With great relief, I finished Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix. I like thick fantasy epics as much as the next person but content must be up to the task of filling, say 870 pages. Unfortunately, the 870 pages that contain the Order of Phoenix only provides more space for the already pedantic pace set in the previous Potter books to ooze into something slow enough to imitate a Stupefy spell.
Reading this book is like listening to a Presto by Haydn played at a Largo tempo. It plods on and on and on with only brief spurts of get up and go.
Having said that, Phoenix has some of the most entertaining plot and character elements of the series so far. The adaptation to film focused on these elements, making the film much better than the book. In all honestly, 350 to 400 pages could be trimmed away and not only help the pace, but turn it into a pretty good book–except for a minor point that I’ll discuss a little later. Even Rowling said, “There are minor plot things that I– I would change going back. I’d certainly– edit Phoenix a bit better because it’s– I think it’s too long.”
But you know what? There’s a section where the pace actually works, really works for the first time in the first five books. For the first time, Rowling seems to be enjoying what she’s writing. For the first time the story leaps off the page.
It’s odd to say, but her writing has a remote feel, which is interesting because the story (except for introductory scenes at the beginning of most of the volumes and a few minor POV slips) is from Harry’s POV. Perhaps that’s the reason I haven’t been able to muster enough empathy with Harry to really care. And, as I’ve been known to say, novels are about characters, not setting or story. After five books, I haven’t become a Harry Potter convert because I haven’t found a reason to like Harry Potter beyond him being a boy with an interesting problem to overcome.
The section where I feel Rowling demonstrates she can indeed write in an entertaining, engaging way is when the Weasley twins begin their campaign to get expelled from Hogwarts. Suddenly, we have action and pace in glorious harmony. The section where they set off the fireworks was good writing–all the way through to when all the fireworks burn themselves out.
Unfortunately, Harry does not endear himself to the reader or to anyone who comes within shouting distance of him for that matter. He spends the entire 870 pages pissed off at everyone. A fifteen-year-old yelling and pouting and storming about and fuming in anger does not make for fun reading.
The worse thing a writer can do is change a character’s personality so much that it’s not the same character. In this case, Harry Potter has been replaced by a bad actor, who makes up for lack of skill with over-the-top dramatics. I just wanted to fling a stupefy spell at him and tell him to get over himself and grow up. A more experienced writer would have been able to maintain the personality of the Harry in the first four books as he deals with the extremes of going through too many major physical, emotional, and mental changes in this book.
This is another example of Rowling not having a complete understanding of how to maintain a compelling fictional dream. She often plays fast and loose with what should be the constants in her world (such as the magic and, in this case, characterization) so certain plot points will happen.
Which brings us to the two major problems with this book . . .
The first is where the main characters suddenly turn stupid so certain events can unfold.
Snape gave her an ironic bow and turned to leave. Harry knew his last chance of letting the Order know what was going on was walking out the door.
“He’s got Padfoot!” he shouted. “He’s got Padfoot at the place where it’s hidden!”
Snape had stopped with his hand on Umbridge’s door handle.
“Padfoot?” cried Professor Umbridge, looking eagerly from Harry to Snape. “What is Padfoot? Where what is hidden? What does he mean, Snape?”
Snape looked around at Harry. His face was inscrutable. Harry could not tell whether he had understood or not, but he did not dare speak more plainly in front of Umbridge.
“I have no idea, ” said Snape coldly. “Potter, when I want nonsense shouted at me I shall give you a Babbling Beverage . . .”
At this point, as a reader, I said, “Bravo.” Snape’s a good wild card to pull at this point in the unfolding drama. But, just as Harry and Hermione are suddenly too stupid to figure out the contradiction of the rules related to the Time-Turner, they don’t seem to remember Harry gave Snape the above information so Snape can find out what’s going on with Sirius. They seem to have forgotten about Snape completely after they leave the centaurs to deal with Umbridge.
The whole scene of Harry and his posse going to the Ministry of Magic and getting caught up in endless pointless actions that go on and on, only to be saved, again, by grownups is just a mess. It reads like an action movie that tries to overwhelm the audience with too many special effects to take its mind off the fact that nothing is happening plot-wise.
This mess is a good indication the story strayed away from the logical narrative line, especially when too many things have to be explained at the end, like on page 830:
“Kreacher told me last night,” said Dumbledore. “You see, when you gave Professor Snape that cryptic warning, he realized that you had had a vision of Sirius trapped in the bowels of the Department of Mysteries. He, like you, attempted to contact Sirius at once. I should explain that members of the Order of Phoenix have more reliable methods of communicating than the fire in Dolores Umbridge’s office. Professor Snape found that Sirius was alive and safe at Grimmauld Place.
“When, however, you did not return from your trip into the forest with Dolores Umbridge, Professor Snape grew worried that you still believed Sirius to be captive of Lord Voldemort’s. He alerted the Order members at once.”
The grownups–the Order members–come and save the day because Potter and his friends have been all but defeated by the Death Eaters at that point.
The question is, why didn’t Hermione, who’s always on top of things, ask, when they’re mounting broomsticks and thestrals for London, “Shouldn’t we see if Snape’s found out anything?” The fact that she nor Harry nor Ron even ask the question is out of character for all of them. Another example of where Rowling sacrifices one of the most important constants in fiction–characterization–for plot points. Even if they still go to London after debating whether they should check with Snape would, at least, restore some credibility to the direction the story takes.
The second problem is the grownups come in to save the day. It’s almost as if Rowling couldn’t figure out how to get the kids out of the Department of Mysteries after being chased around far too long by the Death Eaters without two of the major plot points not happening yet. It reads exactly like what it is. A plot cop-out. At this point in the series, it’s almost irresponsible because Harry has more than demonstrated that he can handle the bad guys–all it takes is a little more imagination from Harry’s creator, who opted, once again, to take the easy way out.
Bellatrix raised her wand. “Crucio!”
Neville screamed, his legs drawn up to his chest so that the Death Eater holding him was momentarily holding him off the ground. The Death Eater dropped him and he fell to the floor, twitching and screaming in agony.
“That was just a taster!” said Bellatrix, raising her wand so that Neville’s screams stopped and he lay sobbing at her feet. She turned and gazed up at Harry. “Now, Potter, either give us the prophecy, or watch you little friend die the hard way!”
Harry did not have to think; there was no choice. The prophecy was hot with the heat from his clutching hand as he held it out. Malfoy jumped forward to take it.
Then, high above them, two more doors burst open and five more people sprinted into the room: Sirius, Lupin, Moody, Tonks, and Kingley.
I don’t doubt Rowling would like to take another stab at getting this book right, especially from page 745 on. All the elements for the dramatic climax are there, they just need to be pulled into focused and arranged in a logical credible sequence and have Harry more in control of the situation when the grownups arrive as re-enforcements, not saviors.
This could have been the best book so far. It has a lot of good things in it. The formation of Dumbledore’s Army, the Weasley twins’ anarchic rampage, and the concept for the Department of Magic makes the book fun. But, unfortunately, it’s the worse book of the first five.
I confess I’ve read Book 6 and 7. I decided not to stop after 5 and plowed through to the end, just finishing 7 today. So I’ll be blogging about the last two books this week, and then I can put this exercise in reluctant reading far behind me.