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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

Cover art by Mary GrandPre

Published by Scholastic Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

One of the iron-clad rules of the wizarding world was its absolute separation from the world of Muggles, the ordinary people who could not do magic. Those with wizarding talents were strictly forbidden to perform magic in front of Muggles, an offense that nearly got Harry in trouble just weeks before his second year at Hogwarts began, when the house-elf Dobby's spell was mistaken for one of his own.

As a result, Harry has tended to assume that the various strange creatures of the wizarding world would not approach Muggles either -- and that his Muggle relatives would thus be safe. Hateful as the Dursleys might be toward him, Harry also knew they were family, the only family he had left. And while he might be capable of the occasional prank or mild disobedience, Harry was not a truly vindictive sort of person. Certainly not the sort to take pleasure in seeing them truly harmed.

And that was exactly what befell Dudley, Harry's overweight and over-spoiled cousin, one dark evening. Dudley had taken to running with a rather rough crowd, smoking, drinking and vandalizing public property. He thought it was quite funny -- until his malicious spirit attracted one of the most terrifying creatures the wizarding world has to offer -- a Dementor.

Its very presence induces despair, and it's Harry's worst fear. In his third year at Hogwarts Harry learned how to repel them only through the use of a boggart, a magical creature that is the embodiment of the saying that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. By facing the faux Dementor again and again, Harry has learned the one and only spell that will repel the real thing.

But the moment he acts to protect Dudley, however undeserving his cousin may be of that kindness, Harry breaks wizarding law at a level that cannot be overlooked by those in high places. Suddenly he is summoned before the Ministry of Magic for a hearing as to whether his wand should be destroyed, an act which would leave him unable to use magic and effectively expelled from the wizarding world -- but not protected from its dark side either.

However, all is not lost, for Harry has made a number of powerful friends in the wizarding world, and they band together to help him in his hour of greatest need. Off they take him to the most secure place they can think of, the other place he can call home -- a house belonging to his godfather, Sirius Black. But it's a dark and strange house, filled with magical items that scream and wail and generally behave in the most disturbing ways imaginable. And it is kept by Kreacher, a miserable and decrepit house elf whose mind has been unhinged by years of abuse by some of Sirius' less pleasant relatives. There he begins the work of the Order of the Phoenix, an organization dedicated to resisting the continual encroachments of the sinister Lord Voldemort upon wizarding society.

This work gives him courage when it comes time to face his hearing -- in front of the Wizengamot, the wizarding court. It starts off on the wrong foot when he arrives late, and it seems to go downhill from there. Even the witnesses who should be sympathetic to him only seem to muddle things worse by their testimony. But just when he is about to give up hope, the vote comes out in his favor and he is reprieved to head off for yet another year at Hogwarts.

Except that trouble has come to Hogwarts as well. Yet again they're getting a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher -- Dolores Umbridge, whom Harry first met as one of the judges against him at the hearing. She announces that due to concerns that Dumbledore may be raising an army for a coup against the Ministry of Magic, henceforth there will be no further practical exercises. All study will be of theory only.

And what theory it is. Harry recognizes it immediately as utter tripe -- and almost any reader who has had to deal with educational theory bloviation will recognize exactly what J.K. Rowling is satirizing with unabashed glee. Hollow platitudes about peaceful resolution of conflict are presented as genuinely useful mechanisms for dealing with people who have no shame, no conscience, and no compunctions about doing whatever it takes to get whatever they want out of the weak.

Harry and his fellows quickly realize that something has to be done. The daring action they end up taking will put them straight on a collision course with the new system.

Unfortunately, this volume is probably one of the weakest in the entire Harry Potter series. Although Rowling's satire of pedagogical theory is hilarious, there are numerous places where she appears to be losing control of her plot. While earlier books were often quite intricately and carefully plotted, with seemingly minor elements in earlier scenes having profound significance later in the story, this volume often gives the impression of unravelling in her hands.

Review posted January 2, 2009

Buy Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5) at Amazon.com.