Trouble begins for Harry Potter long before starting his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. During a particularly miserable summer with the Dursleys, Harry and his cousin, Dudley are attacked by two dementors on the loose. Harry must use his magic to fend them off, and because of that, is nearly expelled from school. After a harrowing trial at the Ministry of Magic, he is able to meet up with his friends and finally discovers the mysterious activities they've been keeping from him. When school begins, the Ministry is watching, not only Harry, but Professor Dumbledore too. They've sent Dolores Umbridge as a special liaison, who will also be acting as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Professor Umbridge turns everything at Hogwarts topsy-turvy with her dictatorial ways, making enemies of nearly everyone in the school, both students and faculty. To top it all off, Harry is having strange dreams in which he is inside Voldemort's mind. In them, he is walking down a mysterious, dark hallway with a door at the end. Each time he has the dream he goes a little further into a labyrinthine maze, and what he eventually finds at the end will endanger both his life and the lives of everyone he cares about.
Wow! There was so much going on in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that I hardly know where to begin. First, I have to say that after a two and a half year absence from these books, it was great to dive back in. I'd forgotten just how good they are until I was once again immersed in Harry Potter's world. As the series has gone along, the books have become more complex and mature. I felt like this one had a more intense and darker tone than the first three, and was either on par with or a tad darker than book four. Harry enters his fifth and most stressful year yet at Hogwarts, because by the end of the year, the students must be prepared for their O.W.L. examinations which will determine their future career pursuits. On top of that he's dealing with another lousy Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who is out to get him and pretty much everyone else for that matter, and he's having strange dreams that turn out to be real. New revelations are made which advance the overall story arc, and Harry and the reader must say a sad goodbye to a beloved character. Everything together made for another action-packed adventure in this series that was difficult to put down.
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we see a Harry who is more angry and frustrated than he's been before. Throughout a miserable summer, he's dealing with the death of his classmate, Cedric Diggory, which occurred in Goblet of Fire and feeling like everyone is ignoring him, except of course Dudley, who is still trying to bully him. It was amusing how Harry used threats of magic to keep Dudley and the Dursleys at bay. After a dementor attack in which Harry must use magic outside school, nearly getting him expelled from Hogwarts before the school year has ever begun, he finally learns what the Order of the Phoenix is and why his friends have been so quiet and mysterious all summer. Once school starts, Harry still has a tendency to take his anger out on those he cares about, but with the Ministry of Magic watching his every move, Dumbledore still keeping mum, hardly anyone believing that he saw Voldemort alive, and Voldemort gaining in power and still ruthlessly trying to kill Harry, his hostile feelings were pretty understandable. I did miss the kinder, more caring side of Harry that we've seen in the previous books, but there were still glimmers of it here. Even in his intense moments, I could tell that he was mostly acting that way, out of a sense of hurt and loss, because he cared so much. Harry definitely does a lot of growing up here, as he witnesses the death of a dear friend and must process not only that, but the answers to some burning questions that have plagued him from the beginning.
There are so many wonderful allies for Harry in this installment, most old, but some new ones too, which made for a delightfully diverse cast. As always, Ron and Hermione are his most steadfast friends, but Neville and Ginny move into a more prominent friendship role for him. Then there is Luna "Looney" Lovegood, who is a fun new character. She's a bit of an oddball, and her father is the publisher of a tabloid-style magazine called The Quibbler, so she believes in a lot of strange things. She becomes one of Harry's staunchest supporters, believing his assertions that Voldemort is back even when some of the other students think he's a crackpot. Harry gets a little romance with Cho Chang, who likes him and believes him, but she's still missing Cedric and tends to be overly emotional, which is something Harry doesn't quite know how to deal with. Harry's cluelessness when it comes to girls and relationships was quite funny, especially when Hermione had to keep explaining things to him. Fred and George are in fine form and even more hilarious than ever with their pranks. What they did to get back at Professor Umbridge was pure genius and had me ROTFL. I loved the kids' idea about who their real Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher should be, and was very pleasantly surprised by how this played out. It was a moment when I felt like Harry really learned who his true friends were.
In addition to his fellow students, Harry has lots of adult friends too. Sirius is there for the whole story, wanting to be more active in his godfather role to Harry, but frustrated by not being able to leave his house due to still being a wanted man. The previous three Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers return. I was very excited to see Lupin (one of my literary crushes;-)) again. The real Mad-Eye Moody can be gruff and grumpy, but is also sometimes a hoot. The kids even got a quick visit with Lockhart who appears to still be as loony as ever. A new witch and wizard, Tonks and Kingsley, are introduced. They're both very cool characters who I look forward to seeing more of in future installments. Snape is still an enigma, but we get to learn more about his character in this book. Dumbledore trusts him and when the chips were down, it appeared he was loyal to Harry. However, Snape just can't seem to let go of the past enough to really be a strong ally for him. Once a certain event from Snape's past is revealed, in some ways, it made me understand more clearly where he's coming from, but in other ways, has left me with more questions than answers. When the story opens, Hagrid is off on some mysterious adventure, and when he finally returns about halfway in, he's sporting some equally mysterious injuries that never seem to heal. When all is revealed, Hagrid, as always, shows his care for all creatures and that he has a big heart equal to his size. The one major character who is largely absent until the end of the story is Dumbledore. I really missed his calming presence and fatherly advice, but once he comes back, he finally gives Harry many of the answers he's been seeking. In the process though, he burst my bubble just a bit, by proving that even he sometimes makes mistakes.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix contained some interesting grown-up food for thought in the question of what role government should play in education and a number of other areas. The main antagonist in this book (aside from Voldemort, of course) was Professor Umbridge, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, who is little more than a mole working for the Ministry of Magic. It's pretty ridiculous that Fudge is so fearful of Dumbledore rising up against him that he's turned into a tyrant. Needless to say, Professor Umbridge institutes many changes at Hogwarts that don't go over well with anyone, except her teacher's pets, Filch and the Slytherin nasties. She constantly has her eye on Harry and his friends, ready to dole out punishment for the smallest infraction, and is equally ready to start handing out pink slips to any teacher who is a little outside the norm. The woman is so evil and annoying, I felt like jumping into the story and strangling her more than once. Still, as I said earlier, this part of the story really got me to thinking about some deep stuff. The way the Ministry was overstepping their bounds and trying to control everything, from what could be taught in school, to who gets hired and fired, to spying on its citizens, controlling the main newspaper and banning other publications (I couldn't help wondering if this could possibly be a subtle jab at the people who've tried to get the Harry Potter books banned), and simply trying to silence Harry and the others from speaking the truth was treading in some dangerous territory. It was almost like a dystopian world.
In any case, a lot of things changed in Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts. From the Quidditch team, to the teachers, to how the school was run, everything felt different, and yet, there were still many characters and elements which easily reminds the reader of all the wonderful things about the first four books. There were lots of intriguing little mysteries brewing throughout, just begging to be solved, and I loved the way the author began drawing all the characters together into a tight and complex web. Characters we've only heard about but never seen appear, characters we haven't seen for a while come back, and characters who've never been in scenes together before get to interact. The climax is the most intense, action-packed one so far in the series. J.K. Rowling is always good at these, and she seems to up the ante with each story. I can feel Ms. Rowling gradually building toward the big showdown, and I can't wait to get there. I'll just have to try to remind myself not to take another two and a half years to read the remaining books.:-)
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