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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

by JK Rowling

(US edition: Scholastic, 870 pages, $29.99, hardcover; June 21 2003. UK editions from Bloomsbury.)

J.K. Rowling, as all the world surely cover scanknows, is a superstar, and like many superstars before her she's reached a level of fame that grants her immunity to the judgmental authority of her editors (or so it seems to me). This is more common in mainstream fiction than in the more limited genres of science fiction and fantasy, but even here it does happen. Anne Rice comes to mind, and Stephen King, and even Heinlein and Asimov in their later years.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is not a bad book. The last 200 pages are excellent, as are the first 20, and, of the 600 or so pages in the middle, a scattered 200 or more are equally fine. Oh well, the devoted reader -- and I'm perfectly aware that there are millions of devoted readers (I'm one of them, after all) -- will just have to slog through the remainder.

The book begins, as they all do, with Harry among the detestable Dursleys, but now Harry is not quite the punching bag he used to be. (He does not hesitate to let his uncle know that he considers him a fool, a very refreshing change.) Harry and cousin Dudley are attacked by two dementors. Harry uses magic to save their lives, and in doing so runs afoul of the magical authorities. He is swept away to the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, an organization founded to fight the minions of Lord Voldemort by Albus Dumbledore, the venerable headmaster of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Boredom soon sets in, as much for the reader as for our hero. Harry, accused of underage use of magic, must appear before a magical tribunal. The tribunal, however, is a kangaroo court arranged by the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who is desperately trying to deny the return of Voldemort and is afraid Albus Dumbledore covets his job. Harry's justification, self-defence, would seem obvious, but only after Dumbledore appears is it adequately presented. Soon after, Harry and the rest of the crew return to Hogwarts, where Harry is now regarded with considerable suspicion. His contention that Voldemort has returned is polarizing the magical world, and many of the students, echoing the feelings of the government as well as those of their parents, do not wish to believe it.

Dolores Umbridge, a Ministry toady, is the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, and a more loathsome character has rarely been invented. She is soon appointed the Hogwarts Inquisitor, with authority to rip apart the curriculum, punish the student body and remove professors at will. She proceeds to make Harry's life miserable, and naturally creates havoc in the school. Event follows upon event, few of them advancing the plot more an inch. Inches, however, do add up, and after 600 modestly eventful pages the story finally gets moving.

I will tell no more of the plot. However, what writers sometimes refer to as the idiot factor (sometimes also referred to as the Hollywood factor because so many old Hollywood movies rely upon it) is much used in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The idiot factor means, quite simply, that the plot works only because so many of the characters act like idiots. Fudge is an obvious example, as are the rest of the magical governance and the main part of the media -- Harry as well, I'm afraid, and this is not a criticism unique to this book. I've long since lost count of the number of times I've thought, "Tell Dumbledore, you fool! Tell McGonagle! Tell somebody!" But if he did there would be no plot ... or, rather, Rowling would have to come up with a more rational plot. And in a rational plot young Harry Potter, no matter how talented, would certainly have a reduced role.

But the world has come to love the Harry Potter books, whatever their flaws, and overall this is a good thing. Suspend your disbelief and return to Hogwarts and the Harry Potter universe. I enjoyed it, and I think you will too ... and maybe, with luck, the next one will be shorter.

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