Sunday, June 29, 2003

Review: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" by J.K. Rowling

The cover of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" ($29.99, Scholastic) lets the reader know exactly what to expect inside. It's a dark cover - black and deep shades of blue - appropriate for the troubled state of mind Harry's entering in the fifth volume of J.K. Rowling's series.

Those middle teen years are bad enough for most people, but when you've got an evil wizard plotting to kill you, they're much, much worse. That's what Harry is finding out in "Order of the Phoenix." The problem is, no one seems to believe him. The Ministry of Magic is officially denying the return of You-Know-Who, and with the exception of a few of his friends and teachers, most in the wizarding community consider Harry's story the tall tales of an attention-seeking teenager.

Harry is also dealing with one of the toughest years of school at Hogwarts. The O.W.L. achievement tests, which will likely determine the path of his wizarding life, are coming up. He's dealing with yet another Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (one who has her own agenda and rivals Snape for sheer malice). Dumbledore seems to be ignoring Harry, Hagrid is missing in action and Sirius is stuck in London in hiding. Add to that a love interest and a particularly nasty house elf (sort of the anti-Dobby), and Harry's an emotional wreck - but he's still got to deal with the return of Lord Voldemort.

I was worried when it was announced that "Order of the Phoenix" would be nearly 900 pages long. "Goblet of Fire," the fourth book in the series, wasn't even that long and it felt uneven and padded in places. But all of the problems of that book have vanished just like Harry's fouled-up potions in Professor Snape's class. "Order of the Phoenix" easily justifies its length and then some.

There's no lengthy recap of what's happened before, just a headlong sprint into the action that takes the reader all the way to the finish line.

For adult readers, "Order of the Phoenix" is perhaps the most satisfying of the five books so far. There's an emotional depth that hasn't been present in the previous novels. Adults who have been there and teens who are currently going through that phase of life will easily relate to Harry's struggles. They're something everyone's been through - even those of us who didn't have a dark wizard trying to kill us.

Some of the subjects may be a little heavy for readers on the younger end of the spectrum, but they can still enjoy the whiz-bang action and engaging characters that have become Rowling's signature.

The ability to evoke strong emotions in a novel is becoming a rarer and rarer commodity. I love a book that can make me cheer for the good guys and absolutely despise the baddies. As with most of Rowling's work, I did both with this book.

Though "Order of the Phoenix" took three years to arrive, it was well worth the wait. It's obvious that Rowling spent that time focusing on quality, and she has delivered the best installment of the series so far.

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