I have to admit, this is a series I never expected to get into. I had stopped introducing myself to new children's books (aside from the children's literature class in college) when I left middle school. But while Harry Potter fandom was just starting to catch the mainstream news, I happened to have a British coworker who picked up the books and recommended them to me. He lent me his copy of Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. I actually didn't like it very much and to date it's probably my least favorite of the series. But when Goblet of Fire came out Harry was very much in the news everywhere and I decided to give the series a second chance. I liked the second book better and found the third outstanding, and by then I was pretty much in for the long haul.
So that brings me to book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, borrowed once again from a coworker, though a different one from the last four since it's been three years since Goblet of Fire and I now work for a different company. (I know this must make me sound like a terrible mooch, but after having read the first four from borrowing, I figure I'd read at the fifth and sixth in the same fashion, and then buy the collector's boxed set when it comes out with book 7 as you know it will!)
If there's any part of the Harry Potter series that is as much its strength and its weakness is that certain things can be counted on; each book covers Harry's life from the beginning of the school year until the end, there will always be a new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher, and Harry will always start each book stuck in the house of his rotten awful relatives the Dursleys. While that can make for some boring narration (I really didn't care for seeing the Dursleys yet again since they're invariably one-dimensional), at least they added a few details to his Aunt Petunia. I think Rowling could've done more with that, because when Petunia finally admitted to knowing things about wizards she had been denying all her life, all it amounted to really was that she knew she was sealing some magic charm when she accepted her orphaned nephew Harry into her household. I would've liked to have seen that expanded upon, to know that she had been involved in something beyond that even if she didn't like it, because if there's anything that strains the boundaries of credulity in a book about things as fantastic as a school of wizards, it's a cast of characters flatter than a sheet of paper.
And actually, that's initially why I didn't care for the first book. Everything was too pat. It worked well enough I suppose given the eleven-year-old Harry's point of view (barring a couple of prologue scenes I'm fairly certain that Harry is invariably the focal POV), but after a while Harry started to see a bit more openly and the characters fleshed out. However, there are some characters who really need the fleshing and still haven't gotten it. The Dursleys are among them, but the low-level "villains" in Harry's life, chiefly anyone from Slytherin House, are incredibly one-dimensional. Hogwarts is divided into four houses and a kid from Gryffindor could be interchangeable with one from Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff, but Slytherins are universally nasty, arrogant, and quite often stupid. Because of that, they don't seem like real people at all. One thing I liked about the movie versions is that all the kids from Slytherin look like real kids, whereas in the books they're generally depicted as being stupid brutes with simple minds. Malfoy and his cohorts may be a group of rotten eggs, but I have trouble believing the entire house is like that.
With only two books left and Harry turning fifteen, I would've liked him to see beyond all that and add some color to the black and white view with which he's always regarded the Slytherins, especially since the Sorting Hat warned the entire school that they'll have to band together in the future. I wasn't expecting a bouquet of roses, but at least something could have started.
And unsurprisingly, Harry and Snape are still going at it. Harry doesn't like Snape, Snape doesn't like Harry. Things'll be interesting in book 6 if Harry aced his O.W.L.s and winds up in Snape's advanced potions class. If there's anything I can't seem to get enough of in the Harry Potter books, it's Severus Snape. People new to Harry Potter seem rather shocked when I say he's my favorite character (especially since most of the first book is spent thinking he's the bad guy), but I really like him, and I think what cemented it for me is the fact that more than anyone else, he's human. He's the instructor in charge of Slytherin House at Hogwarts and even though he plays by Slytherin rules at most things, he's not as one-dimensional as he outwardly seems. Indeed, it may have been the revelation that Snape was a "good" guy at the end of the original Sorceror's Stone that helped me decide to continue on with Chamber of Secrets.
I was about to go to bed at 1am after having read quite a bit of Order of the Phoenix for a Sunday, now Monday, night, but even though I had to go to work in less than six hours, I saw the chapter titled "Snape's Worst Memory" and I realized I just couldn't put down the book until after I had read that chapter. Snape's always hated Harry's father ever since they were classmates at Hogwarts, and finally I got to see why. And quite frankly I don't blame the guy. The book churns up some of his other dreadful childhood memories, which will no doubt come into play in a future book. I don't think it was by accident that Rowling showed us what Snape had been before he became one of Voldemort's followers and subsequently a teacher at Hogwarts.
One thing that I wish had been elaborated on in Order of the Phoenix was what Snape had been doing since the end of Goblet of Fire. Goblet of Fire ended in a fury of action, with all the instructors and everybody being sent to do various tasks. It was in this chapter that Snape revealed the Dark Mark on his arm that marked him as a follower of Voldemort, and also revealed that he ignored the call when his former master summoned his Death Eaters to him. Dumbledore tells Snape at the end of Goblet of Fire that he knows what he has to do, and judging from Snape's reaction, it wasn't anything pleasant. According to Order of the Phoenix, Snape tells Harry that his job is to find out what Voldemort is saying to his Death Eaters, but I would have liked to have know more of the how.
