I have been waiting expectantly for book five in the Harry Potter series ever since I embarked on this re-read. I’ve alluded to this story’s previous place as my favorite in the series. I don’t know any more if that’s true. But I’m also not comfortable naming another one my favorite (it is a competition between this and Prisoner of Azkaban, if you’re wondering). Taking a step back from the experience of reading it, I can say that the transitional nature of this story – we are most definitely at war by the end – as well as moving towards the more adult stories in the series (books six and seven as memory serves are much more A than YA, while books 3-5 are YA, and books 1 and 2 are safely Childrens, in my opinion) are the underlying strengths of this novel. Rowling balances the interior and exterior forces at play and produces an entirely unique book, which is simultaneously firmly within the structure of her series.
But I’ll take even another step back. When I reviewed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban I spoke about how expertly woven that book is. There’s not an ounce of fat on it and every chapter propels the central mystery of that book forward until we get to the climax chapters and the revelations of the truth in the Potters’ history. But, that book doesn’t scratch the same itch as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which, while not as concise and taut as its predecessor, was the sort of long rambling book that I often enjoy. It is that rambly, world suggesting and building aspect that is found in Order of the Phoenix. In this way, Order of the Phoenix takes the tapestry plot weaving skills of Rowling and applies them to world building and setting up the final two books and moves away from a central mystery structure which has been the standard of the previous four books. At the very end of this book Dumbledore unveils the real mystery and battle to come: neither can live while the other survives.
While I love that there’s not a part of this book that is wasted, it is not in the same way as Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s exciting, dramatic, and dark. But it is also – and this is incredibly important – wickedly funny in places and the humor is balanced exquisitely with darkness and fear of feeling truly helpless against the forces that would do us harm, another component carried over from Goblet of Fire.
The set pieces are wonderfully realized, specifically the growth of the roster of characters to fill in those spaces. Some characters who had only previously been name-checked, or had flitting appearances are now active players in the larger story. A personal pet peeve of mine is what I like to call the Friends party problem. On the show we only really know the core six (for many seasons) but whenever there’s a party its full of strangers to the audience who we are supposed to believe are integral to these peoples’ lives. While a perfectly practical part of production, it sucks from a storytelling standpoint. Rowling never does this to us. The D.A. has a few completely fresh faces, but they are linked to previously mentioned and developed side characters so that having a group of 25 students doesn’t feel in any way strange to the reader, no “where have these people been the entire time?” reaction. Which leads us to perhaps most importantly we have the introduction of Luna Lovegood and Dolores Umbridge who are equally remarkable characters, especially as they are polar opposites in their personal ethos, and thus our estimation of them.
We also now have a wizarding world which feels truly and epically cohesive. The introduction of the interior of The Ministry of Magic as well as St. Mungo’s settles us even more firmly into the world and the story. Every new place feels narratively woven together: think of how important Grimmauld Place and Kreacher become later in the series. On re-reading, and knowing the endgame, I was hyper focused on Sirius telling Harry about his extended family and the ways that most pure-blood wizard families are all interconnected, which only strengthens Dumbledore’s and the Sorting Hat’s “We’re All in This Together” spiels we have heard along the way. Harry has to think beyond his comfort zone of Ron, Hermione, and Sirius if he is going to succeed, and Ginny, Luna, and Neville step to the forefront.
We have also learned as readers that Rowling wastes nothing and the reader needs to be on the lookout. What could have been a throwaway detail: Sirius had a younger brother named Regulus and he was a Death Eater, instead becomes a major plot point in the final book. Regulus was killed, presumably because he had grown uncomfortable with what Voldemort and the Death Eaters were doing and tried to quit. In the short term this is meant to teach Harry and the rest of us once again that the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters. But it isn’t just that. It is a truth that is going to snowball into a crucial part of the endgame.
Rowling’s themes in this book are slightly more intimate, but no less crucial to our lives and times. The reader isn’t placed on a mystery to solve (I couldn’t have cared less by the end that Umbridge sent the Dementors, I had simply assumed that they had gone rogue much earlier in the story as that is a plausible explanation given by Dumbledore) but instead sinking into life in a tremulous time. The themes and the subject matter explored in Order of the Phoenix resonate with me now in a way that is both powerful, yet uncomfortably familiar. I feel exhausted after reading; it’s not the same thrill and a rush as I remembered it, which has left me unsure of how to rate it, and where to rank it.
Just a few of these themes, and the ones that warm my heart, are as follows. Our lovely trio, and their friends, learns the power of actually doing something to change things makes a world of difference. In that we have the parallel stories of the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army. The adults are reforming the group which fought Voldemort the first time, and are actively working against the misinformation coming out of the Ministry. Dumbledore is bringing together a disparate, but equally effected, group of magical creatures and persons, and doing his best even though they are struggling against the media machine. By being left out of the adult group, and forced to sit on their hands in their Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, brings another Hermione genius idea to the forefront: they can train themselves. This subversive group serves to unite members from three of the four houses and prepare them for the battles to come, unwittingly in the Department of Mysteries before long.
