This is the fifth installment in J.K. Rowling's seven-book Harry Potter series. At nearly 900 pages (and containing more words than the New Testament) Rowling's latest endeavor remains true to her imaginative, unpredictable, Roald Dahlish style, but as Harry matures, so does the nature of the story.
Though more protracted and perhaps less charming than the earliest books, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is nevertheless well-written and engaging. Less blatantly "spiritual" and more character-driven than the recent Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, Phoenix is still dark from the outset, and families must still navigate all of the spells, sorcery and intense conflict inherent to the series. Written more for teens than tweens, Phoenix finds Harry increasingly sullen and angst-ridden as he faces trials of adolescence at Hogwarts. Parents who allow teens to read this book should be prepared to invest in it themselves. Spiritual snags will make it problematic for many Christian families.
Picking up only four weeks after Harry's bitter-sweet triumph over Voldemort in The Goblet of Fire, the story deviates from the excitement generally surrounding the start of a Hogwarts term. Harry is deeply angry at having been almost completely cut off from the magical world and stuck once more on Privet Drive. Reduced to hiding in the flower bed outside a window to hear any Muggle news which may reveal Voldemort's actions or whereabouts, Harry's anxiety is clear: Ongoing nightmares about his own torture and a schoolmate's murder by Vodemort plague him, as do feelings of betrayal by his wizarding friends who have kept him in the dark throughout the summer.
The oppressiveness of the blood sacrifice and murder in the last installment resurfaces here in an early Dementor attack on Harry and Dudley in which Harry is forced to use magic to save his cousin's life. It's a no-no to use spells outside of Hogwarts, so Harry gets called before the Ministry of Magic and risks being expelled and having his wand snapped. Along the way Harry becomes aware that he is not as forgotten as he thought, and has been the focus of protective efforts by The Order of the Phoenix.
Harry is eventually reunited with the Weasley family, Hermione, and Sirius. And the youngsters begin to piece together the purpose of The Order of the Phoenix. Readers, meanwhile, begin to see how much Harry has changed through his experiences. No longer the unsure, humble boy of The Sorcerer's Stone, this 15-year-old struggles with pride when he senses that the members of the Order don't feel he's ready to fight along with them. His anger and resentment of Dumbledore grows throughout the book as the Headmaster distances himself from Harry under confusing circumstances.
Furthering the angst, both Ron and Hermione have become school prefects, somewhat breaking up the heroic threesome. And Harry realizes that he is once again the focus of much gossip, and that even some of his close friends do not believe his account of what happened with Voldemort and Cedric Diggory at the end of Goblet. The sociopolitical climate of the wizarding world has changed over the summer, and Dumbledore has come under great persecution for saying that Voldemort has returned, a fact that Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic, adamantly denies.
In between magical missions and battles, Harry spends his school days learning to relate to a girlfriend, handling his own pride when Ron begins to gain special honors, and finding out who he is apart from Quidditch, his parents and the professors who have guided him all his wizarding life. The story ends with a stunning, full revelation of a heretofore half-expressed prophecy. And Harry returns to Privet Drive with assurances that The Order of the Phoenix will be watching over him during holiday. …
Rowling continues to develop themes such as loyalty, friendship, bravery and humility. When Harry discovers the possibility of pride in himself and in James, he is repulsed and realizes that a humble attitude is a good thing.
Most adults (who are not overtly despicable) are treated with respect and their judgment is trusted by the students. (However, Harry rarely turns to these adults when pressed.)
In his growing awareness of human nature, Harry begins to value and respect the "odd unfortunates."
Power hunger and absolute power are seen as corrupting. Some parents who chose to allow their teens to read Phoenix may use the story to explore such concepts as Nazism (Death Eaters believe in allowing only pure-blood wizards to live) and Democracy (the breakdown in balance of power is what allows Cornelius Fudge and Delores Umbridge to make a mess of things).
