In the hefty, 870-page "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (Scholastic, USD 29.99), the follow-up to 2000's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", we find our teenage hero battling a foe who's perhaps even more dangerous than the wretched Lord Voldemort--himself.
J. K. Rowling may be richer than the Queen of England, but one gets the sense that she's not laughing all the way to the bank. Instead, Rowling seems to be sinking deeper and deeper into her craft and into the story. This time, she introduces her readers to even more history, lore, and characters and creates an ever-richer fictional landscape.
In conjuring him up, Rowling decided to let her lad grow up over the life of the series, aging him from 10 in the first volume to a prospective 17 in the seventh and final book. As with his development, the books also are becoming increasingly mature. The first, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone", was inarguably a children's book. That the fifth can be considered a young-adult novel is equally inarguable.
Harry is now 15 and the book's length, complexity, thematic weight, and dark narrative all brand it a title for teens. Evil is real in Harry's world, and it'll get you if you don't watch out. Nor is violent death a stranger, and it appears again in a singularly heart-wrenching way in "Phoenix."
What else happens? Here's the plot in brief, so read no further if you've yet to finish the weighty tome.
Harry is in trouble. His unauthorized--although very justified--use of magic has put him at risk of expulsion from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where he is beginning his fifth year. Meanwhile, the school itself faces crisis. Powerful rivals of Headmaster Dumbledore are using the media and a whispering campaign to discredit him (and Harry), along with their assertion that the evil Lord Voldemort (He Who Must Not Be Named) has returned with his full powers restored.
To keep an eye on things, the Ministry of Magic dispatches the odious, Harry-hating Dolores Umbridge (a memorable new character) to Hogwarts as the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and resident bête noire for Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron.
To protect Harry from the resurgence of evil, a number of his adult allies form the Order of the Phoenix but frustrate the boy with their refusal to permit him more active participation in their efforts. Meanwhile, Dumbledore has become oddly remote and Harry is beginning to feel increasingly isolated. He reacts with typical adolescent anger and impatience, lashing out at friends and enemies alike.
In fleshing out her plot, Rowling devotes considerable attention to coming-of-age aspects in Harry's personality, making him a richer and more psychologically complex character than ever before. There's no doubt that Harry is growing up, and the process isn't always pretty, although he remains wonderfully appealing and, when necessary, heroic.
His relationship with his godfather, Sirius Black, is another important aspect of Harry's emotional growth, as is his increasing infatuation with the beautiful but unpredictable Cho Chang. Yes, Harry is beginning to think not only about girls but also about life after Hogwarts, speculation that is being fueled by the dreaded fifth-year OWLS (Ordinary Wizarding Level tests).
All in all, it's a nightmare year for Harry and for Hogwarts. Nightmares figure in his life in more literal ways too. He begins having recurring dreams of being alone in a long corridor, trying to open a door at its distant end. His dreams turn to waking visions and epiphanies as Voldemort becomes an increasingly vivid and frightening presence in his mind.
In dramatizing the angst that Harry experiences, Rowling does her usual page-turningly good job. Although this is a complex novel, the high energy level almost never flags, thanks in part to the author's ability to create vivid scenes and set pieces. And although her tone is much darker than before, there are welcome elements of humor too, many of which are rooted in the characters and quirks of Harry's friends Hermione, Hagrid, and Ron (who comes into his own as a newly designated prefect and keeper for the Gryffindor Quidditch team).
This is a dark and complicated tale that offers no easy solution or particularly happy endings. If it were not for Rowling's trademark deft touches of humor and absurdity, this could be a heavy, headache-inducing read, but luckily, Rowling knows there's more to storytelling than just thrill-a-minute action.
The result is a wonderfully crafted and nuanced book that's well worth its length (OK, if one wants to quibble, maybe Rowling could have trimmed some chunks toward the novel's end). It's also a maddening teaser for the next one--no word on when it's due out, but Rowling is reportedly already midway through.
A large part of the pleasure of reading books in a series is watching a good writer play variations on a formula, combining new elements with what is familiar. Rowling is as inventive here as ever. We enter the Ministry of Magic, descending through a phone booth in a shabby area of London. There we find the halls lined not with banks of elevators, but with fireplaces for wizards to apparate (to vanish and then reappear at another destination). At Hogwarts, gamekeeper Hagrid introduces thestrals: dragonish winged-horses visible only to those who have seen death. And the Weasley twins, Fred and George, are up to even more mischief: a line of two-part candies called Shiving Snackboxes, which include Nosebleed Nougat, Puking Pastilles and Fainting Fancies, all guaranteed to make the user ill enough to be excused from class but containing an antidote to take immediately afterward.
"The Order of the Phoenix" takes us to a new level of Harry Potter's story, deeper into Harry himself and wider into the implications of Voldemort's return. Rowling ends with a blazing, action-packed chase through the Department of Mysteries, as Harry and his friends battle the revived Death Eaters, wands flashing, curses flying. It is a symphonic culmination of all the books so far, but it is only the beginning. With prophecies warning that this is the "calm between two wars", the stage is set for the next big book.
Certainly, readers everywhere will be rewarded by making its acquaintance, but the real bonus comes in encountering Harry Potter as a character who is complex and engaging enough, human and heroic enough to be a welcome presence on every page. Here's to Harry--and the countdown to volume six of his adventures.