We also see various arcs of Character Growth, and I’ll focus on three of my favorite boys in the story and Ginny. Ron, my favorite, has self-esteem issues. His best friend is the most famous wizard of their age, their other best friend is the brightest witch of their age, and he’s Ron. Just Ron, not the best in any subject, not particularly handsome, not particularly known for his humor. He’s just Ron. He is also the sixth son in a family of rather successful wizards as far as Hogwarts goes at least, and is constantly in the shadow of Fred and George and their outsized antics. It is for these reasons why Ron’s Quidditch success and the reclamation of “Weasley is Our King” is so important to the story. It’s not just about Quidditch. It’s about Ron finally getting out of his own way and seeing himself as more than an appendage to someone else’s story. It is important for all of us to see ourselves as the hero of our own life.
Which also leads to Harry’s letting go of Quidditch. It isn’t permanent, we know, but he does not. He loses his broom and his ability to play, which is the only thing he truly feels confidant doing. But instead of sulking he supports his best friend, his team, and finds something else to pour his passion into. He becomes focused on doing his best to support the fellow members of the D.A. so that they can grow, always focusing on their achievements over his own. It is Harry at his best, and certainly a nice break from the emotional upheaval that is the connection to Voldemort and being fifteen.
And finally, we are brought to Neville finding a way to let others in to his pain, and overcoming his shortcomings. Neville, throughout four books, has been the poor student, the shy one, the afterthought. Ron has Harry, and Seamus has Dean, and no one has Neville. We find out at the end of the book that Harry’s story could so easily have been Neville’s, if only for a slightly different reading of Trelawny’s prophecy. Neville has suffered, and suffered alone. Yet, he is a warm, friendly boy who is inquisitive and wants to please. In some of my favorite chapters in the book (22-23 or so) we discover so much more about Neville (including that he has been using his father’s wand, and of course that is going to affect his magical ability. Not using your own wand lessens your effectiveness, as we’ve seen before when Ron had to use a wand that wasn’t his). We also see him focus on improving his skills in the D.A. and fighting with all he has in the Department of Mysteries and literally carrying Hermione out of harm’s way once he establishes that she is still breathing. Our Neville has grown up right before our eyes and uses his newfound truths – that he is worthy and competent – to finally open up honestly to his friends about his life.
Ginny is also growing into the powerhouse we need and want her to be. While Harry is suffering alone, Ginny reminds him that she has suffered similarly, she can be a friend to him through this time. She, much like the rest of her family, is no nonsense and supportive. (As a very sidenote, Mrs. Weasley continues to be a delight to me. Her love for Harry is on easy display – in a rough chapter – as his dead body is also used in the littany of dead bodies the boggart shows her. It is a supremely sad moment, living with Mrs. Weasley in her fear.)
Like narfna, I’m a huge fucking nerd and Order of the Phoenix is a nerd’s paradise. There are exams, stress, new and rare areas of study, medical mysteries… This book paints a clearer picture than any other of what it’s like to truly be a student at Hogwarts, not just using Hogwarts as a physical location away from the muggle world. Maybe it’s that the 5th years have more homework than ever, but the way that Harry and Ron have to juggle everything, and often don’t while Hermione seems to have a handle on it, (even though she loses her cool at exam time) really portrays Hogwarts as a real place, with its own particular rules and rhythms. We also see these rhythms disrupted by Umbridge in Inquisitor mode.Watching all the students go through O.W.L. testing as Rowling brings back the greatest hits of these characters accomplishments and all they have done over the past five years puts everything into larger perspective. She has grown these characters to match what is yet to come, and we are able to sit and enjoy the ride. As long as enjoying an academic tumult is your jam.
There is so much more I could talk about, the return of Lupin (something about his struggle always speaks to me), the introduction of Tonks (surprisingly less badass in the book than I remembered), Sirius’ death and how it destroyed me (still not okay), all of the ways Rowling laid in for that death to be avoided (never forget what your going-away presents are, folks), and Dumbledore’s admission that all he has done for Harry, and the way he has structured his interactions were because of his selfish desire to let Harry have a normal life, even though that was never going to be in the cards for long. McGonagall continuing to be a bad ass (Have a biscuit, Potter) and surviving four stunning spells to the chest (life goals right there), and the sheer terror that is Umbridge (I hate child abusers, I hate abusers of the system, and I hate power demons. I’m not sure I could hate a character more than I hate Umbridge, I hate her more than Voldemort). But I will not continue, I will return to my own thoughts about The Order of the Phoenix, and wonder what else it still has to teach me, and all of us.
This book review is preceded by The Goblet of Fire. In due course it will be followed by The Half-Blood Prince.