... in [book five] we see Rowling confidently "take on" her fans to tell the story that needs to be told, to move her plot forward.
When people ask me which is my favorite Potter novel, my answer is usually “Whichever one I’m reading at the moment.” But that’s a cop-out. I do have a favorite, and I think most fans do as well. Each book in the series is very unique from the others. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. While the overarching story and theme of the saga doesn’t change, the themes and focus of each individual book are different.
Not only that, but the books also changed as Rowling’s writing matured and as she took more and more control of the editorial process. The first couple of books have a tone of whimsy and playfulness which was far less noticeable in book four and which pretty much disappeared in books five, six, and seven. There are good, sensible reasons for this: Harry is younger and more innocent in the first few books, plus the full weight of the war with Voldemort and his responsibility as a key player in that war only came into focus at the end of book four. Rowling’s plots were a lot less detailed and well-planned-out in the first two books.
So it’s only logical that different books will appeal to different people. Some find the later books too dark while others find the earlier books too whimsical. Some prefer the tight plot of Prisoner of Azkaban to the sprawling, opaque plotting of Half-Blood Prince. Some, especially those who read the books as they were being released with years of waiting between each one, love each book differently because they themselves were in such different places in their own lives as they read the series.
A Swedish fan named Eric was wondering about this whole subject and decided to find out an answer. So he polled 1763 fans to find out which was their favorite book and why. I found the results very interesting, not so much because of which book people chose but because of their reasons why. Most of the responses centered around characters: meeting Luna, finding out more about the Marauders, learning the truth about Snape’s life. I have to agree — the development of back story and learning about new characters was probably the most intriguing part of the whole series. After all, a lot of the plot elements weren’t all that revolutionary: the old man with the beard died, the hero gained friends who could help him in his quest but would not be able to help him in the final confrontation, the prominent evil character who is not the villain turns out to be more or less good in the end, and so on. What we all loved was the way Rowling told us her tale, even if we recognized the motifs and tropes.
So what’s my favorite book? That would be Order of the Phoenix. And my reason why? Because in that book we see Rowling confidently “take on” her fans to tell the story that needs to be told, to move her plot forward. Harry couldn’t stay in the whimsical, black-and-white world of the first four books. He couldn’t simply become a super hero and battle the Dark Lord on strength and daring and his “saving people thing.” He couldn’t rely on his friends and the reputation of his parents and his skill with the broom. He had to change, and book five shows us just how rough change can be. Harry’s victory over Umbridge is due to quietly telling the truth and relying on others, not himself. But at the same time his hubris results in the death of Sirius. Ultimately Harry is raging at Dumbledore, crying out inside that he doesn’t want to be Harry anymore, and desperately running around the castle trying to find some way to talk to his dead godfather. He only finds peace when Luna tells him “It’s not like we’ll never see them again,” and he discovers that real power comes from love and faith, not from magical or physical strength.
The Order of the Phoenix is arguably Rowling’s best writing. She daringly drags Harry, Sirius, the Weasleys, and Hogwarts itself through the mud. Even more daringly, she introduces a generic religious-style faith as the solution and hope as the one thing which will defeat an evil Dark Lord who scoffs at the power of love. What’s not to love about that book?
You can read Eric’s blog post about his survey here. And if you want to spend a little more time hearing about the Order of the Phoenix, consider signing up as a Third Year Patreon supporter. Each month you’ll get early access to six podcasts talking about chapters of that book.