Friday, 31 October 2003

J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2003
Review number: 1193

The fifth novel in this phenomenally successful series starts with a big dose of the theme which occurs in several of the others - Harry's feelings of abandonment and loneliness as he spends the summer holidays with the awful Dursleys. This particular year, he is especially cross about it, because the contact he does have with his schoolfiends consists of hints that something exciting is going on but they are unable to tell him what it is.

The tone of the seven hundred plus page novel is set by the early chapters, another similarity with the earlier Harry Potter stories. Harry spends the year angry (he is, after all, an adolescent), trying to deal with things he doesn't understand, and having people keep things from him. There is rather less of the straightforward problem solving or "derring do" than in the earlier books; the whole of The Order of the Phoenix is more sombre and generally less exciting and immediate.

With each new Harry Potter novel, anticipation and expectations have grown in intensity; with The Order of the Phoenix, the extra delay before its publication (a two year gap rather than a single one - though Rowling was at pains to point out that there was no plan to release a novel a year) made this even more the case than before. I was disappointed when I finally read the novel, but found it hard to decide whether it is truly poorer than its fellows, or if the weight of expectation was too much.

There are good points to The Order of the Phoenix. Harry's discovery that his father wasn't perfect is one; Harry and Ron's attempts to understand girls are amusing; the exploits of Fred and George continue to be enjoyable. New character Luna, strange daughter of the editor of a downmarket wizarding tabloid, is an asset. (The series as a whole is full of negative portrayals of the media, a reflection of Rowlings' feelings about her own treatment in the real world, presumably.)

There can be no denying that The Order of the Phoenix failed to live up to my expectations, at least. This is to some extent because of the way that anticipation was fuelled by the release of details from the plot, in particular that someone was going to die. Rowling rather unfairly plays with the knowledge, parading candidates for the role in front of the reader, and I found the part of the plot relating to this a disappointment. It would have worked much better to have the death of a major character as a surprise.

Overall, though, I did end up feeling that The Order of the Phoenix isn't up to the standard set by the earlier novels. If felt too long, and the writing seemed tired, particularly when repeating elements which had already appeared (such as descriptions of lessons). It would be a brave editor who suggests changes to as big a name as Rowling, but the novel would almost certainly have benefited if someone had done so, even though it would have been even more delayed.

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