Monday, June 23, 2003

Tansy on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
(slight spoilers but not big toothy ones)

Well, I’ve read it!

Actually, I finished reading it at a few minutes past midnight on Saturday, which I’m aware means I was pipped at the post by several twelve year olds who were done by teatime, but I was sensible and didn’t head into the bookshop until the middle of the afternoon. No queueing for me! (well, until Boxing Day and Return of the King, anyway)

I must say, this was a far more stressful read this time. Past Potter books (even the slightly tense Goblet of Fire) have exuded a certain nostalgic warmth about them. We long to go to Hogwarts, to curl up in squashy armchairs, chat with old friends and, towards the end, fight a little bit of evil. But the books have grown up with Harry, and there is a definite sense of discomfort, aggression and danger running through every chapter of Order of the Phoenix. Of course, the danger is mainly due to the fact that every reader who hasn’t been living in a cave knows that a main character is GOING TO DIE, which adds a certain frisson to every dangerous encounter.

And there are many of them. Is she doing it deliberately? You have to wonder, when just about every significant character in the book either faces severe danger at one point, or is wounded, or appears to be dead... I must admit, I’m looking forward to re-reading it further down the track, safe in the knowledge of who dies, and at what point in the narrative, so I don’t have to jump out of my skin everytime someone trips on a shoelace or has a wand pointed at them.

You find yourself mulling it over as you read. Who will it be? Is Dumbledore doomed? Is McGonagall a central enough character to be a serious contender? Can we spare one of the Weasleys? Not one of the children, surely? [she wouldn’t actually kill or Ron or Hermione, would she? She wouldn’t be that evil? Anyway, she identifies Hermione with herself, it would be like Joss Whedon killing off Xander, wouldn’t it? Mind you, I’m not entirely sure that Xander’s going to survive season seven...] Oh, please let it not be someone I actually like! The evil little voice in the back of my brain kept throwing up options: oh, let it be Neville, I wouldn’t miss him too much... but of course you know that it will be someone that will be missed, because that’s the point. It has to be a death that hurts.

So yes, this is a stressful book! Not only the knowledge of impending death (and the ramifications of JK Rowling/Voldemort’s last murder, that of the hapless Cedric Diggory) affects the sensation that this is a fifteen-year-old’s book, no longer children’s fiction but decidedly young adult. Hogwarts is not the comfy and safe haven that it used to be, with a new villain in charge who makes Snape look like a pussy cat. As soon as you see that Hagrid is not there to escort the first years across the lake, you know that nothing will be the same again... Exams loom, Quidditch is spoiled, and detention has taken on such an aspect of torture and horror that it is truly to be dreaded.

More than in previous books, Harry (and his readers) start to realise that the adults he has relied upon so heavily are not in control. They make mistakes, they can be cowardly and cruel, and even the good and valiant ones are not always there when you need them. His growing relationship with Sirius has changed from a father-son dynamic to a brotherly friendship, with Harry becoming quite protective as he starts to understand more about his beloved godfather’s flaws and frustrations, not to mention his family background, showing Harry that he wasn’t the only one with a seriously deprived childhood!

Harry starts to understand Snape a little more, too, leading to a suspicion that maybe his late father was not quite as perfect and heroic as he has always believed.

I strongly support formulae being overturned, and Order of the Phoenix does this with the Harry Potter pattern again and again. You never quite know what is coming next, which can only be a good thing. The wizarding world expands a even further, adding the Ministry of Magic to the mix, and making Privet Drive a little less cartoony and a little more believable than ever before.

There’s fun stuff too, in between the darkness. The Weasley twins take their inventive pranks up several notches with hilarious results, culminating in a grand rebellion. New characters are introduced, notably Luna (Loony) Lovegood, a very odd girl whose father runs a wizarding tabloid (a potential love interest for Ron, perhaps??), and Tonks, a cool metamorphing chick who is one of the gang recruited to fight Voldemort. Many long-awaited cameos from the past make an appearance, including all of the previous Defence against the Dark Arts teachers (who are still alive, and even the dead one gets a mention). And romance, previously only hinted at, is a definite feature of this story, the highlight being Hermione sagely explaining to the boys how girls’ brains work when it comes to emotional relationships, and the boys staring at her in a mix of horror and awe. While Harry is having a miserable and frustrating year, his friend Ron is having a pretty good one, finally stepping out of his famous friend’s shadow to cope with new responsibility, tackle new challenges, and play the big brother when he discovers to his horror that his little sister Ginny has a boyfriend. Indeed, having finally given up her crush on Harry, Ginny can finally stop blushing and become a proper part of the gang, which she does with great gusto.

Rowling’s expert worldbuilding comes into play, picking up smaller elements from previous books and making them central to story twists. While this is enjoyable for a longtime reader, this is probably the least stand-alone of the books. There is little point picking up the Order of the Phoenix without being fully equipped with the knowledge of what a Boggart is, or what Rita Skeeter did, or why Hermione is so militant about the house elves...

With more heroes and villains than ever before, and a devastating death around the corner (and yes, it was devastating, one of the ones that I really didn’t want to lose...) the Order of the Phoenix is totally unmissable for fans of the series. But then, you knew that already. In fact, you probably finished it before I did.

But I do wonder how the eight-year-olds are going to cope with it...