Phoenix 1: You can’t handle the (veritaserum-induced) truth!

Like Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix gets off to a much faster, better start than the first books in the series. Early in the series, I would intentionally start a book late at night, thinking I would just get through the Dursley chapters so I could move on to genuinely enjoying it the next day. But now, rather than making us slog through the Dursleys’ exaggerated awfulness, Rowling has gotten better about using them as a briefer, more focused springboard that prepares the upcoming plot. I could still do without that entire family, but at least I don’t go into an HP book anymore expecting to dislike the first couple chapters.

As of this posting, I have completed the first 11 chapters (220 pages) of Phoenix. Just enough to get the gang back at Hogwarts and through the opening feast. A few more thoughts from roughly the first quarter of the book:

For the second time in the series (the first being early in Azkaban), Harry is forced to briefly contemplate life after possible expulsion from Hogwarts. And assuming the seventh book is substantially the same as the seventh and eight movies, we do eventually get to see that idea of Harry on the run come to fruition. But this might have been the most interesting time for it to have happened. In Azkaban, Harry had no real plan beyond the immediate tasks of trying to get enough money to live off before the Ministry caught up to him. In Deathly Hallows (at least the film version), he’s occupied with the resistance against Voldemort. But in Phoenix, only, he has Sirius. As I mentioned while wrapping up my Goblet discussion, Sirius has become perhaps my favorite character. (So I’m dreading what I know happens near the end of Phoenix.) So it’s intriguing to think of what Harry’s life on the lam with Sirius would have been like. In that sense, I was a little like Sirius himself in the book: happy to see Harry win his case, but a little disappointed at the possibility lost.

Speaking of Mr. Black, Sirius vs. Molly Weasley was one of the most underratedly captivating scenes the series has produced thus far. Two characters whom I love, facing off against each other with the same underlying intent in mind: doing what was best for Harry. Sirius and Molly might be two of the strongest-willed character we’ve seen. This is obvious in Sirius’s case; he survived more than a decade in the horror of Azkaban, maintained at least most of his sanity, and escaped the inescapable in order to protect his godson. But Molly might be just as impressive in her own way. Just being a mother is surely difficult, but her circumstances must have been almost laughably impossible: seven kids, six of them boys, most of them troublemakers, and with very limited funds to accomplish it all. She must have needed an iron will at times, but her argument with Sirius might have been the first time we’d really seen it. We’d seen her angry before, disciplining various children, but this was her actually battling, fighting for what she believed would be best for someone she thought of as a son.

So now the closest thing Harry has had to a mother and a father were battling it out. Sirius mostly wins, and in the moment, I was glad. It certainly felt more fair to let Harry know what was going on, and if anything, it seemed unjust to keep him in the dark about any details. But I’m pretty sure I remember why Dumbledore, and thus Molly Weasley, wanted certain information kept away from Harry (Voldemort can invade his mind?), and the reasoning is sound. Sirius’s approach is probably more respectful of Harry, trusting in his ability and believing in his right to know all he was up against. But Molly might have been acting like more of an actual parent, wanting to protect her “son” at all costs. Her protective impulse was powerfully shown again later, when the boggart reveals her worst fear: her family’s deaths.

No matter how understandable Dumbledore and the others end up being in trying to keep certain information from Harry, it’s easy to feel Harry’s frustration. I was forewarned that Harry gets pretty whiny for much of Phoenix, and that has certainly been true thus far. But it hasn’t bothered me. At this point, no good reason to keep him in the dark has yet been revealed. His explosion at Ron and Hermione is full of “woe is me” attitude, yet his emotions still feel justified. His jealousy over Ron becoming a prefect is a little immature, but when he lists all his triumphs over dark arts, you can understand his hurt over his exclusion. We’re seeing a lot more raw emotion from Harry than we had in the rest of the series, but so far, I’m ok with it. If it gets out of control, I’ll write a “When good wizards go emo” post.

As for our other characters, the happiest development for me was Ron’s becoming a prefect. First, it was just hilarious; the reactions were hysterical, especially the twins’. But mostly, I was happy for Ron to beat Harry at something, even if it turns out the decision was only made for Harry’s protection. The whole series, I’ve wanted Ron to find his niche, but it’s kept not happening. Even Neville got a niche sooner, with his herbology. But finally we see Ron get something, and while it’s not something he particularly wanted, I expect we’ll see him grow into it. Elsewhere in the Weasley family? Ginny can still barely get a line; I’m getting impatient for her to become more of a character. The twins are still awesome, as they progress toward their natural career, and they take over my favorite character spot if I’m allowed to combine them into one entity. And we see the (perhaps inevitable) fall of Percy from douche to willing family pariah. Part of me wonders if he’s under the Imperius Curse. On the one hand, everything he’s done seems like a natural outgrowth of his ambition, strict adherence to rules, and annoying lack of perspective. But on the other, so completely turning on his family felt like a bit much. I doubt it’s the Imperius, as it seems more likely that he’ll just have an error-of-my-ways redemption story later, but still, it’s disappointing to see someone from the World’s Greatest Family go so astray.

The Order itself is full of potentially interesting characters, though we don’t meet any of them with much depth yet. Tonks is clumsy and can change her appearance, but she didn’t make a huge impression on me; I understand that she’s fairly beloved by some fans. We see the real Mad-Eye Moody, and sure enough, he’s pretty much just like his imposter. But as I noted at the end of Goblet, he doesn’t have any rapport with our main characters. He’s still interesting conceptually, but I have to say, it feels like something has been lost there. Outside the Order, we finally are introduced to Luna Lovegood, but while I like her, I actually found the movie version more immediately interesting. Maybe that actress just nailed the role so well.

Finally, there was also the matter of Harry’s trial. At the end of Goblet, Cornelius Fudge’s willful ignorance brought him to the edge of becoming another of Rowling’s excessively exaggerated characters. At Harry’s trial, he probably crosses that line as he huffs and puffs his way to becoming the bad kind of laughingstock. But I won’t harp too badly on Fudge; from where I’ve stopped in my current reading, the next chapter is titled “Dolores Umbridge,” and I have a feeling I’ll need to save all my eyerolls for her.

The trial itself was entertaining, thanks largely to Dumbledore’s extreme coolness in the face of Fudge’s reddening face. But as they progressed, I found myself wondering why the wizard court goes to so much trouble in its trial. We see the same issues of factual uncertainty and witness credibility arising as we would in the Muggle world, but this is a magic court. You people are magic! Use magic! Just last book, we saw the introduction of veritaserum, which compels the truth. Harry was afraid of taking it in Goblet; even though he could have exonerated himself against stealing from Snape, he was frightened by what else he might be asked. So it’s one thing that he wouldn’t volunteer to take the potion. But why wouldn’t the court force defendants to take it? Are we supposed to believe the wizard legal system has some equivalent of the Fifth Amendment that prevents self-incrimination? This is a justice system that sends its convicts to a prison where magical creatures suck all the happiness out of them until they die. Civil rights don’t seem to be a big issue. Make Harry take the veritaserum, ask him about the dementors, and you’re done. It’s not that hard, people.

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