Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)
by J.K. Rowling
Review by John Berlyne
Scholastic HCVR ISBN/ITEM#: 043935806X
Date: June 21, 2003 List Price 30.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
As a hardened critic and jaded old cynic, I have tried hard to turn a blind eye to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Let's face it – it is all too easy to be disparaging about these novels depending on your level of snobbishness – well, they're for kids aren't they! And there as popular as gin used to be amongst the great unwashed. And why would one wish to fatten the cash cow any further by buying a copy? And why would such a book win a Hugo – I'll bet J.K. Rowling never even heard of a Hugo... Such cynicism is just as easily countered though by the simple act of reading the books. I challenged you not to enjoy them.
Though I don't think Rowling is by any means a great literary writer, I do think she's a genius in so much as she has tapped into something that leaps across generations and cultural barriers. I mean, these books have been translated into every living language spoken on the planet – and some dead ones too! Their appeal spans every continent and has introduced more children (and adults) to the joys of reading than any schoolteachers cane ever managed.
Unless you've spent the last few weeks living on the moon, you'll know that the latest title – Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix – has just been released, and, always a sucker for hype, I've just finished it. And you know what…? It's great!
There is a set formula with these stories – we follow Harry's year at Hogwarts and the inescapable adventures that befall him along the way. The underlying thrust of this is his longstanding troubles with nemesis and arch enemy Lord Voldemort, but woven into this are the other strands we have come to recognise as part of the furniture of these stories – Harry's friendship with Ron and Hermione; comical and magical goings on at school; Harry falling foul of Snape and Draco Malfoy; Harry's evil muggle family, the Dursleys, etc, etc. All these elements are present again and good job too, because these are the very things we love about these novels.
But Rowling is not simply regurgitating a proven formula in this new book – she's far too clever to do that. The Order Of The Phoenix moves the main story arc forward beautifully and further develops our favourite characters in the process. Harry, now in his fifth year at school, is (unsurprisingly, given what he seems to go through every year) showing signs of being every bit the troubled teenager. Hormones are raging (a topic Rowling is admirably not ignoring), guilt and confusion are gnawing at the boy's mind and he comes across here as a fallible and very human (albeit with a bit of wizard added) protagonist. In reflecting this, Rowling too is able to remind us of the fun and thrills of being that age. She said recently in an interview when asked how she accounts for the staggering popularity of her characters that if she can do one thing, it is to remember and encapsulate exactly what it is to be a child. She's right.
And The Order Of The Phoenix is full of wonderful Rowling moments that positively fizz with mischief. It is appealing without being twee, and hats off to the author for never once dumbing her writing down. The language remains resolutely grown up and the tone and tensions of the novel are never softened for the younger audience. This uncompromising approach perhaps too accounts for the length of the novel – at over seven hundred pages, the longest so far. I should think that Rowling now heads the list of writers that editors dare not mess with, but truth to tell, the novel doesn't feel over-long at any point.
There are other elements in this one that are particularly notable. Having been the focus of much gutter press interest herself, I enjoyed the author's playful swipes at newspaper misreporting. And yes – she kills off a character in the book. A brave choice and one which, above everything, serves the story.
You'll note I haven't even attempted a plot summery here – I don't need to! The likelihood is that you'll buy the book whatever. But you can do so with confidence as it is a real treat for fans of the series – and that's a significant proportion the planet's population. Hoorah for Harry and long live J.K Rowling!