When Voldemort summoned his Death Eaters he noticed Snape was missing (though he did not call him by name) and said that that particular follower who had turned from him would be killed. I suppose Voldemort could have meant someone else, but it looked like he was doing roll call and if Snape was there Harry, who was there at the time, should have seen him. My coworker suggested that Snape was working as a double agent, pretending to still be a Death Eater while simultaneously being a member of the Order of the Phoenix, but because of Voldemort's comment in Goblet of Fire I'm inclined to discount that. Interestingly enough, Lucius Malfoy still speaks highly of Snape (according to at least Professor Umbridge, though I could have sworn the younger Malfoy had said something along those lines too) even though he too is a Death Eater and should have noticed Snape's refusal to answer Voldemort's summons. Also, interestingly enough, in the book's climatic battle Snape does not appear on the side of either the Order or the Death Eaters. According to Dumbledore that was because Snape was still back at Hogwarts, but I can't help wondering if there was a another purpose to keeping him out of that fight. He shouldn't be pretending to be a Death Eater given what Voldemort had said and what the other Death Eaters should have noticed, but I think to some degree it's probably to their advantage to have Snape not openly align himself with Dumbledore and Harry (and in Harry's case Snape would probably never openly align himself with him anyway). It's paid off already in this book with the villain-of-the-volume Professor Umbridge. When all of Harry's Hogwarts allies among the adults are disabled, Harry finds out that Snape is the only member of the Order left that can help him, and the reason Snape is left is quite likely because he hates Harry and Umbridge does too.
I satified with the bit of Snape's past we got in this book, as with the growing amount of pieces from the previous, but I think the real dirt of the matter is still to come; why Dumbledore gave Snape a second chance, why he trusts Snape when it seems no one else wants to, and why Snape is helping fight Voldemort to the degree that he is. Punishment for betraying the most evil of wizards can't be a light thing! Most villains turned hero don't retain their arrogance and disdain for those beneath them, but Snape does it in spades. It's not in his nature to be nice to people, and it probably never will be, but by joining the Order of the Phoenix he doing some of the most altruistic work in wizardkind. It's a very interesting contrast.
But while some things remain the same, there are definitely some changes in this book from the previous. Thematically the story is more darker. For detention the new Professor Umbridge has Harry write "I will not tell lies" on a scroll that essentially functions as a link to his own skin. He writes his lines in his own blood, with every stroke of the quill cutting the words into the back of his hand. While I could accept that gruesome punishment for Harry, who everybody but the Order seems out to get in this book, it made less sense when she gave the same punishment for Lee Jordan. Harry refused to complain about the punishment, because it become a contest of wills between him and Umbridge, but Lee had nothing to lose or hide if he revealed what Umbridge did to him, so the fact he didn't was kinda weird.
Rowling also takes advantage of all the familiarity bred from the previous books to enhance the fact that Harry's world is slowly falling apart. For the first time Hagrid's not there to greet the first year students, Dumbledore is aloof instead of supporting Harry every step of the way as in the past, and, from the reader's perspective, Harry himself has undergone a shocking change.
There are times in Order of the Phoenix where Harry is grossly upset and resorts to shouting in all caps, and personally, I don't care how many millions Rowling is pulling in from this book, but I think using all caps is a terrible way to express something no matter how loud someone's shouting. It was very distracting, made the sentences harder to read, and she could've accomplished the same effect of him being mad without making it harder on the reader. But anyway, Harry went on a few outrageous anger trips that actually came off as being grossly out of character. A few of them I could understand and would have accepted easier without the caps, but others just didn't make any sense to me, like Rowling was making him mad just because she needed him to be upset. Fortunately Harry's pretty well behaved in the middle and towards the end of the book, it's just a segment in the second to last chapter and quite a bit in the beginning where his temper flares are quite irritating.
Harry's not the only character who changes either. Hermione and Ron remain the same, but Neville, previously the whipping boy of Gryffindor because of his cowardice and incomptence, comes out surprisingly well. He's still not very competent, but we get to see a little more about him and perhaps why he was placed by the Sorting Hat in Gryffindor in the first place. Neville actually takes on Death Eaters in this book! And other than Harry, he's the only kid still standing when the adults finally come to the rescue. We also finally see the state of his parents after they lost their minds at the hands of Voldemort's followers. I would have to say the most touching moment in the entire book is when Harry accidentally meets Neville at the hospital after a visit with his parents. Neville's mom limps out, unable to speak, and offers him something. He takes it and it's just an empty bubblegum wrapper. While Neville's grandmother thanks her daughter-in-law for the gift and shushes her away, she tells Neville to just throw out the wrapper because his mother must've given him enough to wallpaper his room by now. But as Neville leaves with his grandmother, he pockets the wrapper instead. Harry might be an orphan who never knew his parents, but though Neville's are still alive, they are living reminders of what he lost before he was old enough to know better. It's no surprise that he fought so hard against the Death Eaters. Neville may turn into a lion yet, and I hope he does.
I found it funny how Dumbledore mentioned that the child prophecied to have the power to vanquish Voldemort could actually have been one of two children, until Voldemort made the choice by marking one of them as his equal (via the lightning bolt scar now on Harry's head). Since Voldemort tried to kill Harry, he became the boy of the prophecy, but if Voldemort hadn't chosen Harry, the prophecized child would have been Neville.
