel as if I should have done that before reading this one. That's all right, though. Sometime next spring, when I've worked my way through the first six books again, this one will be a treat.
I had somewhat the same experience with Stephen King's Dark Tower saga, in that it was so long, and it had been so many years since I'd read book one, that I needed to retrace Roland's steps in order to have the final three volumes make sense.
The Potter saga is not as complicated as that, but Rowling clearly intended that nothing she had ever created for the earlier novels would go to waste, even if some of them hadn't actually been mentioned in the last book. So we have a story which includes the invisibility cloak, various of the trick potions brewed up by the Weasley twins, extendable ears (for eavesdropping), the Marauders' Map and even the very first snitch that Harry ever caught in a game of Quiddich.
There is no Quiddich game in this particular novel, which may come as a disappointment to many, but then Harry plays the role of a Seeker through the entire book, and does put his skills to use a time or two.
The thing is, most of this book does not take place at Hogwarts School, though he, Ron and Hermione finally do get there for the last quarter of the story. By that time, of course, it's not exactly the Hogwarts we have all come to know and love (let's face it, you wouldn't be reading this column if you didn't) and things are in pretty much of a mess.
This is all thanks to You Know Who, or He Who Must Not Be Named, who has taken advantage of the death of Albus Dumbledore to pretty much seize control of the wizarding world, including the school. This was fairly easy for him since his Death Eater gang was the only organized group in existence. The Order of the Phoenix was pretty much in a shambles following the deaths of Sirius Black (see this summer's Potter movie, coming soon to a DVD machine near you) and Professor Dumbledore (see The Half Blood Prince). As for the legitimate authorities of the wizarding world, they have mostly spent the last several years denying that Lord Voldemort has returned, and that constant denial left them easy prey when he and his cohort made their move.
So this book begins with Harry about to become 17, about to lose the protection of the spell that was cast upon him as an infant, and also about to be able to practice magic openly without being punished for it and tracked by the Ministry of Magic every time he waves his wand. Harry finds himself in the position of having to leave Number 4, Privet Drive before all that happens and Voldemort's minions can arrive to overwhelm him with sheer numbers.
He also finds himself in the paradoxical position of having to save his aunt and uncle, Vern and Petunia Dursley, and their oafish son, Dudley, who have treated him like a dangerous freak ever since he was left on their doorstep as a baby. He knows Voldemort will have them killed, just for sport, or perhaps for being related to him, or perhaps because their house has been Harry's impregnable safe haven for all these years.
We enter the story with Harry seeing to the safety of his nasty relatives and the members of the Order planning how Harry may be safely spirited away to a secret and protected location until after his birthday.
Only some of this goes well, and the first deaths in the book occur before the end of chapter four, with many more to come after that. There have been many rumours about just exactly who dies in this final volume, and the book has been out now long enough that I'm not spoiling anything to say that most of the predictions, including some floated by Rowling herself, were wrong.
I was partly fooled by the climactic events of book 6, and final fates of both Snape and Dumbledore were not quite what I had thought they would be, but I found the actual explanations quite satisfactory, and very much in line with previous revelations in The Order of the Phoenix.
What comes as a surprise is the real history of Albus Dumbledore, whose story is told in several variations throughout the book, leaving Harry feeling depressed, astounded, disbelieving and betrayed at a time when he needs all the confidence he can muster.
For all that, perhaps the most surprising event in the book occurs pages 39 and 40 when Dudley, of all people, tells Harry that it doesn't matter what his parents think, he doesn't believe Harry is a "waste of space" and then, as they part for the last time, reaches out to shake Harry's hand.
After that bit of delightful astonishment you can bet that almost anything can happen and even the final chapter will not really take you by surprise.