Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

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I don't review books I don't like!

*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations


*****Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

by J. K. Rowling

Reviewed July 7, 2003.
Arthur Levine Books, New York, 2003.  870 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (JF ROW).
A Sonderbooks’ Stand-out of 2003:  #5, Young Adult Fantasy

You definitely should not read the fifth book in the Harry Potter series unless you’ve read the ones that went before.  So I’m not sure comments are even necessary—If you’ve read this far, of course you’re going to want to know what happens next.  However, I can’t resist giving my opinion.

You all probably know by now that I love the Harry Potter books and awaited the new one eagerly.  First, let me mention some of the things I like about them.

First, J. K. Rowling has an amazing imagination, and loads up her books with imaginative, delightful details.  She has something to laugh about on almost every page.  During their big tests at the end of the year, “poor Hannah Abbott lost her head completely at the next table and somehow managed to multiply her ferret into a flock of flamingos, causing the examination to be halted for ten minutes while the birds were captured and carried out of the Hall.”  Who else could think of such a silly little detail?

The books are fabulous for reading aloud, and those funny bits are part of the reason why.  We started reading these books aloud when our kids were 11 and 4.  Now that they are 15 and 8, the books still hold the attention of everyone in the family (including us parents).  They appeal to a wide age range, they are full of entertainment, and her names and magical phrases roll off the tongue.

From Chamber of Secrets on, I’ve been delighted with her plotting.  I like the way she plants some little fact ahead of time, and then it comes up again later.  She plants clues in plain sight, but we don’t understand their significance immediately.  (I noticed a couple in this book just before the characters—I’m getting used to her ways!)  I was especially impressed in this book that a throwaway comment that Dumbledore had made in Book Three now pertained to something important in Book Five.  I had heard that she had already plotted out all seven books, and I certainly believe it now.

You can’t help liking Harry.  He’s a normal kid who’s treated horribly by the Dursleys.  Then he gets the news that he is someone special.  It’s the fantasy of the Chosen Child.  Everyone can relate to it.

I like the way her characters are getting more complex.  The books are about a battle between good and evil, but there are many levels to that battle, in this book especially.  There’s a new teacher who’s strongly on the side of the Ministry of Magic, not the side of the Dark Lord—but she turns out to be terribly evil.  And those who are good don’t always make the best choices.  Characters we had already met are getting more complex.  I liked getting to see more aspects to the personalities of Neville, Ginny, Fred and George, and especially Dumbledore.

Okay, it’s a little contrived that every year the plot against Harry takes precisely one school year to come to a climax.  But it does give a nice structure to the stories.

A few years ago, when I was trying to write a children’s book of my own, my character was in a situation that she didn’t like right at the start, and she sounded like a whiner.  I looked at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to see how J. K. Rowling got our sympathy with Harry.  What she does is she simply shows us how awful Harry is treated by the Dursleys.  He doesn’t complain, he tries to make the best of it, but our hearts bleed for him.

The biggest drawback I saw with The Order of the Phoenix is that J. K. Rowling violates this principle that I learned from her.  Throughout the book, Harry is angry and agonizes over and over about his worries.  I think it would have been more effective if some of that were cut.  At the beginning, he’s worried about being expelled from Hogwarts, and of course the reader knows that that would never happen.  We can accept that he’s worried about it, but we don’t really need to dwell on it.  At one point a portrait asks Harry to spare him having to listen to “adolescent agonizing,” and I felt like telling him the same thing.

In fact, the chapter where I felt most strongly for Harry is one in which the evil new teacher gives him a horrible punishment.  In this case, Harry decides not to tell anyone and doesn’t complain—and the readers become terribly indignant and feel for him more strongly than in the chapters where he agonizes.  I thought that this illustrates the principle that if you want readers to feel your character’s feelings, you shouldn’t have to tell them what he is feeling, you can show them in a way that they will feel it themselves.

Still, the fact is that by this time, we already care deeply about Harry.  No matter how negative Harry gets, we’re still going to care about him, because J. K. Rowling has already gotten us hooked.  Lots of completely unfair things happen to Harry in this book, so his anger is understandable, and we do feel it with him.  There are some nice spots when a little romance brightens things up, but his unrelenting anger throughout most of the book makes it less pleasant reading than its predecessors.  Less pleasant, but perhaps more powerful reading.  This book, with its darker tone, feels more important and wider in scope.

I did think that one of the most powerful scenes in the book is toward the end, when Harry gets the angriest of all.  He shouldn’t have gotten so angry, and he shouldn’t have acted so childishly, but the fact that he does makes him seem genuine and human, and we feel for him as he struggles with his awful destiny.

All that said, I still think this book is a masterpiece.  I was delighted that it is so long—All the more time to enjoy it!  We’re learning more about Harry and his destiny, and dangers are looming as the Dark Lord rises to power.  I only hope that in Harry’s sixth year, Hogwarts will again be a haven.  Harry needs a break!

Reviews of other books in the series:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows audiobook
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Tales of Beedle the Bard

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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