Something perhaps odder about Order of the Phoenix in comparision to the other books is that it brings back a lot of characters from previous installments, often with little of no introduction. And that's terrible considering that it's been three years since the last book came out. I couldn't remember who the heck Rita Skeeter was, only that she must've been from Goblet of Fire because I had seen Sorceror's Stone and Chamber of Secrets fairly recently in movie form and she wasn't in them and Prison of Azkaban was my favorite so I wouldn't have forgotten anyone from that book. The only chapter where she shows up is called "Beetle at Bay" and the word beetle never shows up the entire chapter. Hermione refers to Rita as being an unregistered animagus though, and after pondering real hard I vaguely remembered something like that from book 4 and figured that the beetle must've been her animal form. But if I had been reading this book for the very first time without having read the others, I wouldn't have a clue what the chapter title was referring to.
And it's not just with characters that she does this. Snape drops his memories, only described as a silvery gossamer substance, into the Pensieve and I was left wondering what they were until a few pages later where Snape was retrieving his "thoughts" from the Pensieve. If I had just recently finished Goblet of Fire I would've remember that the silvery stuff was someone's memories, but I hadn't, and Rowling's not very accomodating. The term "squib" comes up early in the book and I had forgotten its meaning so I had to look it up on the web to find out what it was. Rowling only finally gives out its definition halfway through Order of the Phoenix, far too late for someone who's rusty on her Hogwarts vocabulary.
Surprisingly, she does have a huge info-dump to bring everyone up to speed regarding the previous four installments, but it's in the second to last chapter of the book, after the climax where Dumbledore finally explains everything to Harry that he had been hiding since the first book. Unfortunately the relevation that Harry had to kill Voldemort or die himself was rather underwhelming since destined conflicts go back at least as far as ancient Greece. I suppose within the reality of the characters it makes sense that the thought wouldn't necessarily occur to Harry, but as a reader I knew it was going to happen and it didn't have nearly the impact it should have.
Order of the Phoenix also introduces two new characters (well, there's also Grawp Tonks, Kingsley, etc. who are all bound to come crashing back in again in a later book, but they didn't do anything that affected the overall plot) in Luna Lovegood and Professor Umbridge. Luna's introduction felt a bit odd since despite the fact she doesn't seem to do much or even care, all signs point towards her being an important player. She's not a new student, only being a year younger than Harry, so she's been at Hogwarts for three of the previous books, but she's hasn't turned up until now. It just seems like book 5 is really late to add in another student protagonist.
Umbridge actually was a bit of a disappointment. She was appropriately repulsive, but I kept waiting for her secret agenda to come out and it never did. She made life at Hogwarts a living nightmare for a good many characters and yet nothing she did was ever justified. She has few morals, broke laws to get Harry in trouble, and for what? It's implied that she did it for Fudge (who was oblivious to what she was doing), but for me that's not a strong enough reason for being arbitrarily nasty. What did she personal expect to get out of it? She was really a shallow character and I was disappointed she didn't have her own play for power, other than the power trip she got just by being authorized by Fudge to do all kinds of crazy things. Did she honestly believe that Harry was a danger and a liar, or just trying to help the ministry cover up? I really don't know.
The climatic battle at the end of the book was a good fight, though I was surprised that they rounded up so many of the Death Eaters. Given that it's book 5 that provides a considerable setback for Voldemort and I wouldn't have figured such a thing to happen until perhaps book 6. I was disappointed in Sirius's "death" though because it was so underwhelming that he has to come back. He had the classic obscure death with no body left behind, and since the mechanics of the veiled archway he fell through was never revealed, I refuse to believe that Sirius is really gone. No one ever called it "The Door of No Return" or "The Gateway to the Underworld". It was just a creepy mystic archway through which ethereal voices could be heard. Maybe Sirius is gone for now, but I'm sure we'll see him again. Luna, who was the only person besides Harry who could hear the voices, says as much in the final chapter of the book.
On the otherhand, I half-expected Rowling to deliver a double-whammy with Dumbledore going out Obi-Wan-style against Voldemort in the chapter "The Only One He Ever Feared" (a reference to Dumbledore from a line in a previous book), but Dumbledore drove away Voldemort. I was rather surprised about that since the removal of Dumbledore would certainly place Harry in his darkest hour even more than the loss of Sirius.
Lastly, I thought Order of the Phoenix was a bit of a weak title. In previous volumes the co-subject of the title has kept the reader in suspense. What was the Chamber of Secrets? What was the Prisoner of Azkaban going to do? We find out what the Order of the Phoenix is very early in the book (considering the size of the volume anyway) and the Order actually doesn't do very much beyond being revealed, though they finally had some action at the climax. I think Harry Potter and the Department of Mysteries would've been a better title given that the Department of Mysteries is what keeps him in suspense for much of the book, but perhaps because the Chamber of Secrets was another obscure physical location she felt that was duplicating a previous theme. Still, though Order was a nifty title on its own, I think she could have found something more appropriate.