27 December 2010


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

But before he knew it, Harry was shouting.


Every bitter and resentful thought that Harry had had in the past month was pouring out of him; his frustration at the lack of news, the hurt that they had all been together without him, his fury at being followed and not told about it: All the feelings he was half-ashamed of finally burst their boundaries . . .


Mine isn't the only "Potter-thon" going on this month, if the shelves in my favourite chain bookstore are anything to go by. A few weeks ago, when I was looking for a copy of the first book in the series, they had everything else in abundant stock. But yesterday evening, when I dropped by to get the sixth installment (Finally, aye?), what had been the "Potter section" for the past few months was stuffed with Mysterious Benedict Society and Septimus Heap titles, with only The Order of the Phoenix and Deathly Hallows still flashing their Hogwarts colours. And who wants to bet that Deathly Hallows will be out of stock next week?

But in a way, this is a good thing, because it gives me some time to write down my thoughts on the big reread I've just done. When I started, I intended to have individual Reading Diary entries for each book (and did manage one for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) . . . but more often than not, I'd move on to the next novel and get distracted. So this break is actually a good thing. Let me take each book separately now.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Formerly my least favourite of the series, it has received a bump up the ladder, thanks to this focussed reread. And now I see that it's really not that bad a sequel.

I like the way the wizarding world grows wider, as seeds planted in the first book sprout a bit in this one. (Harry's ability to speak to snakes leading to a revelation about Parselmouths, for instance.) And I really liked the first trip to The Burrow, the peek at what lies behind Diagon Alley (doubling as a metaphor of the dark side of the entire wizarding world), and the first hint that not all was well among the four founders of Hogwarts. On the whole, very organic!

On the other hand, there are some other elements that seem more forced, like Dobby the House Elf . . . and that old diary, which I don't dislike as much as fail to understand the purpose of. Everything about it, from the totally random manner in which it enters the action to the equally random purpose its original owner wanted it to serve, is just so . . . random. As if Rowling couldn't think of another way to inject You-Know-Who into the story. Neither element is her creative best, I'm afraid--and both play the off-key note that I used to hear again and again whenever The Chamber of Secrets came up. But yeah, I like it better now. =P

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Here is more of that wonderful widening of the wizarding world, and this time we learn more about Harry's father--which is about time! I'm currently working on a Top 5 list tentatively called "Top 5 Destinies to Make Up for Being an Orphan" and have noticed that one thing all my orphans have in common is the desire to uncover their family history. They understand that those who do not know where they come from will never know who they are.

We also get our first glimpse of the Dementors, and with them, our first sign that Rowling is back on board when it comes to structure. Nothing too awfully random here. The Dementors, the Boggart, the Whomping Willow, the Marauders' Map, the Hippogriffs, the professors, the escaped prisoner of Azkaban, and even Ron's pet rat Scabbers all come together in a great plot full of unexpected twists and turns. This book was my favourite Harry Potter novel for almost a decade, and the reread reminded me why.

And yet . . . there is something about such twisty stories that doesn't stand up to rereading. If you know everything in advance, you don't get the full force of the impact. And you start to notice what Randy Meeks would call "a preponderance of exposition" clogging up an otherwise delightful plot. (You remember Randy, don't you?) But that's not too big a deal, really.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Now let me introduce my new favourite Harry Potter book. =D

The wizarding world almost explodes the pages of this fourth installment, thanks to the Quidditch World Cup and the international Triwizard Tournament. The book manages to retain the "School Story" form you all know I love, but it's probably the last one. We can't have a story as big as the world and expect it to fit inside a single school, can we? But I love this last hurrah.

Now, my favourite thing about the first book is that the school is essential to the story. All the teachers, including the groundskeeper, contribute something to the protection of the stone; and our three young heroes have to use what they learned in class (or in the library) to make sure they get to it first. Bleeping brilliant!!! There is a little of that in The Goblet of Fire, too, as Harry struggles with each of the tournament tasks and tries to figure out which teachers and officials are trying to help him and which ones are trying to hinder him. It's the school setting, squared. (Or should that be cubed? Because, after all, we have three schools represented.)

This novel also marks when the books started to get really dark--and I don't just mean the first death. Rowling is starting to write more defensively, even belligerently here. The nasty reporter Rita Skeeter makes her first appearance, less an independently meaningful character than Rowling's defiant jab at the tabloid press. And as much as I get that (and think that the characterisation of Rita is spot on), I wonder what the series would have been like if Rowling had not had to write some books through so much controversy.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Now meet my least favourite novel in the series, which I'm willing to bet is also the worst. Rowling went all out, with mixed results.

