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'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' by J.K. Rowling

Book 5 fills a tall order as J.K. Rowling conjures a long, complex crowd-pleaser

Sunday, June 29, 2003

By Sherri Hallgren

It's been a long, long summer for Harry Potter and his fans.

When we last saw him, at the end of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" in the summer of 2000, dark clouds were gathering over the world of witches and wizards. The dark lord, Voldemort, had been restored to a body; his band of followers, the Death Eaters, had regrouped; and the force of evil was once more loose in the land.

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

By J.K. Rowling

Scholastic Press ($29.99)


Meanwhile, the Ministry of Magic, fearing panic and destabilization more than the truth, was denying reports that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had returned. As the good wizards closed ranks to confront the coming terror, Harry was sent home once again to the hateful Dursleys to wait out another long summer.

As of midnight on June 21, the three years of suspense was over.

Harry is back at last in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the fifth in J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular series. For everyone who has been waiting, this large, complex book is well worth it. Those who haven't read the first four installments may as well start, because this series just gets better. In "The Order of the Phoenix" Rowling takes all the successful elements of its predecessors and deepens them, starting with its protagonist.

As the novel begins, we find Harry at the end of another hot summer, lying in the grass of his loathsome aunt and uncle's back yard, listening to the radio through the window for news reports that might indicate Voldemort's activity.

He is 15 now, moody, alienated, resentful at feeling cut off from the wizarding world and the place he feels most at home, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

It has been Rowling's genius all along to combine real-world psychology with escapist fantasy elements, to blend the recognizable world of Muggles (nonwizards) with the simultaneous realm of magic. In this book, the worlds collide within the first chapter, when Dementors attack Harry and his cousin Dudley near their home on Privet Lane.

And just like that, the action begins.

Soon Harry is whisked off to London, to the bewitched ancestral home of his godfather, Sirius Black, where Hogwarts' head master, Albus Dumbledore, has convened the Order of the Phoenix, a secret society of people who fought Voldemort when he first came to power. Overall, with so much at stake, this is Rowling's darkest book yet, but the story is paced just right, with just enough moments of light humor.

With their elders off on secret missions for the order, Harry and his best friends, Hermione and Ron, return to Hogwarts for their fifth year, but their friendship, too, is growing more complicated. Ron becomes keeper for the Gryffindor Quidditch team at the same time that Harry is suspended from playing. Both Ron and Hermione, but not Harry, are made prefects, leaders of Gryffindor house, as is Draco Malfoy in Slytherin. And this is the year of their O.W.L. (Ordinary Wizarding Level) exams, which will determine not just the students' next courses of study, but their careers, and so the coursework grows more serious.

As discord grows among students over whether or not Harry and Dumbledore are to be believed where Voldemort is concerned, Harry feels conspicuous, picked on, talked about. And although Harry finally kisses his longtime crush, Cho Chang, he is as confused about girls as any teenage boy. Hermione's repeated attempts to explain Cho's thinking to Harry are some of the most amusing moments in the book.

Professors Dumbledore, Snape and McGonagall are all back, along with yet another new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. This time, it's Dolores Umbridge, a frog-like, smug bureaucrat who becomes the school's High Inquisitor, as the Ministry fights desperately to maintain the illusion of order and control, starting at Hogwarts.

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 a 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. We can wait.

As Harry ominously returns to the Dursleys house for his summer, we can happily spend this one reading "The Order of the Phoenix."

Sherri Hallgren directed the MFA program in creative writing at Saint Mary's College of California and currently teaches writing workshops in the North Hills.

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