Holy hell in a hand basket. We done come off the rails for this one.
In the longest installment of the Harry Potter series, we find Harry and the gang back at it, in a full 760 pages of magical mayhem. This book, however, felt shorter than the last one (although Time assures it wasn’t). Goblet of fire was a little too teenage-romance for me, although the introduction to the larger wizarding world was a welcome ingredient halfway through the series. A little less open but much more entertaining, Order of the Phoenix packs plenty of insanity, and keeps a better pace than its predecessor as well, despite the longer page count.
First, the angst. Oh in this volume Harry is the angstiest angster who ever had angst. Everyone thinks he’s nuts. And a liar. He saves his cousin’s life only to be (almost) expelled for his trouble. His friend’s doubt him. Dumbledore ignores him. And he gets extra lessons with Snape (that would brighten most people’s day…but not Harry’s). Rowling lets him get a little more human in this one, although he had his emo moments in earlier entries. They felt barely justified previously, but he gets the shit end in Order and Rowling very much lets it affect him. He yells at his friends, runs his mouth to his teachers, and even fantasizes about hitting Dumbledore. We find out this is sort of because Voldemort possessed him, but I don’t buy it. Harry’s a whiny little bitch (most of the time). The inclusion of Harry’s instructor-type role with the DA lightened some of the heavy load Rowling heaped upon her poor protagonist, and I found this to be a very cool, captivating, and well-executed facet of the story. It feels like occasionally she tries too hard to make Harry beaten down by life’s events, so it’s nice to see some of his tribulations pay off in admiration from his fellow students, even when he’s at his lowest point.
Second, the Evil. There is a lot of evil in this story, most of it centered around the lovely Dolores Umbridge (Sometimes Rowling’s naming is a little too cutesy for me…but this one always makes me smile). Rowling must have had a nasty experience with a female school administrator at some point in her life, because she nails this character. From the irritating cough, to the fake simpering, to the smiling while having underage children scrimshaw the backs of their hands as punishment for minor infractions. By the end of the story, I thought to myself, oh thank God it’s Voldemort. He’s way less scary. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
I think this installment pulled me back in because Rowling went back to her strength: the characters. There was no big event, like the Tri-Wizard tournament, that was the focal point for this book. It was all about watching the characters driving the plot. I’ve been told by several reliable sources that Order tends to be the where most readers start hitting the Harry Potter fatigue point, but the opposite was true for me. After Goblet I was feeling a little bogged down, even after it started so well, and this volume re-energized me, especially the last 100 pages or so.
In a very brief stretch of time, both in the story and in page count, several very important and captivating events occur: The prophesy, the ministry fight, the death of Sirius, Dumbledore vs. Voldemort, and pre-empting all of it, some justification for some of Snape’s brooding angers, and a glimpse revealing Harry’s pop as a bit of a prick, and Sirius equally prickish by association. Rowling weaves all these events together, and sets up probably the most exciting and satisfying climax to any Potterverse book yet. This more than anything made me forget the preceding 600 pages, because the pay-off made slogging through them worth it.
My bone to pick with this volume is the blocking and execution of one piece of this climax: the fight at the Ministry. I’ve seen Rowling improve her description and spacing of action sequences dramatically throughout the stretch of volumes up to this one, mainly in smaller, one-on-one situations. I’m far from an expert but I do read a lot of war-based fiction, both science and not-science, where action sequences are key to the plot and the appeal, and perhaps that makes me a purist. Oh well. It’s my bone and I’m picking it.
She makes a valiant effort at keeping the point-of-view focused on Harry, and what he can see of the action, and the frenetic pace she sets fits the adrenaline-fueled aspects of the scene. She goes a bit too far in some instances, particularly when Harry is pursued by the Death Eaters, that the action is difficult to follow. Hermione teleports a few times (and not on purpose). Neville pops out of nowhere (Also not on purpose). The whole scene confounded me. And then the large-scale wizard fight, which was a big missed opportunity, felt disjointed and campy. Wizards from both sides kept falling, but you never knew how. Or what happened to whichever other wizard felled them. You couldn’t keep track of anyone. The whole time I kept seeing Death Eaters go down, but no one could help Tonks or Sirius? Supposedly the Order was outnumbered, but where were the two-on-one conflicts? Just exactly how many Death Eaters were there? Did we keep the number vague so the resolution could be cleaner? Dumbledore came in and tied a nice bow in everything by apparently capturing the baddies, but not before Sirius “passed beyond the veil” (Bit too on the nose there, Ms. Rowling). Which of course made angsty Harry all the angstier.
This cornucopia of cluster-fuckery was saved, however, by the epic battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort. Here, Rowling shined. In a well-paced, one-on-one fight between the two most powerful wizards we ever meet, the battle did not disappoint, from Dumbledore’s calm, effortless maneuvers to the intensity of the Dark Lord’s attacks, I had no trouble following their movement. For the first time, I can say I preferred one of Rowling’s written descriptions of a conflict to what I saw in the movies. It was brief, intense, quiet (No trash talking, just wizarding. Straight up, yo) and wholly satisfying.
My nit-picking of the fight scenes aside, I enjoyed Order of the Phoenix immensely. The characters were back at the forefront, as I’d mentioned before: Sirius plays a more prominent role, Lupin’s back, as well as Moody (the real one this time), the Weasley family is delightfully dysfunctional, with the disowning of Percy, the drop-out twins Fred and George, and Ginny growing up. Harry dabbles in romance, with predictably disastrous results (pile on the angst), Ron becomes a quidditch hero (shortly after becoming a quidditch zero), and Hermione’s streak of awesomeness continues (Who’s idea was the DA? That’s right, it was hers). We meet Kreacher the evil elf, Bellatrix LeStrange the insane-in-the-membrane kin- killer, and of course Dolores Umbridge, who brings a whole new kind of kitten-cuddling, tea-sipping evil to the franchise, and frankly makes everyone miss the Death Eaters for most of the prose.
And Snape. Perhaps Rowling’s crowning achievement of the whole storyline so far is the development and execution of this character through this side-piece of the meta-plot. She created this evil, dark, almost-irredeemable semi-antagonist, and through just the right amount of revelation, made him one of the most revered characters in modern literature. Her choice of Alan… …Rickman… was perfect, and the control she requested on advising him how to play the character in the movies is justified. This character, more than any other, translated to the screen with as much impact as he had on the page. Finally seeing some explanation for his vehement hatred and brooding personality makes us feel the glimmer of a connection with Snape, now somewhat a victim and less of a perpetrator. Because I watched the movies and ruined it, I know what’s coming in Half-Blood Prince, so I can see the swerve back coming, and then what ultimately happens in the final volume. Regrettably, I don’t have any of the anticipation or wonder about what Snape really is, but it speaks volumes to Rowling’s execution that I still look forward to Snape’s storyline almost more than Harry’s.
Order of the Phoenix did not supplant Prisoner as my favorite volume to date, but it did cure my HP fatigue. The meta-plot(s) have me hooked, and as I write this I’m already halfway through the next installment.
Lord, I’m drinking the kool-aid. And I don’t care. Because it’s delicious.