Riding Thestrals

Below is a belated (October 2004) fanreview of JKR's Order of the Phoenix; feel free to skip to the body of the review (contains spoilers) or the numbers; all page numbers refer to the Bloomsbury hardback 2003, printed in Australia by Griffin Press (which looks identical to the UK edition, which I also bought).


Meta-note about Fanfiction Reviewing

When it came to my fanfic writing, desire outran performance; what I truly enjoy is reviewing. And while reviewing, I enjoy digressing. You have been warned!

I leave analysis to the League of Extraordinary Reviewers; what my reviews offer is an honest-as-possible emotional reaction to the work, in gratitude for the author's courage and energy expended in writing it, plus an attempt to suss out its themes. For bonus points I try to figure out what the title means (to me if not the author), and if I've tested the fic in the slashlab I'll say which bits (if any) pinned the meters. I try to use the correct spelling of whatever continent I'm living on at the time, so if you notice inconsistencies in my oeuvre over time that's why, or as Mark Twain once wrote, "I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding."

Those who believe it's pathetic to create stories regardless of money and copyright would probably say that reviewing stories written regardless of same is even more pathetic. Jane Mortimer has a few words for them, which I urge you to peruse if you haven't already. Jane and I agree that the 'no spectators' aesthetic applies to fanfic in particular, so I hope that if you've not either read, written, or reviewed, you'll consider joining in. It's not as if you have to use your own name!

OotP is the first of JKR's books to come out since I entered online HP fandom. Before that I was just reading the books on my lonesome and writing open letters to JKR in my apazine. This time I had a group of comrades to have a line party with, and the consolation that Scholastic had stopped offering a bowdlerised edition (as everyone knows by now, they changed even the TITLE of the first one) in the US, even though I ordered both editions of course, and I set aside a whole weekend to read it twice through. And I had quite a lot of problems with it and locked it off in a small room in my brain, not opened again until this week.

This week my sweetheart pointed me to the archive of essays by elkins: mostly pre-OotP, but they reminded me of how fascinating canon can be. And I thought that as I limber up for another round of reviewing, I need to read OotP again, firstly because I want to participate in canon discussions and "effect of canon on H/D" discussions, and secondly because since I locked OotP away in that room (mentally) most of the OotP references on livejournals and elsewhere have simply whooshed over my head. As an example, I definitely remembered Luna, and I vaguely remembered Zach, but I didn't track his last name, so when people mentioned "Smith" I thought that was a different character. And I'd completely forgotten Michael Corner and Grawp, so when their names came up I was all, "What?" People are writing Grawp slash by now, I expect...possibly even Corner/Grawp slash, as unlikely as that seems.

So I started to read OotP again in a more focused way, blinking through my discomfort, and I found myself making notes as if I was going to write a fanfic review, and then I said to myself, why not do just that? I've not yet read much else that has been written (or if I did, I blanked it out of my memory as I had the book itself), and so doubtless there will be some embarrassing repetition here, but so what, that's often a problem for me, being late to some party or other. But I may say, whenever I finally arrive, I try to have a terrific time, and throw my whole self into it. As Paddy Chayefsky once wrote, "Passion is the very fact of God in [a person], that makes [her] other than a brute." In fact, I'm stepping over to the bar right now; what can I get you?


Riding Thestrals In Book Five

I: Broad Brush Reactions

More than anything else, I want JKR to hang on and finish: to carry out her original vision in the face of the distractions of wealth and fame and her growing family. Book 5 indicates that she IS hanging on. I wish she would re-enlist the person who edited PoA (book 3), but I'm sure that's been said elsewhere. I want to endorse the idea she threw out somewhere that she might write BOTH of the next two books before she publishes book 6; that's a superb idea.

Book 5 was so, so painful to read, even for me, a hard-bitten adult. I know an 11 year old who went down to a line party to get her copy, came home all exuberant, and then couldn't even finish. JKR's HP books have always had pain in them - one of her strengths is that she has not forgotten how painful it is to be a child, and even more than that, a child growing up - but this one is more pain-drenched than the others and less leavened by her inventive humour. Even the somewhat funny moments (most of which involved eating or cleaning at Sirius' house) were more exasperating, frustrating, and stressful than funny. The long bits about the bureaucracy within the Ministry of Magic are like Connie Willis' slapstick: well done but so numerous that I only long to be through them (and too resonant of Yeats' Slouching Towards Bethlehem and current political developments, while I'm whining). Only in the late chapters in which Fred and George cause chaos at Hogwarts did JKR drop the leash of her her exuberant Dionysian absurdity, far too late to leaven the book as a whole.

