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Harry Potter and the Gargantuan Page Turner

Three ... long years after the ... of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. ... legions of fans were rewarded for their patience with the release of Harry Potter and the Or

Three frustratingly long years after the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling's legions of fans were rewarded for their patience with the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - launched simultaneously in Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia and in other English-speaking countries at one minute past midnight on 21st June 2003.

This fifth book in Rowling's incredibly successful wizarding series is a challenging 766 pages long, containing over 255, 000 words and weighing in at 2.8lb (1.3kg). In Britain alone, it sold 1.8 million copies in the immediate hours following its release - a Nielsen Book Scan estimate revealed that one person in every 28 possessed The Order of the Phoenix. In the US, five million copies were sold during the same period. There can be little doubt that Harry Potter is a global literary phenomenon.

Trivia aside, Potter is no longer the awkward 11-year-old boy wizard that readers were introduced to in the first book. Phoenix sees the tangle-haired Harry in his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He is now an angry adolescent, a survivor of various hair-raising escapades who often finds it difficult to control his emotions. He frequently finds himself "consumed with anger and frustration, grinding his teeth and clenching his fists", and occasionally takes his "growling resentment" out on his best friends Ron and Hermione.

Phoenix is an enormously harrowing adventure for Harry and definitely not ideal bedtime reading material for the squeamish or fainthearted. He is attacked by dementors, threatened with expulsion from Hogwart's, banned from playing Quidditch, discredited among much of the magical population, haunted by dreams, visions and stories of his dead parents, accused of being a liar by the atrocious Dolores Umbridge, forced to endure the loss of a dear friend - and all this before his destiny is finally revealed to him by Dumbledore, who sits Potter down in his office and tells him "everything".

The book is considerably darker than the first four novels as Voldemort begins to spread his evil influence, opposed at each stage by the Order of the Phoenix, a protective circle of benevolent witches and wizards.

Once again, serious issues such as slavery and racism are touched upon in subplots such as Hermione Granger's quest to liberate the long-suffering House Elves and in Malfoy's fascistic hatred of "mud bloods" and "filthy half-breeds". Rowling's books reflect rather than condone prejudice and Harry continues to take people at face value. Indeed, in their steadfast determination to shield the weak against the evil forces of Voldermort, characters like Professor Dumbledore quite clearly advocate open-mindedness and empiricism at great personal cost to themselves.

Unsurprisingly, Phoenix, like earlier books in the series, has been subject to intense political and moral analysis. Since Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (the Sorceror's Stone in the US), first took the American reading-public by storm in 1997, there have been vicious attacks by Christian fundamentalists who believe the series is cultivating a generation of "evil-doers". Indeed, the more extreme of these groups have accused Rowling of deliberately "spreading witchcraft". After the release of book four, the Minnesota Star Tribune reported that a New Mexico town had actually held a book burning, and the People Magazine informed its readers that parents across the country were seeking to ban the book from their children's school libraries. Mercifully, the vast majority of American families have taken Harry to their hearts and Phoenix has broken all US sales records, outselling even the biography of former first lady, Hillary Clinton.

In a far more agnostically inclined Britain, critics have tended to complain that Potter and his palls are a tad too "Middle-England" for their liking. However, I can only surmise that there must be a distinct lack of humour amongst present-day literary commentators because Rowling is quite obviously being ironic when she writes of the curtain-twitching residents of Privet Drive and the Minister of Magic in his pinstriped robes.

The Order of the Phoenix is by far the most sophisticated and mature book of the series so far; it is also a more confident work than its predecessors. Although the earlier books were far more comedy-driven, there are still many hilarious scenes in Phoenix that will amuse children and adults alike. The narrative moves at a cracking pace as Harry struggles to convince the wizard world that Voldemort has returned, and the book's prodigious size allows Rowling to weave in serious themes.

With two books to go, it remains to be seen which direction Rowling's storytelling will take, but it seems likely that the link between Harry and Voldemort will lead to ever more elaborate plot-twists and sensational revelations. In the meantime, Pottermania will continue to inspire children across the globe to read - a truly magical achievement in itself.

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