Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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Cleolinda: *** 1/2 (book)

Until yesterday, Prisoner of Azkaban was easily my favorite of the books; Goblet of Fire deviated so much from Hogwarts life as we knew it, bringing in dozens of new students for the Triwizard Tournament, shaking up all the kids’ relationships, and (gasp!) pre-empting Quidditch. This time, Rowling returns to the Life at Hogwarts formula as we know it—beginning at the Dursleys’ and ending in Dumbledore’s office—with the usual exams, matches, and rivalries; only this time, she renders Harry’s fifth year at the school in a much richer and emotional fashion than ever before.

She adds several twists as well to the formula. For starters, to put it plainly, Harry is pissed off. And quite frankly, I would be, too. When last we left him, Harry had discovered that the tournament was rigged to provide Voldemort with the sacrifice he would need to return, and Harry’s classmate and romantic rival Cedric became his victim. Having been traumatized by Cedric’s death and locked up at the Dursleys’ by himself, Harry reemerges into the wizarding world now to discover that the Daily Prophet has gone on a summer-long campaign to discredit him, Dumbledore seems to be giving him the cold shoulder, and, once again, the burden of the world is on Harry’s shoulders. You can hardly blame him for not feeling like a ray of sunshine.

Another wrench is the appearance of Ministry minion Dolores Umbridge as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and she is, to use the literary term, a raving ho-bitch. She’s also one of the best villains Rowling’s come up with: icky sweet on the outside, sadistic behind closed doors, and worst of all, a bureaucrat from hell. She also provides some of the best scenes in the book as both students and teachers alike begin to defy her, with McGonagall and the Weasley twins taking top honors. (Fred and George will probably never have a better scene in the entire series, and you’ll know it when you see it.)

The trick this time, you see, is that there is no Villain of the Week type whose identity you have to guess—Umbridge is a straight-up hosebeast, no secret there, and Dumbledore and Minstry head Fudge are engaged in an open battle of wits for control. (Oh, and Voldemort. There’s always Voldemort.) The real villain turns out to be the wizards’ own closed minds, prejudices, and arrogance. That, and—in a brilliant stroke—a failure among all the characters to communicate. As Ginny points out to Harry, if he really wanted to know if he were being possessed by the Big V, he should have talked to her instead of hiding off by himself—she’s the only person he knows who’s had that experience. But for most of the story, Harry strikes out on his own rather than relay his concerns to the people who need to know. And it’s not just a failing of Harry’s—in one of the most wrenching chapters, Dumbledore confesses that he should have told Harry what was really going on long, long ago, and blames himself for what transpires through the rest of the book. Because that ballyhooed character death you’ve been hearing about—it’s set into motion because of a failure to communicate.

I’m going to break in here as well and tell you that some crackhead posted a week ago s/he finished the book and [another character who shall not be named] was the one who died, and so, I was totally, miserably prepared for that character to be the one. And then, when it wasn’t, I was actually relieved that someone else died. So the death didn’t really have the effect on me that it should have; I also found the death scene itself to be rather anticlimactic, and I’m still not sure exactly what happened (the veil?). Still, I understand now what Rowling meant when she said that she would miss writing the interaction between Harry and the character. She’s pulled no punches on this one and killed off a character that’s quite popular, but more importantly, she’s used the consequences and the aftermath of that death to enrich the story, so I say, rock on.

As for the others, even as you get new characters like clumsy, rainbow-haired Tonks and dotty Luna Lovegood, others like Ginny (startlingly mature and plucky) and Neville (amazingly heroic and touching) really start to come into their own. (As does Harry; I loved the secret Dark Arts defense classes, where Harry shows a new aptitude for leading and teaching.) Cho Chang is back as well, and I particularly like the way her relationship with Harry is handled—awkwardly adolescent. They’re not brought together by their shared grief over Cedric’s death—rather, they’re pushed apart by it in a very realistic way. Cho could have been rounded out a bit better; as it is, Ginny leaves her in the dust, and if Ron’s final comment on relationships, Ginny’s in particular, is any indication, it seems like Ron reads the Ginny-Harry fanfic, too. In short, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sit up and start yelling at the book, you’ll want to read it in one sitting, and when you’re done, you’ll want to read it again and savor it the second time.
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