"Things have the defects of their qualities": I guess one good thing is that kids who were 11 when the first one came out in 1998, and lived with delay after delay in the release dates, were 16 when book 5 came out in 2003, and will find that the series has grown with them, thematically...

Under its scarred and rambling skin, the book has good bone structure. I've said elsewhere that I'm truly excited about the way JKR puts together two of my favourite structures, those of the fantasy novel and the British school story. Who would have guessed that those two genres could be combined in such a way as to prop each other up and compensate for each other's weaknesses, across a series of books no less? Here within the single book she maintains two parallel lines of rising tension: one of them using a standard trope of fantastic coming-of-age stories ("what's with that door? and what's behind it then?") and the other from the school story ("how are we all going to do on our OWLs?"), bringing them to a simultaneous climax as Harry has the final vision about the Department of Mysteries during his final OWL, rushing out... Bravo!

Having said that its structure is strong, Book 5 would be a far poorer novel if it were not part of a strong series; much of its power comes from what has gone before, what we hope will come after, and the raising of stakes within a now-very-familiar structure: initial Privet Drive scenes followed by an escape from the Dursleys, the Hogwarts Express (or variant), a full school year ending in some kind of crisis and its resolution, the ride back to London during which the Gryffindors insult/injure key Slytherins and at the end of which the Dursleys are intimidated for another summer. It has "middle volume of a fantasy trilogy" syndrome: things have to get worse before they get better, but it's not fun to read the volume(s) in which they do get worse yet the ending is not really in sight. As in many middle volumes the protagonist Learns and Grows while we're waiting for the climax, and the learning and growing is painful...

By rights GoF should have had "middle volume syndrome" too, but it seemed to avoid it. OotP didn't. Its Star Wars movie equivalent is The Empire Strikes Back: Harry/Luke disobeys his elders' orders, confronts the question of whether he IS his enemy (or what their relationship is), and discovers that His Wise Old Seemingly All Powerful Mentor Has Concealed Vital Information Although He Is Now Sorry. Yes, there really is only one fantasy structure that works, and no, we don't mind seeing it over and over again in different guises. At least we don't seem to...

[Digressions: I believe ESB handled its middle volume position gracefully because it was scripted by one of my heroines, Leigh Brackett. You may have heard that she died when it was almost complete, and when he heard this, Isaac Asimov got on the phone to offer to finish the film for no money and no attribution, so Brackett's name could stay on the credits. He was told that Harlan Ellison had made the same offer earlier that day and was already at work. I am a fan of HE too, although the most substantive conversation he and I ever had was about his staring at my knockers, back when I still had some. And I hate the custom of dividing commercial fantasy texts into three books just because people think that's what Tolkien did. Actually he had six volumes, but the number of volumes has nothing to do with whether the structure feels right. But I digress!]


II: Two Themes

I wrote in my note to p136, Reading HP is no longer an escape - not that it ever was. But OotP's themes are all about the opposite of escape. On p53 Moody says he's Disillusioning Harry; but that's what all the events of the book do. I'm sure I'm not the first person to pick that up, so I will get on to the specific examples.

Worlds collide, or rather, slop messily together. Right away on p39 the worlds of Hogwarts and the Dursleys mingle in a way that surprises our hero: "Harry's two lives had somehow become fused". We get a acceleration of developments in previous books in which the Muggle and magical worlds, and the school world and the outside worlds, interpenetrate and affect each other. Umbridge (p220) tries to keep school separate from the outside world but the fact that she says that is just more proof that she's Wrong.

Death, or, The Gift Of Men. The death theme is introduced early, with Sirius' house (before Harry knows whose it is) called "the house of a dying person" (p59), followed by Moody showing Harry the photograph of the members of the Order (last time around) and the stories of what happened to them. The deaths that Voldemort caused offstage (in other books, and mostly before the events of Book 1) now take on solidity - which retroactively helps us understand why people have lionised Harry, even if they didn't understand exactly why Harry made the deaths stop. And Voldemort begins killing people and torturing them (his own followers and his enemies seem to suffer almost in equal measure) and It All Starts Happening Again.

