I have to confess that, on my first reading of the Order of the Phoenix, I was disappointed but, on reflection, I think that this might be because of the excitement on the lead-up to the book's release. Certainly on this read I found the book extremely gripping and exciting, with a great deal of plot progression.
Here Harry is dealing with the aftermath of the return of Lord Voldemort, and coping with the fact that he is kept very much in the dark about what is happening. While at the Dursley's over the summer, he has been relying on the Muggle news to see whether Voldemort has started the expected killing spree and reign of terror. When Harry and his cousin Dudley are attacked by Dementors, Harry is forced to do magic outside of Hogwarts - something expressly forbidden - and is summoned to a hearing. This is where he begins to learn that times are changing - his relationship with Dumbledore is strained and distant; the Minister of Magic refuses to believe that Voldemort is back and a truly chilling new character (Delores Umbridge) takes on the role of Defence of the Dark Arts professor.
Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts is dark, dark, DARK! He is reviled by many of his previously friendly classmates for telling stories to gain attention; he starts having dreams that leads him to believe that he is starting to feel what Voldemort is feeling (including his glee as he commits murder); and he suffers a massive setback in his Quidditch career.
A lot of characters really develop through this book and it is fantastic to read more indepth plotlines for Ron, Fred and George, Ginny and Snape amongst others. Here we have, for example, an extremely illuminating glimpse into one of the reasons why Snape hates Harry so intensely. Ginny becomes a feisty and very effective witch, while the Weasley boys provide much of the comic relief. I was rather pleased to see Ron, in particular, step out of Harry's shadow in a subplot about him joining the Quidditch team. Neville Longbottom, also, is treated well in this book and we finally learn more about him.
Two new characters really steal the show though. One of these is the dreamy Luna Lovegood - piercingly honest at times, but also believes in fairytale creatures and gossipy stories from the wizarding world. The other is the aforementioned Umbridge - for once Harry is struggling against a person who is not part of Voldemort's group of Death Eaters. Umbridge is cruel, vindictive, truly repulsive to read about. You feel like cheering when George and Fred take her on! There are some sickening moments in the story where Harry and Umbridge have quiet scenes together, such as his string of detentions at the start of the school year - these made me shudder.
Obviously there are faults with the book. This is the one where Harry develops teenage angst. For a long period at the beginning of the book he is sulky, sullen and often shouts in CAPITALS to make his point - I guess he is quite accurately written in terms of becoming a teenage, but it becomes tiresome very quickly.
The subplot with Harry and Cho's 'romance' goes nowhere fast, and fizzles out rapidly when Rowling decides who she would most like to see Harry with - a relationship that has been signposted since the second book, but is none the less welcome for starting to take shape.
The beginning of the book is slow and dragging, up to and including where Harry meets the Order in Sirius' house. Lots of names are thrown in quickly and some of the characters suffer from not being fleshed out at all.
Unlike the fourth book in the series, these are really minor quibbles. Considering that Rowling is now dealing with a large ensemble cast, each of them seemed to get enough 'screentime' in this book. It was an extremely long book to read, but here I savoured each page rather than skipping through filler as I did with Goblet of Fire. Even the owls Hedwig and Pigwidgeon are given enough character for us to grow ever-more fond of them.
The DA lessons were incredibly funny and heartening to read about in the midst of all the gloom. Rowling also writes very effectively about the heavy workload of the students as they study for their OWLs (I love that OWLs and NEWTs correspond to our GCSEs and A Levels). It is also fun watching the three leads start to think about life after Hogwarts.
I think the real high point of this book is the fact that Rowling no longer feels the need to explain every little detail of the past four books - it is as though she now assumes that those picking up the book have already devoured her previous novels in the HP series, and so she steams straight into the plot. And the plot leads us on a rollarcoaster ride that culminates in the most dramatic climax yet (although Rowling still can't resist the big reveal between Harry and Dumbledore - however, here I can forgive her much since Dumbledore's quiet and dignified explanation had me close to tears).
As I have commented on in prior reviews it is the little details of the wizarding world that, I believe, makes these books so beloved. I shall pull out here the example of the students having to write a certain amount of feet or inches of parchment for essays rather than using a page or word count.
Finally, I leave you with a quote that had me giggling from Ron's description of his practical Divination examination: "He (Ron) had just made Harry feel rather better by telling him how he had told the examiner in detail about the ugly man with a wart on his nose in his crystal ball, only to look up and realise he had been describing his examiner's reflection."
A great addition to the Harry Potter series.