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Published: Thursday, 6/26/2003

`Harry 5': Worth the wait

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

J.K. Rowling's latest is a wonderful blend of darkness, humor

It's a legitimate question: Is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix worth the massive hype and hoopla that preceded its publication?

The short answer is an unequivocal “yes.” The slightly longer answer is that this fifth volume in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling may be the best one yet.

In fact, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic $29.99) should cement Rowling's reputation as one of best-ever children's writers, one who has convinced a generation of youngsters that books can be fun.

Yes, this book - nicknamed Harry 5 by some - is lengthy. At 870 pages, it's the longest children's book ever published. Could it have used some judicious pruning to remove repetitive passages and clunky sentences? Certainly. But, if you ask the millions of Harry Potter fans who've been waiting for three years for the boy wizard's fifth adventure, most would complain that the book is not long enough.

Fortunately, in going for length, Rowling didn't skimp on depth. The book is rich with examples of her seemingly inexhaustible imagination, from small details like belching wastebaskets to the way Rowling develops the larger theme of Harry's mysterious connection to the evil Lord Voldemort.

Harry 5 is, as Rowling promised, the darkest book so far in the series, which she says will eventually comprise seven volumes. It's a pivotal book that explains much of what has gone on before, yet leaves lots of questions unanswered.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has a steady crescendo of stomach-clenching suspense, building inexorably to a violent, yet inconclusive, clash between Harry's side and Voldemort and his Death Eaters. An important character dies, others are wounded, and even a rather comic ending can't erase the sadness permeating the last few chapters as Harry learns the truth about his destiny.

As always, however, readers' minds and hearts are captured by Harry, a bespectacled, tousled-haired orphan who discovers in late childhood that he's actually a wizard. When Harry was a baby, his parents were murdered by Voldemort, who couldn't kill Harry but left him with a distinctive lightning-shaped scar on his forehead.

Reared by his loathsome Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia Dursley, Harry enters the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry when he turns 11. There he learns that his encounter with Voldemort has made him famous in a wizarding world unknown to most “muggles,” the name given to nonmagical humans like the Dursleys.

In this latest book, Harry is 15, and in his fifth year at Hogwarts. Harry may be a wizard, but he's also a typical teen, brimming with adolescent angst. Rowling marvelously portrays Harry's self-absorption, his rebelliousness, his quicksilver mood changes (leaning heavily toward anger), his longing to fit in, and his awkwardness with girls, especially the girl he has a crush on, fellow Quidditch player Cho Chang.

Harry even feels misunderstood by his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, and by Albus Dumbledore, the kindly Hogwarts headmaster who had once played a grandfatherly role toward Harry but now seems determined to avoid him.

Harry's definitely not at his best in much of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and that's just fine because it makes him so wonderfully human. Harry's confusion and anger also reflect his dawning understanding that no one is perfect, not even his dead parents.

But teenage turmoil is the least of Harry's worries. In this book, Harry fends off an attack by the “dementors,” overcomes an effort to expel him from Hogwarts, and battles the sadistic rule of Dolores Jane Umbridge, Hogwarts' new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who has been appointed to keep an eye on Dumbledore.

Harry's growing emotional connection to his godfather and surrogate wizard parent, Sirius Black, is another major theme in the book. Black has offered his childhood home as the headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix, a secret society formed by Dumbledore to begin laying the groundwork for the coming war with Voldemort. It's a scary time, and Harry feels comforted by his relationship to Black.

Fortunately, Rowling leavens the book's increasingly dark tone with gobs of outrageously silly humor. “Regurgitating” toilets, interoffice memos that have wings and fly to their destinations, and nasty curtain-dwelling creatures called “doxies” are all part of the fun in this book.

Of course, there's also Fred and George Weasley, Ron's twin brothers who were seemingly born to be practical jokers. In this book, the Weasley twins have developed a range of new joke products, including “extendable ears” that allow for undetected eavesdropping and “skivving snackboxes,” candies that give students a temporary reprieve from class.

There are a few new comic characters as well, including Tonks, a klutzy witch who loves to frequently - and drastically - change her appearance; Grawp, the giant half-brother of Hogwarts groundskeeper Rubeus Hagrid, and Luna Lovegood, the rather odd fourth-year Hogwarts student whose father is editor of the Quibbler tabloid.

But the book's central theme is somber: the unsuccessful attempts of Harry, Dumbledore, and a few others to convince the wizarding world that Voldemort is quietly consolidating his power. Far from believing Harry and the others, most members of the wizarding world, led by high officials in the Ministry of Magic - desperate to retain their grip on power - try to actively discredit them.

Meanwhile, Harry and his fellow Hogwarts fifth years face another challenge - O.W.L.s, the standardized tests given at the end of the year to determine the extent of their knowledge. To try to ensure that students do well, teachers load them with more homework than they've ever had before, a situation with which young readers will readily identify.

The climax of the school year, however, is focused on a different kind of test, a brutal battle with Voldemort. By the time the book concludes, the wizarding world is ready to believe Harry and Dumbledore that the once-weakened Voldemort has returned to power.

Whether the Dark Lord can now be stopped is a question that Rowling leaves for her next book. For millions of Harry Potter fans, that next book can't come soon enough.



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