Using critical thinking skills becomes necessary for Harry's survival. Although he's not particularly good at it sometimes, he learns that his own approach to viewing his world is not necessarily the most prudent way of going about life. He is forced to evaluate his motives and actions, an integral part of maturing for any human. (Harry's blindness to Voldemort's plan is obvious to everyone around him, but Harry is unwilling to admit his lack of control until it is too late.)
As in all of these books, witchcraft is a significant issue. And though Phoenix is more character-driven, readers will still be exposed to such staples of the magical world as frog spawn, blood, potions, demons and divination. Likely to be considered the weakest book in the series, Phoenix does feel less oppressive than the two most previous novels. However, the line between "good" magic and "bad" is hazier. And because magic and morality are intertwined in the story, teens may draw some disconcerting conclusions as they try to sort out their own beliefs about sorcery, good and evil.
Of concern is the pragmatic nature with which morality is treated. Harry frequently lies to avoid trouble or confrontation. Even Dumbledore lies to protect Harry. When the motherly Mrs. Weasley doesn't approve of Mundungus, a member of the Order and self-admitted thief, she tells him, "I don't know where you learned about right and wrong, Mundungus, but you seem to have missed a few crucial lessons." That sounds good, but with the absence of God and absolute truth, where has Mrs. Weasley's concept of right and wrong come from? And how should young readers interpret the moral input from the more respectable adults in the story?
After Firenze, a Centaur, is banished from his herd, he comes to Hogwarts to teach Divination and Astrology. Portrayed as a mystical, wise character, he teaches the students that humans are seriously limited in knowing anything of the future, but that they may have some success learning the ways of the Centaurs (reading the heavens and burning herbs for signs of what's to come). In the end Harry decides that Firenze's priority is "that nothing, not even centaurs' knowledge was foolproof." This episode might be discerned as a reviling of the whole divination concept. However, since the lynchpin of Phoenix is Madame Trelawney's prophecy (which Dumbledore admits is true), readers are exposed to nothing less than a spiritual mishmash.
On a less mystical note, one disturbing point of the story—particularly in light of the current trend of teen "cutting"—is Harry's detention punishment by Umbridge. Forced to use a magical quill to write the words "I must not tell lies" repeatedly, Harry feels the words cut into the back of his hand momentarily, then magically heal, preparing for the next pass. He is subjected to hours of this punishment, and his mastery of the pain becomes, in his mind, a weapon of control against Umbridge.
Violence is intense in places—too much so for young readers. Events after Hagrid's diplomatic journey to the giants lead to his being bludgeoned repeatedly. One giant has his head ripped off. And in Harry's dreams where Voldemort is involved, imagery is both gruesome and graphic.
[Spoiler Warning] Dumbledore tells Voldemort that the dark wizard's weakness is in failing to understand that there are worse things than death. When Sirius comes to Harry's aid against the Death Eaters in the Ministry of Magic, he is cursed and killed by his cousin Bellatrix. (He falls behind a curtained arch from which voices whisper and return is impossible.) In the days that follow, Harry learns from Nearly Headless Nick that wizards can leave a pale imprint of themselves to wander the earth in the form of a ghost, but that few do. Instead, most chose to "go on." Meaning that Ghosthood is basically wizard cowardice. Later, Luna Lovegood tells Harry she believes that she will see her dead mother again someday. "You heard them, just behind the veil, didn't you? … In that room with the archway. They were just lurking out of sight, that's all."
Rowling has stated that she believes in God and that accusations of Harry Potter books leading kids into sorcery are rubbish. (Though evidence suggests a heightened interest in the subject among children.) How sad that such an imaginative, gifted writer lacks the spiritual insight to give Harry, Luna and a legion of Potter fans the simple, illuminating truth about death—and life—found in Scripture. What readers are left with is a saga steeped in witchcraft that, because of skillful storytelling and pro-social morals, has many families ignoring its spiritual counterfeits.