Volume 5 of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series finds our hero and his friends cramming for (and agonizing over) their end-of-term exams, known at Hogwarts School as O.W.L.s (Ordinary Wizarding Levels). Of course, Harry has a few other things on his plate -- the growing menace of Voldemort, a.k.a. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and his serious crush on the beautiful Cho Chang are only two of them -- but here, in the spirit of the exam motif, are some questions (and answers) of my own. The first is the most important...and may, in the end, be the only one that matters in what is probably the most review-proof book to come along since a little best-seller called the Bible.
1. Is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as good as the other Harry Potter books?
No. This one is actually quite a bit better. The tone is darker, and this has the unexpected -- but very pleasing -- effect of making Rowling's wit and playful black humor shine all the brighter. Where but in the world of Jo Rowling would one find deadly supernatural beings and their frightening familiars existing side by side with empty gloves that twiddle their thumbs impatiently, not to mention enchanted interdepartmental memos that fly from floor to floor in the Ministry of Magic as paper airplanes?
2. Are there spoilers in this review?
Spoilers from a novelist who thinks the best dust-jacket flap copy ever written was ''[Gore Vidal's] Duluth tears the lid off Dallas''? Perish the thought! But even if there were spoilers, would it matter? I'm betting that by the time this piece sees print, 90 percent of the world's Potter maniacs will have finished the novel and will be starting their letters to Ms. Rowling asking when volume 6 will be ready.
3. You say this one's better than The Prisoner of Azkaban, better than The Goblet of Fire. Is there still room for improvement?
Heavens, yes. In terms of Ms. Rowling's imagination -- which should be insured by Lloyd's of London (or perhaps the Incubus Insurance Company) for the 2 or 3 billion dollars it will ultimately be worth over the span of her creative lifetime, which should be long -- she is now at the absolute top of her game. As a writer, however, she is often careless (characters never just put on their clothes; they always get ''dressed at top speed'') and oddly, almost sweetly, insecure. The part of speech that indicates insecurity (''Did you really hear me? Do you really understand me?'') is the adverb, and Ms. Rowling seems to have never met one she didn't like, especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. Harry's godfather, Sirius, speaks ''exasperatedly''; Mrs. Weasley (mother of Harry's best friend, Ron) speaks ''sharply''; Tonks (a clumsy witch with punked-up, parti-color hair) speaks ''earnestly.'' As for Harry himself, he speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often -- given his current case of raving adolescence