Posted 6/25/2003 5:17 PM
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Rich characters, magical prose elevate 'Phoenix'
A very wise decision, J.K. Rowling, to allow three years to pass before publishing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in your global sensation of a series. The fever-pitched anticipation, the media frenzy, the pilfered books, the leaked details. The book richly deserves the hype.

All the qualities that marred the fourth book — the loping, uneven pace of a novel that seemed churned out rather than written — have evaporated. Indeed, the faux gothic horror of the fourth has been replaced by a return to the wonderful, textured writing of the three earlier novels. The novel does not have the frankly grisly scenes that were so disturbing in Goblet of Fire. (Related item: Hear Jim Dale read four minutes from Order of the Phoenix.)

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For whatever reason, whether marriage, a new baby or becoming more comfortable with being enormously wealthy and famous, Rowling has regained the ability to create an enchanting parallel world where witches and wizards live. And we Muggles (ordinary people) can only dream of joining.

Some things remain the same, of course. Harry's Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon are still horribly self-satisfied with their clean house and loathsome son, Dudley, who has evolved from bully to violent thug.

And one of the delights of this fifth book stems from Rowling returning to familiar characters, offering new insights into their psyches. The dotty cat-loving neighbor, Mrs. Figg, takes on a new role, and the reader discovers that Professor Snape has suffered real pain related to the Potter family.

Quite simply, despite the book's length, it is easier to follow because it returns to the shape of the first three novels. It opens on Privet Drive, takes place mainly at Hogwarts School, and closes with the wise but not infallible Professor Dumbledore revealing secrets from Harry's past.

Although Rowling offers up the flying wands, imaginative curses and a dynamic, action-packed conclusion like those of her past books, the novel's real pleasures are the scenes of domesticity within the Weasley family; the comfortable bickering between Harry's best friends, Ron and Hermione; and the small details of how a witch can clean a mansion abandoned for years.

Rather than the overblown hysteria of Goblet, which featured too many scenes with Voldemort, here one can appreciate the introduction of new characters. There are the magical winged horses that can be seen only by those who have seen death firsthand. And there's a strange, pop-eyed female student on the traditional autumn train trip to Hogwarts who proves to be far deeper, braver and more perceptive than anyone thinks.

Phoenix will not frighten the under-9 crowd, but it will confuse them. The coiled serpent of teen sexuality is not unleashed, although Harry, now 15, has romantic problems and Hermione has to explain girls' behavior to the often dim Ron and Harry. Meanwhile, she can't get a handle on why Quidditch matters. It's almost a teen Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus scenario.

But the novel explores significant young adult issues: disillusionment with adults, including one's parents, the profound isolation that almost all teens experience, as well as death and guilt.

Order of the Phoenix allows the reader to savor Rowling's remarkably fertile imagination.

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