Everyone hates hype, but it was mighty hard to get mad at the hoopla surrounding the June 21 publication of J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (870 pages. Scholastic). OK, there's always going to be a certain level of grumbling when a phenom's this gigantic--one online columnist opined that the Potter books, because they are also popular with adults, only contribute to an increasing "infantilization" of culture. But let's not complicate matters unnecessarily: when any book, especially a novel written primarily for children, outsells the latest blockbuster movie--it sold 9 million copies worldwide the first weekend and made more than the U.S. debut of "The Hulk"--it's a sweet moment, pure and simple.
Even behavior that under almost any other circumstances would look, well, crazy--here it just looks eccentric, if not downright charming. In the United States and the United Kingdom, thousands of people turned up at bookstores on Friday night, June 20, waiting for midnight, when "Phoenix" would finally go on sale. In New York's Times Square, people lined up around the block at Toys "R" Us to get a copy. But the luckiest book buyers of all were the customers in a Waterstone's in Edinburgh, where Rowling herself showed up to sign books.
Is Harry's latest installment worth all the hype? In a word: absolutely. Rowling's first four books came out one right after another with hardly a year apart. By the time the fourth book appeared, the strain of the pace was beginning to show. "Goblet of Fire" was compulsively readable, like a 734-page action sequence, but the writing was much sloppier than the prose in the earlier installments. "Order of the Phoenix," in contrast, never goes out of control. The story is atmospheric, full of detail and told with a natural storyteller's gift for pacing and surprise.
Yes, a major character dies this time, and it's disturbing because you liked this character (unlike Cedric Diggory in the last book, whose death was not that disturbing because you never knew him well enough to care about it). So, while it's rather silly to say this book is darker than its predecessors--Rowling herself has pointed out on several occasions that the first book begins with a double murder and after that Harry has to live under the stairs at his aunt and uncle's for 10 years--anyone who thought this series was just harmless fun wasn't paying attention.
To Rowling's credit, she never uses violence mindlessly or callously. Everything about these stories contributes in one way or the other to Harry's maturity. He has to experience death. He also has to learn that people he's idolized are not perfect, are in fact capable of behaving in petty, cruel ways. And Harry himself is not always a model of behavior this time around. He's a real teenager now, and he acts like it. He has tantrums, throws fits, thinks only about himself. If he weren't such a hero, he'd be a pill.
Mirroring the uncertainties of adolescence, everything we've taken for granted, starting with the unquestioned power of Dumbledore, Harry's headmaster at Hogwarts, is called into question in this book. And that makes things much more frightening, for Harry and the reader, as evil Lord Voldemort consolidates his power, infecting even the Ministry of Magic with his dire designs. And Dolores Umbrage, the new Defense Against the Dark professor, is one of Rowling's best villains yet. When she gives Harry detention, she makes him write "I will not tell lies" with a malignly enchanted quill pen that causes the words to be cut into the back of his hand.
It's been three years since "Goblet of Fire," but Rowling has no reason to apologize for keeping her readers waiting. The extra time paid off in a very long, but never windy, chronicle. This is by far the best book in the series. How good is it? I peeked ahead to find out how it ended. So sue me. I peeked ahead in "Bleak House," too. Only a really good book can make you do that.