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Volume 15, Issue 4: Ex Libris

A Book

Woelke Leithart

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J. K. Rowling
Scholastic, 2003

If you're a fan, you've already read the book. And if you're not, this review probably will not inspire you to head to the nearest bookstore in search of a leftover copy. What, then, is the point of writing about it? Mostly because many people will be talking about it in one form or the other. After all, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was one of two publishing and marketing blitzes of the past summer, and I didn't want to read Hilary's book.

J.K. Rowling's latest addition to the Potter saga is lengthier than any of the others, which you would think would mean it would take a little longer to get off the shelves. After all, it weighs a bit more. But no. In the first few days of its publication, booksellers across the country sold completely out of their hundreds of copies. Its length is in its favor, though. If you haven't made it to the book yet, rest assured, this book is just as good as the others in the series.
Possibly the best thing about Order is being able to sink immediately back into the world of Harry Potter. Rowling takes our expectations of the first setpieces of the plot—Harry is at his aunt and uncle's house, Harry has some trouble with them, Harry heads to school—and tweaks them. By the time Harry arrives at Hogwarts, his school, we are as exasperated as he is at what has transpired. Throughout the book (and, indeed, the series), Rowling does a superb job of making us feel as alienated or as triumphant as Mr. Potter himself.
The best sequences of each of the books are the revelations, and Order is no exception. There is a long chapter towards the end of the novel where Dumbledore explains to Harry more about his past. This chapter is fascinating, partly because it casts light on the hundreds of pages and four volumes that have gone before it. Now that we know why a particular person has acted the way he has, it allows us to go back and make more sense of the past. This is, I believe, one of the best features of Rowling's books. She is simultaneously writing a fantasy, a boarding-school tale, and a mystery. When the mystery part of the series comes alive and the next tantalizing chunk of the puzzle is revealed, that is when Rowling's talent is most apparent.
I am also happy to report that Rowling's ability to create memorable characters is alive and well. Professor Umbridge is a particularly nasty villain for the novel, and her malice is made all the more stifling by the fact that Harry is as powerless as the reader to prevent the next blow from falling. Her honeyed and lying voice hangs over much of the novel's (and Harry's) mood.
Professor Snape has also returned, of course. Snape has always been one of the most interesting of Rowling's characters, one who we are assured over and over is good but who nevertheless manages to remain dislikable. With this novel, we are given a new look into his motivations. Every new revelation of his past, and why it is that we are supposed to trust him, is fascinating.
I have a few minor quibbles with the book, but none are insurmountable. One is Harry himself. In an attempt to make Harry seem more realistic, Rowling has given him a good deal of legendary teen angst. Throughout the book, Harry is angry, bitter, or just generally disgruntled. His few moments of happiness are intermingled with awkwardness. As readers, we do feel Harry's discomfort with his life. We sympathize. But some of Harry's outbursts are contrived.
Other problems are more with the plot. Prior to publication, Rowling made no secret of the fact that one of the characters was going to die. Going in, most fans were no doubt aware of this. She then seems to take delight in bringing a number of characters to the brink of death before bringing them back. It is almost as if she is taunting her readers, making them think in horror, "Surely he isn't going to die!" At the time, it enhances the suspense of the book. In retrospect, it feels contrived. I will also add, briefly because some may not have read it, that the entire end sequence lacked tension, in spite of its climactic nature.
Is Harry Potter the greatest literary event of our time? It might be, but that doesn't necessarily mean much. Is it as good as the classic Christian fantasy to which it is so often compared? No, not a bit. But it's a fun read. And for the moment, that's all we should see it as.
And no, it won't turn your children into Satanists or even atheists. If you're looking for that, just hand them Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials and they'll have a wonderful start.

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