The Story: [from GoodReads:]
Harry Potter is due to start his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. His best friends Ron and Hermione have been very secretive all summer and he is desperate to get back to school and find out what has been going on. However, what Harry discovers is far more devastating than he could ever have expected…
My Take: [Just a quick note before I launch into my review: while I won’t reveal spoilers related to Order of the Phoenix, I inadvertently drop spoilers from previous books. I assume most folks have read books one through four, so I’m not going to conceal spoilers from those. But in case you haven’t finished Goblet of Fire in its entirety, please be forewarned – there may be spoilers!]
Here it is – the rightful taker of my Number One spot for favorite Harry Potter novel in the series. That’s not to say I think the other books are sub-par (far from it!). But there’s just something about this entry that I love. So in this review, I’ll do my best to try to explain why.
Order of the Phoenix starts off with Harry essentially being cut off from the wizarding world. His dread and anticipation from awaiting reports of Lord Voldemort’s next attack bleed through the page. Though no news is good news, Harry doesn’t see it that way and falls into an emotional cycle of dread and depression that’s perfectly captured in the novel’s opening scenes of a dull, scorching summer. But when dementors converge on his Muggle neighborhood, Harry’s vacation becomes anything but boring. This sets off a chain reaction, sweeping Harry into the clandestine anti-Voldemort movement, the Order of the Phoenix, as he gathers snippets about a horrible weapon Voldemort is planning to use.
Yet despite all of this tension, life and school go on. Harry and Co. return to Hogwarts but, in time, it’s not the Hogwarts they remember. Instead, it’s now under the watchful eye of Dolores Umbridge, a Ministry of Magic minion who’s sole purpose, it seems, is to spy on and disrupt the workings of the school, forcing it to bow to her whims. On top of this, Professor Umbridge seeks to discredit Harry, who has survived as the sole witness to Voldemort’s return. Thus, the plot evolves into a battle of wits and guts as Harry is given the choice to either stay quiet about the truth or subvert Umbridge’s new regime.
Much like Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix has a lot of working parts that don’t get gummed up or forgotten about. What makes it work, and what keeps the novel from dragging its narrative feet, are the various plots and subplots that all carry a similar undertone but showcase far different outcomes. We see Harry versus the Ministry; Harry versus Umbridge; Harry versus “the system,” as it were; Harry versus Voldemort; and even Harry versus Dumbledore as the latter seems to have taken a preference to ignoring Harry for some reason (no worries – the novel explains why in the end).
Thus, this novel contains a stronger undertone of angst that wasn’t found in earlier novels. But surprisingly, I (who am not a fan of angsty writing) actually think this is an appropriate direction to take. The series follows Harry between the ages of 11 to 17; so for him to still behave and talk like an eleven-year-old in a book where he is chronologically fifteen would hardly be fitting and would betray his maturing mind.
Harry, thus, might be a teenager but he doesn’t act like a stupid teenager. He has displays of temper though it’s not for the sake of having a tantrum. Harry acts aloof at times and prefers to think through things himself, but when he knows he needs the input of someone else, he’s not so steeped in juvenile pride that he doesn’t go for help. He holds grudges, namely against Draco Malfoy, Professor Snape (who also holds a grudge against Harry), and Professor Umbridge, but he has his reasons that, in some cases, make sense. As we see the world through Harry’s eyes, we assume his frame of mind while also reminding ourselves that he’s still a teenager and, thus, prone to making mistakes that are true to his age but that never cross the line into childishness.
Unlike books one through four, the mystery/whodunit undercurrent has been scrapped, and this, too, I believe is in the novel’s best interest. Once more, having a young Harry and his friends solve a mystery (as they did in the first two books) was a good choice as it kept the books lightly whimsical while they slowly introduced a darker tone. Goblet of Fire, while a more action-focused story, retained a nugget of a mystery plot through the question of who set Harry up to participate in the Triwizard Tournament. But there is no mystery story here. Instead, this is a plot driven by conflict and a question of making right choices in the face of impossible odds.
Order of the Phoenix is surprisingly grown up, not so much in content but in its tone, characters, and plot. While there are still fanciful elements that keep the story from becoming too dismal, it’s easily the darkest novel in the series save for the final two books. Voldemort’s return casts a shroud over all of the characters, dispersing a sense of doom that smartly avoids becoming too depressing. Instead, it adds a level of tension, showing how evil forces are at work in the world and seek to destroy us if we choose to remain blind or complacent. When given such a choice, Harry makes his decision loud and clear even as he battles an unsettling darkness within himself.
