J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic, 2003)

"Dear Prospective Student,

Congratulations on your acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As you might be well aware, we live in strange and unusual times, and those times are growing ever more so. As such, we wish to make you aware of certain ... details, which, if not already clear, will become all too evident in the school year to follow.

First of all, He Who Must Not Be Named, the Dark Lord, Voldemort, is again among the living, courtesy of some dark and foul magics performed during the conclusion of last year's Tri-Wizard Cup. He has begun to gather his old followers, the Death-Eaters, and to seek out other allies. It is only thanks to the bravery of Harry Potter that we know this for certain. Please, ignore all of the Ministry of Magic's insinuations and outright lies regarding the supposed attention-seeking falsehoods Mister Potter may be spreading, and do not take the rumors in the Daily Prophet seriously. I assure you, Voldemort is a true problem and one we must face in days ahead.

We apologize for our Gamekeeper's continued absence. Rubeus Hagrid is in the south of France, getting some air. Rumors that he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the trolls are just that, rumors. Professor Grubbly-Plank has generously agreed to fill in for the first weeks of school.

Please give a warm welcome to Delores Umbridge, who has taken the job of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. We hope she'll fare better than the last four holders of that position. True, her affiliation with the Ministry of Magic may seem as though that august body is attempting to exert control over Hogwarts, but that would be an unprecedented breach of protocol. Her methods may be extreme, but they are within the rules. We hope you will be able to behave with her, because rumor has it her detentions are unforgettable.

The Forbidden Forest is, as always, off-limits. The centaurs within are not fond of humans.

We must at this time deny any and all existence of any "Order of the Phoenix" assembled to combat Voldemort and his forces, as well as the possible presence of Dementors in Little Whinging. Also, there is no such thing as a private "Dumbledore's Army" being formed in Hogwarts, and the suggestion that a secret class meets to swap spells is, well, not for discussion.

Fifth years must look forward this year to taking their Ordinary Wizarding Levels (O.W.L.s), which will determine the progress of their education for the next two years, as well as possible future careers after graduation.

We hope you'll enjoy (and survive) your time at Hogwarts.

Sincerely,

Albus Dumbledore, etc. etc. etc. etc."

After three years, the wait is over. The fifth book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is finally out, and at last, the story continues. And believe me, the wait may just well have been worth it, for Rowling packs in more development and plot that you might imagine. At over 850 pages, it manages to dwarf the previous books, but with good reason. Not only does Rowling have to continue developing the massively thought-out world she's laid forth, and keep up with the Voldemort's-return plot, she has to deal with a 15-year-old Harry and his year at school. I've dropped some hints above about what we can expect, but there's more. Such as:

New characters: the shapeshifting Nymphadora Tonks, the delightfully vague Ravenclaw "Loony" Luna Lovegood, and the despicable Delores Jane Umbridge, among others.

New places: At long last, we get to see the Ministry of Magic, and St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, both long hinted-at. Who's at St. Mungo's, and what disastrous incident brings them there? What familiar faces might we see? And what dark and ominous revelations can be found in the bowels of the Ministry?

New threats: Dementors and Death-Eaters aren't the only things out there to worry about. The new DADA professor is, to be gentle... a woman with an agenda. The Forbidden Forest is as deadly as ever. This year, the greatest threat to Hogwart's safety may come from its own allies.

New revelations: Why does Harry HAVE to go back to Privet Drive every year? How is Sirius Black related to some of the worst wizards imaginable? What is Harry's destiny, and who else was almost The Boy Who Lived?

New tragedies: Believe the hype. In this book, a relatively important character dies. Who and how? Read and find out.

There's a lot I could say about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It's densely-plotted, with revelations and information in almost every chapter. It's darker, more mature, more serious than the ones before. As the characters have grown, so has the style and the plot. We're made privy to more manipulations, more secrecy, a greater sense of manipulation, betrayal, and paranoia than before. It's as though with Harry's growing experience, we're seeing more of the world, and finding it to be a more complex, shades-of-grey place. As one might guess from previous portrayals of Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry of Magic, the "good guys" are sometimes their own worst enemies.

As well, there's the same level of characterization we've come to expect, but it reflects the characters themselves. As people like Dumbledore and Hagrid, Lupin and Sirius, get less screentime, we see more of Ginny, Neville, new character Luna Lovegood, and McGonagall. Even the Dursleys get some character growth in unexpected ways. As for the character revelations regarding Severus Snape, James Potter, and Lily Evans... well, seeing them as teenagers is priceless. It's clear our heroes themselves have hit the teenage years: Harry's finally starting to snap under the strain, lashing out emotionally at his closest friends and less willing to put up with "stuff" from his enemies. Love's in the air, but first crushes never come out as one expects.

This is a huge book, but not a disappointing one, in my opinion. While I'd rather not have had to wait three years for it, the truth is that picking it up was like slipping into a comfortable pair of pants. I had no trouble getting right back into Harry Potter's world, and anyone who's read the first four books will feel right at home. That said, I don't suggest anyone start with this book if they're new to the series. There's a LOT that it builds upon, and trying to read this as a stand-alone likely won't work too well. As the fifth book in the projected seven book series, it fits right in, like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

I know, at this point it seems like either you're in or you're out, and there's no happy medium. If you hate Harry Potter, this book, however complex and well-written, likely won't change your mind, and if you like Harry Potter, you've probably already got a copy. So then. For those who thought about dropping the series after Goblet of Fire, come back. We miss you. And you're missing out on the best one yet, as well as the payoff for staying loyal. Rowling rewards her readers in Order of the Phoenix with more secrets revealed and more backstories shared. Don't give up on the Harry Potter series now.

For those wondering about age suitability, I do have this caveat: The style and the characterization reflect the age of the characters; with the average age of the students now 15, they're bound to talk in more mature ways, and discuss more mature topics (like dating, or death... but not sex, I promise you). Parents, teachers, and librarians, you may wish to look at the book first before letting younger readers at it, just to be on the safe side. It's your call. There's nothing overly distressing involved, but it might be a good idea to stay involved, and ready to discuss things. The death, in particular, may upset some readers. While not as direct as Cedric's death in Goblet of Fire, it affects Harry in a much more direct way.

Ultimately, it's good to be back. Let's hope that it doesn't take another three years.

[Michael M. Jones]