I am happy to say that due to my fandom pals being careful about spoilers, I didn't "know it was Sirius" while I was reading (the first time). Moreover I presume I guess exactly why JKR warned the fans about character death before this book as well as the previous one. She wants her stories to have mortal stakes, but because of their popularity they have almost the same problems as a top TV sitcom: fans know recurring characters won't leave without tons of warning beforehand in the form of news of a contract dispute in the entertainment mags. As a result when we read about something scary jumping out at the Trio (for example) we murmur to ourselves, "They won't die, it's only Book 5." Hermione's petrification in Book 2 wasn't at all scary for exactly that reason. Whereas if we know that at least one named character doesn't survive (except obviously Harry, THE named character), then every incident in the book gets its frisson back (as it were); that's what made the attack on Arthur truly frightening. JKR makes a big deal of the warnings in order to keep the suspense in a popular continuing series, and that's why she killed the character only at the very end, both times, to get maximum value out of the one death. Now that I'm onto her pattern, she had better kill two characters next book, one in the middle...

Of course, death is not just a plot device in Book 5, but its most important theme. After seeing the pictures of the former Order members, Harry imagines his friends' own deaths (Ron at p159, Hermione's at p698, and so on). Ultimately, by facing Sirus' death and expressing his own willingness to die (p720), Harry passes an important test of what it is to be human and specifically, a human boy (hero or not) growing up to be a man. When Draco says, "You're dead, Potter" (p749) he's got it exactly wrong as usual: Harry is still alive, more fiercely so for what he's just been through. In contrast, the evil Dementor admits it has never known death (p22), and Sir Nicholas says he chose to be a ghost because he was afraid of death (p759). There are things worse than death (p718), Dumbledore says to Voldemort as they duel, and Voldemort's greatest weakness is that he does not understand this. I expect the implied question to be answered in future books of the series, and I look forward to them.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that the Doom of Men is actually a Gift. Our human lives are limited, and the inevitability of death is what gives them their savour (which puzzles Tolkien's elves, to whom a thousand years are as a moment etc.), if one works to find purpose and meaning even in the face of death. Grappling with death gives one power and maturity: you can see thestrals. If you face your fear (thestral) you can perhaps even ride it to where you need to go.

(Sadly, as I have an unruly imagination, when JKR described the thestrals on p178 and elsewhere I kept seeing the sinister horse-like aliens from James Tiptree's "Faithful To Thee, Terra, In Our Fashion", and the Thestral Ride reminded me of the part of C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce where one of the spirits rides a horse of transformed lust. It's just not possible for me to see these books without peering through layer upon tissuey layer of other stories. Which is why I enjoy reading other reviewers who don't have my problems. And on the bright side, I didn't see the steeds of the Nazgul - movie version - until I just thought of that parallel right now. Whoops. Darn. Well, as I've often said, the elements JKR combines are not at all new; it's the way she combines them...)


III: Stuff That Annoyed Me

Worst problem: the fight scenes in the Department of Mysteries were truly opaque. I couldn't visualise the actual action, for much of that final section, and after a while I didn't care. I am reminded of something a friend (RA, it's you!) once wrote on a piece of my writing (a bit of "Security"): "Stand up at your desk and actually try this and then write it again." I feel sure a good editor would have helped with these bits especially.

Since we're reading Elkins' "Overanalyzing the Text" this week, I'll say that there are two patterns she discerned in the first four books, that continue in Book 5. If she ever finds this I hope she'll forgive my rough summaries. (Read the essays in their entirety, please!)

Firstly: there's not MUCH actual sex, as yet, in HP canon, but there IS sexually charged language and imagery, and almost all of it is associated with Wrongness. See "Sexuality in HP/Perversion In the Graveyard" for a persuasive analysis of the language and imagery used in the graveyard scene at the end of Book 4. This "sexual language connotes evil" trope continues in Book 5: Sirius' remark about Kreacher snogging his father's trousers (p108), and Umbridge's heavy breathing (p657) and her "nasty, eager, excited look" (p658). In RL sex in itself is neutral: it's all in how sex is expressed. JKR associating sexual language solely with the bad guys is not going to help anyone learn or remember that.

