If you're going to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Scholastic, $29.99), here's some advice: Steel your heart, and have a box of tissues nearby.
We can't say we haven't been warned. Potter author J.K. Rowling has repeatedly cautioned that her series about the boy wizard would become darker as it heads toward the seventh - and final - book.
In this sixth book of the best-selling series, Rowling serves up her most emotionally complex tale yet. As always, there is her trademark brew of bawdy humor, clever wordplay, and memorably eccentric characters - all of which shine considerable light into what is essentially a somber study of the roots of evil.
There's also a good measure of teenage romance, and angst, in Book 6 as Harry and his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, turn 16. Once again, Rowling makes us care deeply about what happens to this trio as they return for their sixth year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Best of all for longtime Potter fans, Rowling provides a larger perspective on Harry's adventures, showing connections between events and people of previous books as she works toward ending her epic. Readers will be surprised by some of these connections, which answer some long-nagging questions.
But Rowling, who retains her masterful ability to build suspense, inevitably leaves readers with new questions that we must expect will be answered in the still-unwritten seventh book.
This isn't a perfect book. Rowling sometimes displays a rather clunky writing style and doesn't flesh out some characters as fully as she could. But few, if any, fans will notice these things as they race through the story, stopping briefly to enjoy the whimsical chapter drawings by artist Mary GrandPre.
Book 6 opens just a couple of weeks after the end of Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Harry deflected the efforts of the evil Lord Voldemort to kill him. But the final chapter in that book, ominously titled "The Second War Begins," made it clear that the "Dark Lord" had just begun to fight.
In the opening chapter of the new book, the muggle prime minister is struggling to deal with the political fallout over a disastrous bridge collapse, a hurricane, and the fact that one of his junior ministers can no longer talk, but only quack like a duck.
So he's not in the best of moods when newly named Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour and his just-ousted predecessor, Cornelius Fudge, inform him that the human disasters have been caused by Voldemort, who is trying to take control of the magical world with his army of Death Eaters.
The only person who can vanquish Voldemort is Harry. To prepare him for the eventual showdown, Hogwarts head Albus Dumbledore privately tutors Harry in Voldemort's personal history. Dumbledore's goal is simple: Learning Voldemort's past should help Harry understand how he can be defeated.
Harry has other concerns this year as well. He's the Quidditch captain, he's playing middleman to Ron and Hermione, who are quarreling again despite their clear attraction to each other, and he's trying to figure out just what mischief his nemesis Draco Malfoy is up to as he sneaks around Hogwarts.
Harry also has his own romantic hopes to deal with, as well as the usual load of lessons. He gets some unexpected help in Potions class, however, when he's given a used textbook once owned by someone calling himself the "half-blood prince," who offers brilliant shortcuts for the most complicated brews.
But Harry and the other teens can't get away from the outside world, where people are fearful and the war's death toll grows daily. Adult and teen readers will recognize clear parallels with the effect of terrorism on our world, even as they laugh at Rowling's wonderful send-up of government homeland security advice.
It's impossible to say much more without giving away the plot. Suffice it to say that there is a gut-wrenching ending (parents of younger readers should be aware of this), only slightly leavened by some interesting personal developments among the characters.
Keep your tissues at the ready.
Note: Potter fans again have two choices on how to read about Harry's new adventures: the printed text, or the audio versions (Listening Library, $75 CD, $50 cassette), in which narrator Jim Dale again marvelously brings Harry's world to life.
Contact Karen MacPherson at: kmacpherson@