That’s not to say this novel is all doom and gloom as there are moments of gentle humor and fun character dynamics. As always, some of the new faces become welcomed additions. Serving as the immediate villain is Professor Umbridge, a genuine love-to-hate kind of character. I thoroughly enjoy how Rowling paints her as a woman who is all policy but little action. We suspect she believes Harry isn’t lying about Lord Voldemort yet her power-mad, stickler ways refuse to allow her to accept the truth. In the same way, she insists that just learning about dark magic will be enough to defend one’s self as opposed to actively developing combative strategies. I especially love how her mindset regarding this is left ajar: we’re never told why Umbridge feels this way so it’s open to speculation. Is she truly sinister, secretly supporting the work of dark wizards? Or is she just flagrantly ignorant of the world around her? Does the idea of learning how to fight frighten her, so she’s a scaredy-cat at heart (maybe that explains her affinity for cat-adorned decorative plates)? Or does she firmly believe the notion that “it won’t happen to me”? We’re never explicitly told any answers regarding these matters and that’s okay. What we see in her blatant actions and words makes for fun speculation as to what might be working in her mind beneath the surface.
Another new character who joins the bunch is the delightfully outre Luna Lovegood, fellow Hogwarts student and resident of Ravenclaw. I absolutely adore Luna! She’s bizarre but not too out there as she possesses a gentle wit and delivers some good dry humor thanks to her sincere, serene attitude. Make no mistake – Miss Lovegood believes in some very strange things! But she’s so genuine about them and seems open to the possibility that perhaps the visible world doesn’t contain everything that possibly exists in the universe.
In some ways, she’s a bit like Linus from the “Peanuts” and his misplaced belief in the Great Pumpkin. We’re never told that the Great Pumpkin doesn’t actually exist in his world, but despite a lack of evidence either way, Linus retains his beliefs in the face of his friends’ faithless attitude and his sister’s ridicule.
Which makes me wonder – are Luna Lovegood and Linus Van Pelt related somehow in the great fictional universe?
Probably not, but the similarities in how they approach aspects of their belief systems are still pretty cool.
Also like Linus, and out of all of the books’ cast members aside from Dumbeldore, Luna could pass as one of the more introspective, philosophical characters as she seems to know just the right thing to say yet often delivers it at the most awkward of times. Her closing statements to Harry in this novel are particularly poignant and perfectly capture the heart of her character. While some readers might cite her as just a comic foil, I believe there’s much more to Luna than meets the eye.
Aside from these new additions, without a doubt some of my favorite parts in this novel involve delving a little more into Snape’s past. Throughout the series so far, Snape remained (and remains) one of my favorite characters for Rowling’s intentional duplicity with him. Is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy? Is he out to protect Harry or is he secretly seeking to get Harry killed? Whose side is he really on – Dumbledore’s, Voldemort’s, or just his own? Alas, this fifth book doesn’t tell us, but what it does reveal are a few nuggets about his backstory. Much like Harry, we walk away from this exchange with a far different opinion of Snape, seeing him, for perhaps the very first time, as a genuinely fleshed out character and less of a background figure.
As a whole, Order of the Phoenix is a meaty book with plenty of action, suspense, dark moments, and philosophical insights to savor. It’s my favorite book in the series for all of these points as well as its symbolic depiction of spiritual warfare where complacent and compromising persons are doomed, yet those who learn the truth and fight can be assured a victory in the end. While I can’t say for certain this is the message Rowling intended to send, it’s something that stands out to me and I deeply appreciate this novel for that as well.
Content: Content-wise, this novel is still fine for its middle grade target audience and anyone older though it does become darker in tone at times and its size might deter the very youngest of middle grade readers.
Language – There are minimal, PG-level profanities (along with some British profanities) though they’re sporadically dropped.
Violence – Violence falls chiefly into the fantasy violence lane where magic is used as opposed to weapons. However, there is one character death that is particularly devastating and Harry eventually succumbs to mental attacks from Lord Voldemort. Elsewhere, a character is viciously attacked and left for dead but ultimately survives. However, any of these said violent moments are always non-graphic and devoid of gore (aside from passing mentions of blood).
Sexual Content – None. Harry tries to advance his relationship with Cho Chang, a fellow student, which includes an off-page kiss and a date but nothing else. Elsewhere, teenagers flirt and kiss but, again, nothing ever becomes crass, inappropriate, or sensual.
Overall, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a step in the right direction for the series. Gone is the reliance on whimsy and wonder yet it’s not stark and cold. Gone is a deliberate mystery plot and is, instead, replaced with a coming-of-age tale that mixes magic with maturity as the stage is set for the ultimate showdown between good and evil.