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Review: 'Phoenix' still has the Potter magic

New book a little long, but rich

By Todd Leopold

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"
By J.K. Rowling
Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine
870 pages

New book a little long, but rich

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(CNN) -- I can only imagine the kind of pressure J.K. Rowling faces when she sits down to write a Harry Potter book.

Though she's said she worked out the whole seven-book series on a fateful train ride she took in the late '90s, she couldn't possibly have imagined that the series would turn into this: midnight bookstore parties, record print runs, and a generation of children (and adults) hanging on to her every written word.

"This" has now reached a new apogee with its fifth entry, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the longest (870 pages) and most dense (more characters, more complexity) book of the series.

And Rowling once again pulls it off.

Harry's adolescent funk

"Phoenix" begins in the usual place, the Dursleys' house at number four, Privet Drive, in Little Whinging, England. The Dursleys, Harry's guardians, have become more frightened of Harry's magical abilities -- and the now 15-year-old Harry, having sunk into an adolescent funk of bitterness, anger and self-pity, is more than happy to keep them guessing.

But Harry soon has bigger problems. Once he's back at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he's treated as a pariah by most students for his insistence that the evil Lord Voldemort is back -- and, indeed, played a role in the death of a student at the end of "Goblet of Fire."

Only a handful of professors and Harry's close friends -- among them Hermione and Ron -- support him.

Harry also struggles with the series' latest villain, Dolores Umbridge, a condescending representative from the Ministry of Magic who assumes a leadership role at Hogwarts. The students' psychological battles with the odious Umbridge are the best parts of "Phoenix," and Rowling writes them with a wicked zest.

Rich imagination

"Phoenix" does have its problems. The book starts running out of steam before the climactic battle, and that battle itself -- full of noise, flashing spells and wand-handling straight out of a grade-B Western as produced by Jerry Bruckheimer -- is the most poorly constructed scene in the book.

Rowling also engages in a stylistic tic, the paragraph-ending ellipsis, that seems to have become more popular with thriller writers. (It's all over Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," too.) Is something wrong with the humble period?

But those are minor issues in the face of Rowling's rich imagination and robust writing. The scope of Potter's world seems boundless; Rowling has added new characters and new locations, and added layers to those already existing. Potter's world, though fantastic, seems utterly believable.

That's doubly true of Harry himself. Rowling doesn't make Potter into an unblemished hero. Instead, he's a classic conflicted boy-man, struggling with issues both large (the death of both parents, fighting an evil power) and small (love, relationships and his own wildly changing hormones). He may not be as much fun as he was in Book One, but he's become more realistic and sympathetic.

Well, when he wants to be. After all, he's a teenager.

Recently, a friend asked me if Potter was worth the hype. I'm not sure if anything is worth the hype that the modern entertainment industry produces: overblown publicity machines for works that will vanish in a weekend.

But if anything is worth the hype, it's Harry Potter. The books enrapture children, entangle adults, and are full of wit, wisdom and wonder. Who could ask for a more magical experience?

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