The most anticipated publishing phenomenon of the year, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, sold 8.5 million copies in a month and is already in its third printing. Millions lined up at midnight on June 21 to purchase the 870-page tome at a suggested retail price of 30 bucks despite the absence of reviews - the publisher did not allow advance copies.
But soon the fifth installment of J. K. Rowling's saga of magic and wizardry attracted reviewers from Stephen King to A. S. Byatt. While Byatt finds Rowling's series "a latency-period fantasy" filled with "derivative narrative clich & eacute;s," the horrormeister King - who knows a thing or two about popular storytelling - predicts "Harry will take his place with Alice, Huck, Frodo, and Dorothy," and "wind up on a shelf where only the best are kept."
The dueling reviews recall Lord Voldemort and Albus Dumbledore, the yin and yang of Phoenix. In Rowling's darkest and most complex effort yet, the deliciously malevolent Professor Umbridge aids Voldemort's return with her insufferable bureaucratic meddling. Harry suffers a full-blown case of adolescence, with raging hormones and just plain rage battling for supremacy, but he's still basically a good-hearted soul, despite what Hermione terms a "saving-people thing." It's his empathy and sense of responsibility that gets him into trouble here, but ultimately his loving nature proves to be his most valuable asset.
Harry must deal with his first close death in Phoenix, and Rowling portrays his grief accurately and poignantly. In the end, our hero learns more about his parents and his own unique relationship with the villain Voldemort, laying the groundwork for the final two volumes of the story.
Phoenix has been called "an extended Bildungsroman" and "Kafka-esque"; while true, such high-falutin' labels diminish the charm of Rowling's world, in which haughty pretensions eventually wither. Yes, it's derivative, with echoes from Star Wars to Joseph Campbell. Yes, as King points out, Rowling never met an adverb or an attributive she didn't like: Harry speaks irritably, quietly, and snidely; or else he snarls, bellows and interjects. And, yes, she sometimes meanders and invents magical creatures solely as plot devices. But after all is said and done - and that's a lot in 870 pages - Rowling spins a rollicking good tale and knows how to keep readers turning all those pages.
Publication date: 08/21/03