A slow start, and some disturbing spiritual, moral, and violent elements
As the Ministry of Magic falls under the control of Lord Voldemort, Harry and his friends set out to destroy Voldemort's horcruxes, objects which make the Dark Lord invincible.
The morality in this book remains as fuzzy as in previous volumes in the series. While the main characters behave in a more admirable manner than the bad guys, their behavior is often not exemplary.
At one point in the story, an underground radio presentation depicts Harry in the following way: "The Boy Who Lived remains a symbol of everything for which we are fighting, the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting." Later, the same speaker says "I'd tell [Harry] to follow his instincts, which are good, and nearly always right."
And yet, when the heroes' values are tested, they seem to fall short. For example, Harry, Ron, and Hermione make an agreement with a goblin to give him a magical sword in exchange for his help. In reality, however, they still need the sword for their quest, so they plan to renege on the bargain and not give it to him until the quest is finished, which may be years in the future. Are these the instincts of Harry's which are "good, and nearly always right"?
The three protagonists also break into a bank to recover one of the magical items they need to destroy.
We are also told that Dean Thomas' father abandoned his mother before he was born.
Finally, in a deeply disturbing move, after publication of this novel, J.K. Rowling came out and stated that Dumbledore, Harry's mentor, is a homosexual. Was this statement necessary or valuable to readers?
The first page of the book contains a series of quotes, including the following from Aeschylus' "The Libation-Bearers".
We sing to you, dark gods beneath the earth.
Now hear, you blissful powers underground -
answer the call, send help.
Bless the children,
give them Triumph now.
What gods are being sung to here? This seems a disturbing introduction.
There is a ghoul who resides in the Weasely home.
Later in the book, two Scripture verses appear on the gravestones of Harry's parents and the Dumbledore family: "The last enemy that shall be defeated is death." and "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." While some have used these two references as a way to argue that the Potter books are truly Christian, I was not convinced that they were anywhere near enough to blot out the less appetizing elements of the series.
There's no denying that this is a violent book. At least six major good characters are killed, along with several others we know less well, and about fifty more that go unnamed. One character has his ear cursed off. Another is fatally stabbed.
A dead and decaying body is inhabited and brought to seeming life by a snake, which later breaks out of the body in a disturbing manner. We learn in this book how two more of the Hogwarts ghosts died, both violently.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Firewhiskey and butterbeer are mentioned; drunken men show up at one point.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
"H***" and "d***" are used repeatedly. "Bas****" and "effing" appear twice and "b***h" appears once. There are also references to "flying chunks of vomit" and rat gas (to put it more nicely than the book did).
Some drunken men catcall at Hermione, advising her to "ditch Ginger (Ron)" and accompany them. They are later heard catcalling at another girl.
Plotwise, the first half of this book felt very slow, with the children constantly in hiding and frequently squabbling with each other. The second half picked up. I also felt that some of the "wand behavior" in the story seemed rather contrived, a bit of a deus ex machina, though in a way I can see how it was necessary. In the climactic scene, Harry takes an agonizingly long time to explain all of Rowling's wand lore to the villain so that the ending will make sense, which really slows down the moment. I would have appreciated a more elegant conclusion after seven books.
Content-wise, this book contained more spiritual elements than any of its predecessors, flirting heavily with the idea of Harry as a sacrificial, almost Christlike figure. In the context of a story about witchcraft, with a hero so obviously flawed, I found the connection disturbing.