I listed to this on audiobook over the last few months–I’ve done a lot of driving recently and I just finished it yesterday, on a drive from Vermont to Massachusetts. This is the only Harry Potter book I own on CD, so I’ve probably “read” it more times than any other in the series (besides #1 and #2, which I re-read obsessively when I was younger, waiting for the rest of the series to come out). I haven’t listened or read it all the way through in a long time, though.
I’m just going to go ahead and flag this review with a SPOILER ALERT for the first four books, although I kind of feel like the statute of limitations on spoilers should run out at some point…it’s been like 10+ years, folks!
Order of the Phoenix picks up a few weeks after the events of the fourth book, and Harry is in a bad place. He’s still traumatized after witnessing the murder of his Tri-Wizard tournament competitor, Cedric Diggory, and he’s being painted as a liar and attention-seeker by the wizarding media, who don’t believe his statement that Lord Voldemort has returned. To make matters worse, once he returns to Hogwarts, he finds that Dumbledore is acting very strangely around him, and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Umbridge, is perhaps the worst one yet.
Order of the Phoenix is underrated, I think–a lot of people dislike it because “nothing happens” and there’s a lot of teen angst mixed in with the usual adventure and danger and magic, much more so than in any other book in the series. I like it a lot though, because it’s the book that best demonstrates how Harry is actually a pretty flawed character, and has some pretty bad traits (like any real person) that have, ultimately, huge consequences. This book is also a turning point in the series, in that it’s the first that doesn’t have a book-specific, self-contained adventure or mystery to solve (like discovering the wizarding world in #1, the Tri-Wizard tournament in #4). There’s the problem of Umbridge, of course, but her presence serves more to show that the world Harry lives in is an extremely dark one, and this is the first book in the series that kind of makes you realize that the series is not going to end without a whole lot of trauma. It’s also the first where Harry is disparaged and perceived, overall, in a very negative way, which is an interesting change from the first few books. I love it because it really does mark a shift in the series towards extremely serious and intense, more adult themes, and sets the stage for the last two books very well. It also is very important for the backstory it gives us, and for the fleshing out of the Harry Potter mythology.
I also think that Umbridge is a really fantastic villain, and I liked having a diversion from the typical Malfoy-Snape-Voldemort trifecta of evil in the books. She’s truly loathsome, and brilliantly portrayed–one of the most vivid characters in an incredible cast, which is saying something. I also loved the new character of Luna Lovegood–she’s one of my all-time favorites.
As for the teen angst complaint, I truly didn’t mind this aspect of the novel. It never overshadows the actual plot, and I think it was important for Rowling to introduce crushes and moodiness to establish a sense of reality among the fantastic and the magical. I honestly think it would have been weirder for her to continue writing about a teenage boy without delving into any kind of mention of sexuality and crazy hormones, and by bringing this side of things in, Rowling gets to play with humor (which is one of her biggest strengths–I don’t think she gets enough credit for being very, very funny).
Anyway, this is a really great book on its own, and a very solid entry into the series. Read them all!