I have a friend who says that he never believed in Harry Potter because Harry is nothing like a real boy; instead, Harry is what a woman thinks a real boy is like, which is something else altogether. And I recall his assessment whenever Rowling writes about Harry's feelings, if only because they make for some of her worst writing. And how bad is it that Harry's feelings, which she isn't even right about, absolutely dominate this book? The Order of the Phoenix is Emo: that's how bad.

Is there anything worse than a main character in an endless hissy, prissy, pissy mood? Harry spends most of the story upset with everyone for keeping things from him and insisting that nobody understands a bit of what he is going through. And that he knows best, of course. The implication is that he is special. The effect is what you'd expect from a male Bella Swan.

And what is the resolution to all this wanton, self-centered emoting? In an ideal world, Harry would have been snapped to his senses by the good advice he receives from two unlikely sources. (Really, when the most sensible dialogue in an 870-page Harry Potter novel comes from two members of Slytherin House, then you must know something is wrong!) But in our world, this book is about Harry's FEELINGS, and so we get an Emo cherry on top of this Emo sundae, with Dumbledore apologising for causing Harry even a moment's pain because he forgot, even with all the wisdom of his age, what it was like to be young. (Oh, barf.) And because he loved too much. (Double barf.)

Yes, there are some good bits. I loved seeing both students and teachers rise up against the new High Inquisitor. Tyranny comes in all forms, even bureaucracy--and so does defiance. Dolores Umbridge, in her quest to take control over Hogwarts, is a better drawn villain than Voldemort.

This was, as I've said before, the last Harry Potter novel I read for seven years. And the second I was done with my reread, I was seriously tempted not to read any further. Yes, it's that bad.

Image Sources: a) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, b) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, c) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, d) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


Syrin said...

I wholeheartedly promise you that it gets better. Keep going!

I remembered being really annoyed with Harry while reading Order of the Phoenix, and then at some point I stopped and realized what age he was. In my mind, his sudden mood swings and outright nastiness reminded me quite a bit of how my brother was at that age. It's interesting that what I found accurate, others consider to be all wrong. Obviously I don't truly know what it was like to be a teenage boy either. I just know that my brother was basically intolerable at least 75% of the time when he was in the age range of 14-17. A boy with as horrible an upbringing as Harry's would be even more so, I would think.

hip-chick said...

I have never even read a paragraph of a Harry Potter book. I have never even seen more than about 5 minutes of any of the movies and that was only when I happened to be passing by the TV. I'm not sure why but they really just don't peak my interest. I know they are great books...just not for me right now.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I agree that the fifth book was the worse--it was a whinefest from beginning to end. And while I ENJOYED Prisoner of Azkaban the most, I had to re-read The Goblet of Fire, which probably means it is the best.

Sullivan McPig said...

I don't want to rain on ypur parade, but I think plot wise the Goblet of Fire is the worst book of the series. I mean: why go to all the trouble of rigging the tournament so in the end Harry can touch a port key (if he wins, which almost fails)? Why not ust send him a package with a port key or put the cport key on his bed, he's stupid enough to touch it.

As for Order of the Phoenix: in this book my dislike for Harry changed into really really loathing Harry. He's beyond childish and obnoxious in this book.

All in all I really like the setting, lots of the other characters (Snape being my favourite) and some of the stories, but all in all Rowlings isn't much of a writer in my opinion. especially when it comes to plots and death scenes.

Belfry Bat said...

I found Harry was at his best in Chamber; he does impressive things later on, but in Chamber he's a genuinely selfless hero.

Without spoilers, I can say that Rowling seems to have had the whole tale planned from the beginning, and she's not frivolous with her details.

Enbrethiliel said...


Syrin: Thanks! I will keep going. And since there seems no place to go but back up, I'm feeling more optimistic.

And you're right that Harry's age justifies The Order of the Phoenix somewhat. (My brothers are about to enter that age, so I'm bracing myself!) What I really object to is not the accuracy of the characterisation but the tidal wave of Emo that came with it. I mean, okay, it's probably inevitable with Harry . . . but Dumbledore's speech--his blaming of himself for everything that had happened--was the absolute limit. It's a normal teenage fantasy that everything is everyone else's fault, but I don't like it when it delusions like this come true.

