Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book Review - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I haven't done a book review in 2012 yet.  How about starting with one of my favorite of the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
This book has grown on me.  When I first read it, I felt Harry was too angry, too impatient, and the adults were either too distant, incompetent, or downright malevolent.  But after reading the full series, it becomes obvious that Harry is not just an adolescent with anger management issues.  Rowling is beginning to tie the series together in this book, and the emergence of the dark lord Voldemort with restored powers is only part of the threat to the Wizarding World.  The Ministry of Magic itself is suffering a lapse of leadership, with Cornelius Fudge and his associates trying to downplay public fears by denigrating Dumbledore and Harry as unstable cranks.

Things start badly for Harry, with Dementors attacking him and his cousin right in Little Whinging, and Ministry officials taking the opportunity to try to expel him.  But right-minded wizards have a secret society: the Order of the Phoenix, dedicated to fighting Voldemort. Except, Voldemort is playing hard-to-get. There's a rumor that he's stalking the Ministry, trying to get access to a weapon of some sort. We get to meet several members of the Order, including Mad-Eye Moody and Nymphadora Tonks, and we spend some time in the headquarters of the Order, the Black family mansion.  There, Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, spends his days in virtual solitary confinement with only Kreacher, a sour old house-elf, for company.

Soon the action shifts to Hogwarts, where Harry is surrounded by rumors and doubt.  Only his immediate circle of friends seem to trust him, and a few weird new characters like Luna "Looney" Lovegood.  Kids who have ever had an unfair teacher, or adults who have ever been caught in nasty workplace politics, will love to hate Dolores Umbridge, the new Defense Against Dark Arts teacher.  Seriously, if you thought the nanny state of Orwell's 1984 was bad, Umbridge will take it to the next level.  But Umbridge's regime provides the spur for some of Rowling's best scenes ever.  Harry's friends band together to learn the skills they will need from him, and they find the perfect room of requirement for their forbidden activities.  My personal favorite character, Professor McGonagall, knows just how to handle a twit like Umbridge.  And Fred and George Weasley have their moment to shine as well.  Oh yes, and Hagrid finds his next of kin.

The theme of friendship and the loyalty of friends, as always, is a major one in this book.  Harry's self-doubts, his impulsiveness, his irrational angry spells, though, mean that it is one of the more introspective of the series.  A major character does die in the last chapters of this book, and Harry blames himself.  Although the book may read like a humorous, swashbuckling romp, the serious ending makes it better suited for those older than 10 or 11.  As I've noted before, this poses a problem for parents whose kids race through the earlier books.  I'll be stalling my 9-year-old for at least another year.

A word on the movies:  I'm a firm believer in requiring kids to read the books first.  The movies will give you the essential plot and feel of the series, but you will miss so much that makes reading a joy.  That said, I like many things about the movies, and am frustrated by a few things.  The first two movies are fun and family-friendly, a great start to the series and an introduction for the illiterate.  The third is very well-made, darker, and is considered by many fans and purists one of the better films.  I'd consider it the best of the first 5 films.  I was frustrated by the 4th film, which is impossibly fast-paced and seems like a breathless highlights reel of the book; so much so that the emotional impact of the final scenes is diminished.  The 5th movie does a better job of editing, but had to eliminate many of my favorite characters and scenes.

My other Harry Potter reviews:
Sorcerer's Stone
Chamber of Secrets
Prisoner of Azkaban
Goblet of Fire

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