(Star Wars uses this same wrongheaded mapping. I have been furious for years that George Lucas couldn't find any better way to show that the Emperor was evil, in ROTJ, other than to show him flirting with Luke, gently stroking Luke's light saber, and murmuring seductively, "You want this..."! Returning to HP, on a more cheerful note, I was relieved that Book 5 contained far less "fat connotes evil"; maybe JKR has read some of her large fans' (of whom I am proud to be one) thoughts on this point. I wonder about the extent to which she lets fandom affect her: I hope not too much! Don't let our obsessiveness knock you off base, JKR. On the bright side, if we haven't knocked her off base yet, perhaps it's not even possible and I can relax.)

Secondly: Elkins has also written a terrific rant about Draco Malfoy as a "profoundly unsatisfying character", which I will further sum up by saying: he is an ineffectual, cardboard villain. This has been a problem in the past (Elkins covers the first four books) but in Book 5 he is even more nearly nothing. He is trotted past us surprisingly frequently for a character who never becomes three dimensional, and anyone who wanted to see inside his head, not to mention inside Slytherin House, from JKR's point of view is still waiting.

(One of the reasons I love fanfic is for the glimpses it gives of what life might be like inside the other houses. I loved the way the Sorting Hat practically ordered the houses to cooperate at p187. As if to answer the Hat's challenge, the DA is inter-house, and I hope we get to see even more cooperation in future books.)

Elkins goes on to argue that JKR must be going to use Draco in some interesting way, possibly including killing him, before the end of Book 7. In Elkins' own words: "...perhaps Draco is indeed being set up for some narrative function other than that of pure antagonist." But if so, JKR still hasn't started the interesting stuff. Anyone who does not agree with me that Book 5 Draco continues unsatisfyingly 100% cardboard is invited to review a list I have compiled of every single page in Book 5 that contains any mention of Draco (plus 2 mentions of the Inq Squad where he can be presumed to be present). If you can convince me that any of them contain a shred of character development (beyond what we've already got from Books 1-4) I will write you a fic with the pairing of your choice (and you know how much I hate forcing my anima/us to do that sort of thing, or if you don't know, I'm telling you now). I discovered after making the list that there are web sites that do this sort of compendium for every character, but since I didn't know that, I approached the task as a penitential act. Having finished doing penance, I will say that only a small part of the pain I experienced reading this book was a result of noting that canon!Draco is still (a) not worthy of Harry, and (b) not in any way hot...in fact there's almost nothing there. For heaven's sake, in Book 5 Susan Bones is hotter than Draco: at least she's got a plait of hair that she can flip (p305), but all he's got is a pale, pointed face (like a ferret's).

(Of course where fanfic is concerned my home ship is H/D. But I really do know there is no hope for that ship in canon. To quote my favourite line from Phantom of the Paradise: "I know the difference between drug real and real real!" So: off my case! And of course I've crushed for years now on my own vision of Susan Bones grown up (and future Head of Hufflepuff), even though she was played in the movies by Chris Columbus' daughter, which was annoying and wrong, and I can't believe that the Trio don't know her by name yet so that she has to introduce herself (p305), when in the movies, which JKR approves so they're sort-of-canon, she's next to Hermione in most of the classroom scenes. And this concludes the list of things that really bugged me, so let's go on to...)


IV: Many Wonderful Things

If Book 5 is loooong, and its theme is death, it also has an abundance of wonderful things in it. My partial list follows; YMMV.

Ginny's come on all sporty and adventurous! It may be that getting over her crush on Harry was all she needed to stand up as her own character (pp67, 442, 576-77, etc.), or perhaps JKR listened to her fans, but for whatever reason, Ginny's thrown off the shadow of Book 2; she can even draw on those experiences to reassure Harry that Voldemort isn't actually possessing him. Maybe she has recovered a bit too quickly for those of us with RL experience of spiritual rape, but still, JKR is working diligently on the Not Enough Women In The HP Universe problem.

Book 5 Hermione is even more thrilling. Her work for SPEW is one of the few genuinely amusing bits in the first half, and as an obsession keeps her from seeming too perfect (plus she doesn't get Quidditch either), but she's a strategist and she takes action, her Patronus is a delightfully playful otter, she's often Right As Usual (p647), and she is even wiser about people (especially Harry, see p575) than she was in previous books. At p658 she sacrifices herself to prevent Harry being subjected to Crucio, and moreover turns it into a clever ploy that frees both of them eventually. I was thrilled.