(Now I hope you don't think I was just growling at you there! Your comment was very welcome and I liked answering it!)

Hip-chick: Hi, Hip-chick! I think I know what you mean. =) I waited several years to get around to finishing this series, and it's already "my thing" and all. I'm a big believer in waiting until the time "feels right" to start a new book or series, no matter how good I'm certain it is. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I appreciate it! =)

Lindsay: I'd say that our assessments of The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire lie pretty close together! I don't think I'll ever enjoy a first read of a Harry Potter book the way I enjoyed my first read of the former; but the latter has proven to be satisfying after two rereads over the years, so that settles that.

But Sully brings up some good points, too, so . . .

Sully: You could never rain on my parade--not when I've been missing your comments so much! =D

*Snort* You're totally right about that plot hole in The Goblet of Fire. There are so many opportunities to grab the boy and run, but the villains just have to use the way that was most difficult and most likely to fail. ;-)

And yet . . . I really liked the Triwizard Tournament and wouldn't have missed it for the world! So I'll give Rowling a very biased pass on that one.

Oh, yeah, Snape is lots of fun, isn't he? =P I like him so much in The Order of the Phoenix; he seemed the only one who had his head screwed on properly. Years ago, before this novel came out, I was observing to some people that Rowling has such fantastic minor/supporting characters that we don't notice how boring and/or badly drawn Harry himself often is--and I was reminded of that again with this reread.

Bat: I suppose if Dobby and the diary weren't blocking my view, I'd have a better idea of what you're talking about. ;-)

Seriously, I get what you mean, but this book was when I started shifting my focus away from Harry. I found the Weasley's financial woes more compelling than Harry's personal worries, and was slightly bored by the action scene in the actual Chamber. I liked the bit with the Sorting Hat and Godric Gryffindor's sword, though. =) Bring on the wizarding bling!

Syrin said...

No offense taken! I was actually worried you might take mine as a little grumpy too! Fortunately, it looks like we're both of the type who are ok with agreeing to disagree on the internet. :)

It's been a long time since I read book 5, and I honestly don't remember Dumbledore's speech to Harry. I'm sure I'll have your comments on my mind when I get to it this time around.

I agree with you and Sully in that I don't particularly care for Harry, and it's the supporting characters who I'm most affectionate toward. A similar series that I feel that way about is the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV Series. Buffy makes bad choices frequently and whines about her chosen destiny a lot while most of the other characters are much more likable.

Sullivan McPig said...

@Enbrethiliel: I must say I also really liked the tournament, but I just wish Rowlings hadn't pasted that ridiculously difficult Harry kidnap plan onto it.

As for Order of the Phoenix: I've been reading it muttering and grumbling out loud, especially when reading about Snape's past as it turned out to be just as I had predicted after reading the first three books.

Enbrethiliel said...


Syrin: Rowling's real gift, I think, is creating supporting characters. Whenever a character has to take center stage too often (as Harry definitely does, and Dumbledore sometimes does), she seems to overthink them.

It has been a long while since I watched Buffy, but I see what you mean there, too . . . with one caveat. I've always found it easy to identify with her (which was never the case with me and Harry), so her whining and moaning didn't put me off so much. Biased much? LOL! And well, I like Rowling's supporting characters more than Whedon's. =)

Sully: I remember making a similar complaint about Rowling's plotting and general inventiveness several years ago. As early as the first few chapters of The Goblet of Fire, I was a bit put off by the portkeys. She had already given us several ways by which wizards can travel long distances (e.g. by train, by broomstick, by apparition, by Floo network, even by flying car); so the portkeys already seemed a bit excessive, although she seemed to justify their existence, anyway. But when I finally finished the novel, I was not impressed to see that the only reason she had written the portkeys in was so that she could have a way to close that crazy, convoluted scheme.

Since then, I've found new things about her novels to be critical of (going by these reviews), but that was a very big deal for me back then.

But while she makes stuff up at will about the wizarding world, she seems to "keep it real" more often with her characters. I keep coming back to Neville . . . and as you've pointed out, there is the excellent characterisation of Snape.

Sullivan McPig said...

Ah, but Neville is the coolest student character there is! He'd be my hero if it wasn't for Snape being it already.

(and yes: have been the victim of bullies when still in school just as Snape, so really can understand how he feels.)

Enbrethiliel said...


You'd better not say any more, Sully! It looks as if my order won't be coming through as soon as I'd like, and I'm in awful anticipation for the next book!!! =P