Harry Potter is back, in a complex, intriguing tale with a dark ending. New characters are introduced and old ones make their appearance, Voldemort is creating havoc, and Harry is growing up.
The story opens at the Dursleys, where Harry has spent another miserable summer. Dudley is now a huge, bullying lout with his own gang, and Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon are just as horrid as ever. Worse, Harry’s friends seem to have deserted him. He hasn’t heard from Ron or Hermione in weeks. When Harry finds himself fighting off Dementors and saving Dudley in the process, the Ministry of Magic threatens to expel him from Hogwarts. Then a group of wizards appears to spirit Harry away to safety.
In the group is Remus Lupin, Mad-Eye Moody, and Nymphadora Tonks, a young witch and Auror who can change her appearance at will. Tonks is a cheery sort and one can’t help but hope she’ll be a part of the next book. They rush Harry to Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place in London, a magical house belonging to Sirius Black that now functions as headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix, which is the band of wizards and witches allied against Voldemort and his Death Eaters. They meet in secret because Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry of Magic have declared that the Voldemort scare is just that - a scare, and anyone allied with Dumbledor is not to be trusted.
Ron, Hermione, and The Weasley twins are present, but the adults won’t tell them what’s going on. Though happy to see his friends again, Harry is furious at being left in the dark and explodes in a fit of angry self-righteousness. Why is Dumbledore avoiding him? Hasn’t he, Harry, done more to foil Voldemort than anyone? Why is he being kept in the dark? And who sent Dementors after him, right in front of a Muggle, too? Even when the gang is back at Hogwarts, Voldemort and his plans remain shadowy to Harry. Plus, he’s having dreams of a mysterious corridor with doors at the end, and his scar is bothering him more than ever.
Harry isn’t the only one in trouble. The new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, is a spy for Cornelius Fudge, with ever-increasing control over the students and staff due to official decrees from the Ministry. When Umbridge succeeds in ousting Dumbledore as Headmaster and installing herself as Headmistress, chaos reigns and the stage is set for a showdown with Voldemort.
Harry continues to grow up in this novel. Now fifteen, he is a typical angst-filled teenager in many respects and is by turns bitter, ecstatic, and sullen. Ron and Hermione stand by his side as usual, though Harry doesn’t make it easy at times. Neville becomes more confident and self-assured as his powers begin to deepen, and several newly introduced classmates have their place in the plot, including Harry’s first crush. Harry continues to be a sympathetic character, even through his moods.
Dumbledore is largely absent for this story, but Remis Lupin and Sirius Black are back. Sirius ends up the most interesting secondary character, as the author give us insights into his background (think “black sheep aristocrat”). Snape, while as oily as ever, is made more human when Harry inadvertently gets a glimpse into his past - a past that includes real humiliation at the hands of people Harry admires and trusts. Harry begins to see the people around him in shades of gray, not just in the black-and-white terms of good and evil. Harry is becoming an adult, and the series is growing in complexity right along with him.
The only “flaw” in the story, and this will strike readers in different ways, is the ending. It smacks of Hollywood, as in “well, somebody’s gotta die or it ain’t gonna feel authentic”. The death of an important character felt gratuitous and unnecessary, especially when the stage was set to turn things in a far more interesting and satisfying direction at that very moment. Harry didn’t need anything more to feel bitter and despairing over.
J.K. Rowling’s usual flair and style are here in force, and the ending sets up readers for book six in fine fashion. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a highly entertaining read, one that will not disappoint Harry’s legions of fans.