When we again meet Harry Potter in this latest installation in the popular series, he is a changed individual. He is older, yes -- now fifteen -- but there is something else different about him as well; he is rougher, more full of anger. A young man who is
"consumed with anger and frustration, grinding his teeth and clenching his fists..."
And, dare it be said, a young man who is now a bit obnoxious.
We meet Harry again lying behind a hydrangea bush, alone, to escape the screams of his aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. At least they haven't changed. Their son, Dudley, is also older and now, unknown to his parents, little more than a neighborhood hoodlum.
Harry is angry; he feels that he is being ignored by his friends and by his mentor, Dumbledore. He is also fearful, for his famous scar is acting up, paining him, and he fears that the terrible Voldemort is about to make his reappearance. Something is about to occur, something bad. Harry is lying behind the bush, beneath an open window of his uncle's house, listening to the television inside, waiting for news of whatever that "something" is to be talked about on the evening news, when suddenly there is a loud crack. The sound of someone apparating. Harry, suspecting danger, pulls out his wand. Danger comes to him but it is in the form of his uncle, who, also hearing the noise, looks outside and sees Harry, wand in hand. His uncles reaches out and grabs him. They struggle until Harry frees himself. Then they argue until Harry walks away. The argument endis with his uncle declaring, "We're not stupid, you know" and Harry responding with an insult, "Well, that's news to me." Part of the new surly Harry.
Shortly thereafter he meets Dudley, and soon it is Harry who is provoking Dudley rather than the other way around (as I said, not the same Harry). Soon both boys are attacked by Dementors, and saved only by Harry using his wand -- A fact that soon will threaten Harry with expulsion from his school, for it is against the rules to use magic in front of humans.
When he finally returns to Hogwarts, he learns that he has been the victim of an ongoing smear campaign. Newspapers read by wizards have run stories denigrating his achievements in fighting Voldemort, calling them the imagined tales of an attention-seeking and perhaps deranged young man. The campaign is working, for many of the students now look at Harry as though he is an ugly bug who might suddenly leap on their shirt collars, turn and bite them on the neck. This increases Harry's angst and he finds it difficult to get along with even his best friends, Ron and Hermione. There is a lot of sighing and grumbling between them.
Harry is saved from expulsion by Dumbledore, but his troubles aren't over. The school he loves is being taken over by a new political movement which eventually pushes Dumbledore out of power and places the "toad-like" Professor Umbridge, perhaps the worse despotic teacher/headmaster to ever exist, in charge. Harry's life, as with the lives of most of the other students, is made miserable. The school is slowly being corrupted by politics and tyrants, his scar is still acting up terribly, and he is suffering from recurring nightmares, dreams that seem more real than not. Life is not easy.
Who is behind the smear campaign? Who is behind the takeover of Hogwarts? What is the reason for Harry's bad dreams? As with the previous Harry Potter books, there is as much mystery novel as fantasy novel here.
J.K. Rowling's wonderful ability to tell tales is on ample display here, and the book's 870 pages read quicker than one would suspect when first picking the novel up and developing arm strain. But the plot ultimately is weak for all its length. All of the plot's machinations point to a desire by Voldemort to obtain an object of sorts, an object which ultimately struck me as a kind of Alfred Hitchock's "McGuffin" -- an object that exists for no other reason than to justify the movement of the plot, like the suitcase everyone is after in the movie Ronin.
I found myself, too, questioning who J.K. Rowling now sees as the primary audience for her Harry Potter novels. By having Harry grow up, she's abandoned her core audience, children pre- mid-teens. She is suddenly writing for an older audience, else how to explain the use of the word "scumbag" in the novel more than once? I'm not sure all parents would want their young children reading a "children's book" with this word in it.
There is a reason why Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz series remained the same age, just as there was a reason why Huck Finn didn't grow older for the sequel to Tom Sawyer, written years after the first book. The core audience has to be able to identify with the main character. I may be wrong, but I'm not sure Rowling's many young fans will be able to do so with The Order of the Phoenix.