All the recent hoopla about the upcoming--and final--Harry Potter novel reminded me of some thoughts I've had on the series up until this point. I don't know of anyone who feels the way I do about the recent developments in the series. For one thing, most people seem to venerate the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, and despise the fifth, The Order of the Phoenix. Now I do agree that Azkaban was technically the best-crafted of the books, and it achieved a depth that the previous two offerings, in spite of their entertainment value, had essentially lacked. The plot is tight and skilfully layered, particularly in the segment that plays with time; and in many ways it's a plot with a level of craft that Rowling doesn't repeat again in subsequent efforts. The Goblet of Fire is a sprawling affair with an extraneous 100 pages of exposition; and The Half-Blood Prince just drags and drags.
None of this is particularly controversial, as there seem to be plenty of readers who would agree with it. Where I seem to have diverged from popular opinion is in my view that the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, was in some ways the best. Conversely, this only intensified my disappointment when The Half-Blood Prince pulled the rug out from under me, but I'll get to that in a moment.
Why did I like The Order of the Phoenix so much? Until then, the series had the flavor of the most typical fantasy: a noble hero from noble (and dead) parents, a budding romance with a pretty nonentity, and a vendetta against a sadistic foe (in this case, Snape). And what the author did in Phoenix was methodically turn the tables on these assumptions. The romance with Cho-Chang is revealed for the shallow attraction that it is and peters out. Harry has an unsettling affiliation with Voldemort that is revealed in his ability to speak and understand parseltongue. And my favorite--the development that I thought was simply brilliant--was the revelation that Harry's father, rather than being the perfect martyr we had heard about for so long, had actually ruthlessly tormented Snape, for no other reason than sheer dislike. The act that Harry witnesses when he learns this piece of information is difficult to read about in its careless cruelty, and establishes the boy James Potter as someone who didn't scruple to gang up on another kid with the help of his friends.
There are few cliches more longstanding than that of the hero with the noble, dead father; and that cliche had been reinforced throughout the series with constant references to James Potter that were suffused with a childlike reverence. In Dune, Frank Herbert writes that the moment a child realizes that his father is a human being is the moment that he starts to grow up; Harry, having never known his father, seemed at risk for never reaching this crucial stage of development. With the subversion of the Noble Father Cliche, Rowling forces Harry into maturity and directs the plot to more nuanced ground than it had previously covered. I'd argue that while the barrage of traumas that Harry had already experienced would have had to mature him in some way, nothing was as maturing an experience for Harry as being forced to come to terms with the idea that his father was far from perfect...and that Snape, a man he hated, might have a point after all.
All of this excited me because I felt that the series was entering a new level of complexity. Harry had ties with Voldemort, his father was not the man he had believed, and Harry's worst enemy in the school was a man who had been unjustly abused by Harry's father. I awaited The Half-Blood Prince with the conviction that Rowling was set to turn the tables on our expectations, and lead her hero into darker waters than the first book would ever have hinted at.
Unfortunately for me, I was wrong. While there are many entertaining plot elements in The Half-Blood Prince, subversion of cliches is definitely not one of them. I'm not going to get into a review of the book here, even though there's a lot to say and many problems to cover. What disappointed me most--more than the relative insignificance of the titular Half-Blood Prince--was the depiction of Voldemort in the flashbacks that Dumbledore reveals to Harry at various points throughout the book. What an opportunity Rowling had here, to explore the connection between Harry and Voldemort and explore the reasons for Voldemort becoming what he ultimately becomes. And that opportunity is wasted, because we learn two things from the flashbacks: 1) Voldemort was evil from the beginning and 2) Harry is different from Voldemort because he is a good kid who doesn't hunger for power to the same extent as Voldemort and wants to do the right thing.
To me this opened up a question: why create a seeming connection between Harry and Voldemort, and hint that Harry has the potential to become like Voldemort, and then depict Voldemort as being evil from the start? Wouldn't it have been so much more powerful to show that Voldemort was once a basically good kid, like Harry, who went terribly wrong? As it is, whatever connection that had been established between Harry and Voldemort is no longer relevant--except for magical purposes--because there is nothing interesting to be learned from it. Harry will never be anything like Voldemort, because he is good and Voldemort is bad. Therefore all the psychological tension that seemed to be there evaporated instantly, and Voldemort is immediately rendered a far less interesting villain.
Lust for power as a drive to do evil is timeless, but on its own and without complexities, it is the stuff of kids' cartoons and nothing more. Even Sauron, Tolkien's unremittingly evil Dark Lord, was not evil in origin, as Elrond says, "Nothing is evil in the beginning." Evil itself, as a concept, is simplistic and boring; it's getting there--the gradual missteps that lead to larger missteps on a dark journey--that make the best fantasy interesting. Read The Black Cauldron and cry for Elidyr, and you'll know what I'm talking about.
To a lesser degree, I was also disappointed with the romance angle in The Half-Blood Prince. I had thought that by revealing the Cho-Chang flirtation to be shallow, Rowling was leading into a more mature view of relationships. Instead, we get a slapdash, tedious romance with Ginny, of which we learn nothing other than that she and Harry are sucking face all over the damn place. It's dull, it makes the character dull, and we've seen it a hundred times. If it has any purpose at all, it is, perhaps, for the melodramatic ending that Rowling may as well have stolen from the ending of the first Spiderman movie. But at least in Spiderman, the relationship has been developed to the point where the ending is genuinely sad; in Half-Blood Prince, all we know about Harry and Ginny's relationship is that they kiss a lot, so who cares?
So I guess all this is my way of saying that yes, the majority of readers are right and I was wrong about The Order of the Phoenix. I had mistaken it for a portal into complexity and adulthood when apparently, it was not intended to be either of those things. And that is disappointing to me, but at least I'll be approaching The Deathly Hallows in the right frame of mind. It's entertainment, folks--no more, no less.