McGonigall has continued to develop as a character, and her scenes with Umbridge (culminating at p587) are all a refreshing relief. Because Voldemort has to remain somewhat in the background (partly because he's more menacing that way - the Unseen is much more frightening - and also because it's not yet the climax of the series), Umbridge is Book 5's Chief Villain, used here somewhat as Dumas used the Three Musketeers' Milady (could one person have just happened to do all that bad stuff?), the front-woman for Cardinal Richelieu.

The Cho scenes offered this reader yet another sort of pain, but she came forward as a character (with a swan Patronus!) and Harry's crush was resolved (instead of hanging on for books and books, as I feared at one point it might). She should really have come along to the Three Broomsticks, because what she wanted was to talk/hear about Cedric's death. And now I can see that a sentimentally decorated venue for tea-dates and a pub even dodgier than the Three Broomsticks are just what Hogsmeade was needing...

And I can see why fans of Snape are happy (p473, 521, etc) with Book 5: he's more multi-dimensional than ever, with a fleshed-out unhappy childhood & adolescence!

Speaking of Snape, the Marauders flashback scenes were the ones that stuck with me most strongly from the first readings. The day one discovers one's parents are not (were not) perfect is a day on which one does some important growing-up. (The realisation came to me later than it did to Harry in Book 5, so I hope Harry can now skip some of my twentysomething mistakes.) Not only were the scenes well visualised and richly nuanced, but I loved the way Harry had to grapple with his Dad being a bully, even as he was feeling Voldemort's thoughts and wondering about his own capacity for causing pain. This was all first-rate (and some of the best writing in the book). I'm glad Harry got to talk with Sirius and Lupin together about Snape's memories before, you know. It's a sad irony that if Harry had found the mirror communicator earlier (p739), he could have checked with Sirius before entering Voldemort's trap, and Kreacher's treachery would have had no effect: yet another thing for him to brood about in Book 6, I daresay.

One ship-related note from the Marauders era: if you look at the James-Lily scenes, JKR clearly believes that it's possible (and perhaps even necessary) for members of a future couple to fight rather a lot before they pair up. Which has implications for the real ship wars (that is, for ships that have a hope in canon), which I want to stay out of. Although I will share my note for p580: "Eeek! R/Hr as Arthur/Molly!!"

While we're on the ship(s), I saw a surprising amount of groundwork for a possible Ron/Luna. At least on Luna's side (pp172, 179, 181, 357, 510, 702). Luna murmured that "it all turns up in the end" (p761), and I hope she's right about all the loose plot threads! And I'm thrilled with the interesting Neville (e.g. p488); I've long thought he's going to be in at the death in Book 7, and now he's been wrapped in with the prophecy too, so that's still on track.

Firenze's teaching style (p532) reminds me of one of my current professors' rants about how we have to move beyond thinking there is one right answer and the teacher has it, to understanding there are many right answers and nothing is certain. I worry about Firenze's future though...but I guess a centaur can take care of himself...

I choose to see two small touches as nods to fandom, even though they're likely not: the paper umbrella in Hermione's drink (p502), and the fact that I wish Ron were gifted with prophecy (p575), in which case Arthur would be the next Minister for Magic, and I say the sooner the better.

To end with two high points: Harry's rant at p293 is very 'boy', yet also truly heroic. It summed up the good things about his character, and he (& JKR) have earned the right, through the previous books, to have him say exactly what he said. And I got chills when Hermione said that in the ancient runic language, "partnership" and "defence" were almost the same word. The link between friends and security (one of my favourite themes!), that is to say, the fact that one's friends and partners are one of the surest possible defences a person (or a group) can have, is a theme of the series that transcends this single book, and JKR brought it in so elegantly and subtly here.

This concludes my fanfic-style readers'-reaction to Book 5, so I will leave you with that truly anticlimactic list, previously mentioned...


V: Pages With Draco Malfoy's Name (But Zero Character Development) On Them (In The UK Edition) (Except As Noted)

299 (these three are a suggestive sequence, numerologically, but sadly it means nothing)
593 (Inq Squad mentioned; presumably DM is there)
604 ( " )

all hallows' eve 2004


notes on Security and HP slash and my name
links to my HP fanfics
rant about pornography (intro to Security, 1997)
rant about politics (Lent 2003)
earthquake to rowling (open letter from fall 2000)
the alien ambassadors sex game (Valentine's Day 2003)

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