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Book cover art by Mary GrandPré (left).
Review © 2003 by Thomas M. Wagner.

The price of unprecedented, record-obliterating fame and success often comes with high interest. Expectations are elevated, often to unrealistic levels. And the demand for more, more, more looms like the legendary Sword of Damocles in a way lesser (read: most) authors are never threatened by. After a three-year wait that might have been pure agony to her young fans had it not been for a couple of movies and a flurry of games to tide them over, J. K. Rowling delivered her fifth of seven Harry Potter tomes. And the first "more" requirement has been satisfied right out of the starting gate: the book tips the scales at 870 pages, marking a milestone for most of Rowling's preteen and adolescent readers as the longest novel they will have read up to that point in their lives. But does the story live up to fans' aforementioned expectations?

I'm pleased to report that Order of the Phoenix is the best entry in this series so far. Its writing is Rowling's most layered and accomplished to date. It features the greatest emotional and thematic depth. But beware: it is also the most unrelievedly cynical entry in the series yet, so much so that in the early chapters, you might well worry that all of the fun — that sense of playfulness and whimsy that hooked zillions of young readers the world over — has been leeched away. Even Goblet of Fire, despite numerous alarming scenes not far removed from flat-out horror, made lots of time for humor. With this novel, Rowling takes off the kid gloves. Playtime's over, boys and girls.

In my review of Goblet of Fire, I praised Rowling for her honesty in introducing admittedly uncomfortable real-world truths to her young readers. I'm not about to go back on that praise now. It may be a bitter pill to swallow that often the authority figures you rely upon, whose job it is to protect you, are rotten and corrupt to the core, and that they are able to get away with this because most people prefer the comforting lie to the awful truth. But there it is.

The story hits the ground running. Home with the Dursleys for the summer, anxiously scanning the news for hints as to the revived Voldemort's possible activities, Harry and his loathsome cousin Dudley are one evening set upon by two fearsome Dementors — right there in Muggle territory, an unprecedented event. Saved only at the last minute, and taken in for his own safety by a secret society of wizards led by Dumbledore called the Order of the Phoenix, Harry seethes with rage that Dumbledore has been keeping him in the dark, withholding information about Voldemort Harry feels he has a right to know. Even Ron, Hermoine, and Harry's godfather Sirius Black seem reticent to tell Harry the things they have heard, and this only makes him angrier.

The return to Hogwarts is a bitter one. Things have changed for the worse. After Dumbledore's falling out with Cornelius Fudge, head of the Ministry of Magic — Fudge is a pathetic careerist who sees warnings about Voldemort's return as fear-mongering, all part of an imagined plot of Dumbledore's to take over the Ministry — the Ministry is moving fast to exercise greater control over the school. Fudge appoints the loathsome Professor Umbridge, an ice-cold and ruthless authoritarian who makes for the series' most hissably hateful villian yet, first as the school's new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, then as its "High Inquisitor." It seems her every act is designed to discredit Dumbledore, destroy the school, and make Harry's life as miserable as possible. And Umbridge does all this so expertly that the Hogwarts student body (with of course the exception of the Slytherins), most of whom were at first inclined to believe stories of Harry's mental instability and egomania planted in the press by the Ministry, slowly become more sympathetic to him.

None of this seems enough to stop Umbridge's reign of terror, though. And to top it all off, Harry is plagued more and more by dreams that seeem not to be dreams; it's as if he is entering Voldemort's mind in his sleep, seeing what the Dark Lord sees, feeling his emotions. And what could Voldemort be looking for, locked away deep within the Ministry of Magic?

Much of the novel focuses on the strife at Hogwarts under Umbridge's cruel junta. Harry is subjected to so much unfairness and injustice — the more he insists on the truth, the more trouble he gets into — that he comes close to all-out despair, and so will readers. It's a part of the book that is often rough going. But once Harry finds out who his real friends are, the spirit of teen rebellion kicks into full gear. Rowling puts her readers through the wringer more than she's ever done (though you'll still take more abuse at the hands of Martin or Goodkind), but I enjoyed the little acts of subversion Harry and his friends orchestrated. It's not just misbehavior. The school is ending up in the hands of truly evil villians, and Rowling shows her young fans that bad people cannot go unchallenged, even in the smallest ways, and even at the greatest risk. (Ron Weasley's twin brothers, Fred and George, pull off one terrific act of defiance so brazen I suspect kids will be bouncing up and down cheering out loud.)

But there is never any easy escape from trouble for Harry and company, and Rowling notches the tension up to nearly agonizing levels until the final pages, which culminate in one of the most pulse-pounding action scenes I've seen on paper this side of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

As a critical aside, though, I will say that I think a bit too much pre-release hay was made about the whole "killing of a major character" thing. By now everyone knows who it is. I will say it's probably not a character in whom most fans have their greatest emotional investment. I was anticipating an event that would be a real blow to the solar plexus, like the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords, and that wasn't what I got exactly. (Rowling hasn't yet developed Martin's guts for murdering someone you really love — but it's coming.) But the event has profound impact upon Harry, and it's in his handling of the unexpected grief and loss that Rowling grabs the Snitch, as it were.

I mentioned the cynicism of this book, and there's no denying it's a factor, one which may trouble sensitive readers who want their fantasies to be always pleasant and reassuring. It's important to remember that the best genre fiction, and fantasy moreso than most, is that which holds up a mirror to our real lives. It is that quality which makes, for example, Pratchett's wonderfully satirical Discworld novels resonate so strongly; it's not just that they're hilarious, it's that they're germane. The same holds true for Harry's stories. Harry faces an uncertain destiny, and learns that the choices he will make will not be painless, even when they are right. But that's just called growing up. And the fact that Harry still has so much of that left to do is what makes him one of fantasy's most real heroes.

Followed by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.