HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
By JK Rowling
Scholastic, 870 pages, $29.95
It was worth the wait.
The fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, released last month, takes a darker, more adult approach to the story of the young wizard. Harry is, after all, 15 years old by the time the book begins, and author JK Rowling paints the title character as a rapidly maturing young adult with a more advanced set of challenges and ideas to face. But though the tone of the book changes in “The Order of the Phoenix,” the best parts of the first four books remain, creating a story that is just as good as the first four—but with a new twist.
The darker mood that pervades the book may come as a shock to its younger readers, but it is exactly what Rowling needed to prevent her latest offering from becoming derivative from the first four. There are only so many times a young wizard can come face-to-face with pure evil without thinking about the link between the two. In “Order of the Phoenix,” Harry does exactly that, and in time learns about a tangled web of familial relations, wizarding feuds and ancient prophesies that have put him in position to fight Lord Voldemort on behalf of the entire magical community.
The best parts, then, are not the many action sequences but the descriptions of Harry’s internal struggle. He experiences a series of frightening dreams about walking alone down a dark hallway, only to find a locked door. He escapes his home with his awful Muggle relatives, only to find that the best parts of his life at school have all but disappeared. Most of all, Harry grapples with the same ideas that every young teenager does: he realizes his parents, teachers and heroes are, in fact, fallible.
“The world is not split up into good people and Death Eaters,” Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, says, blurring lines the younger Harry would not have thought to question.
It is precisely this depiction of Harry’s transition into adulthood that makes readers keep turning the pages in anticipation of the next adventure. If the highlights of the book are the exciting scenes—the vivid dreams, duels with Voldemort and Quidditch matches—the backbone of the story is Harry’s position as a (mostly) typical teenage boy. He develops a crush on a girl, then suffers the humiliation of botching their first date. He fights with his friends, stresses over exams and most often would rather be flying on his broomstick than studying potions or charms.
The book begins slowly, with a sequence of events that make little sense as they happen. The action picks up as the reader gradually learns more background information. But about two-thirds of the way in, the story starts to drag, losing itself in a seemingly endless string of educational decrees designed to control wizarding students.
The plot structure has become formulaic by now, and devotees can predict exactly when Harry will make his crucial mistake; when he will engage in the climactic battle with Voldemort; when his fellow students will come to revere him as a hero. But rather than making the book feel like a carbon copy of its predecessors, the familiar structure gives it the feeling of a classic. Rowling’s strength as a writer is her storytelling; plot construction is a secondary issue.
Though younger readers may get lost in the book’s complexities and dark themes, the familiarity of the characters and story line will keep them reading. But the target audiencehas aged alongside Harry. Those who started with the first book upon its release in 1998 are now five years older, making the 10-year-old crowd a mature group of high schoolers in 2003. Those young teens are the ones who will best relate to Harry’s challenges, and as Harry grows another year older by the time the next book comes out, readers can look for the sixth book to continue the maturing trend.