Give 'em spell, Harry!

"The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. The only person left outside was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flowerbed outside number four."

-- Opening line from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and Santa Claus may both bring delight to children, but you only have to wait 12 months until Christmas drops the Jolly Old Elf down the chimney again. Fans of Harry's adventures at a school for wizards have been squirming with anticipation for three years now.

Instead of a fresh novel, they've had to make do with Hollywood adaptations of the first two books in the series (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), reading and re-reading the four books published so far, and trading Potter gossip on the Internet.

The wait is almost over. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, fifth in the projected seven-book fantasy series that has beguiled adults almost as much as kids, goes on sale Friday night -- technically 12:01 a.m. Saturday -- published simultaneously in the United States and Britain.

It's no hyperbole to say that author J.K. Rowling's latest book will be the biggest in publishing history. Thanks to hundreds of thousands of preorders, Order of the Phoenix (or OP, as aficionados say) has stayed atop's best-seller list since the publication date was announced months ago.

The American publisher, Scholastic, plans an initial printing of 6.8 million copies -- a record -- closely followed by a second run of 1.7 million. It will also be the most expensive children's book ever, listed at $29.99, but virtually no one will pay that much. Amazon, for example, is asking $17.99.

The book has been tightly embargoed by publishers Bloomsbury in Britain and Scholastic in this country. That means no advance copies were sent to reviewers, libraries or bookstores to drum up interest, although the opening passage has been released as a teaser.

In case your appetite's not sufficiently whetted, here's another officially extracted extract: "Dumbledore lowered his hands and surveyed Harry through his half-moon glasses. `It is time,' he said, `for me to tell you what I should have told you five years ago, Harry. Please sit down. I'm going to tell you everything." Duhn-duhn-DUHN!

Like last time, there will be midnight Potter parties at book stores, with pint-size readers lining up for their copies. The $3 million to $4 million marketing campaign will feature billboards, a national ad campaign, even baseball tie-ins. This will be a Hogwarts world, even for the most determined Muggle, for the next several months.

But really, the publishers have no need to drum up interest in the book. The last one, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, received a similar kind of rollout in the summer of 2000, and it became the fastest-selling book ever on its day of publication, with a first printing of 3.8 million that sold out in 48 hours. As a whole, the series has moved 190 million copies worldwide. And counting.

It's also a big book, literally. At 896 pages (38 chapters, approximately 250,000 words), it's substantially longer than the already Dickensian heft of Goblet of Fire (636 pages, 37 chapters, 190,000 words), which was considered a gamble at the time. The longest previous Potter book came in at 435 pages, and most young-adult titles (the Harry Potter books are officially aimed at 9-to-12-year-olds) run less than 200 pages.

Web of speculation

Not that length is a deterrent for Harry's fans. In the absence of a new book from Rowling, many started writing passages, chapters, entire books about what should happen next, and exchanging them on the Internet. In China last year, an anonymous author writing under Rowling's name sold a million copies of Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon. (Among clues that it was counterfeit: It was only 198 pages long, and the plot featured Harry turning into a hairy dwarf after being drenched by a "sour-sweet" rain.)

In Russia, where copyright laws are notoriously lax, the three books in the Tanya Grotter series have sold 600,000 copies. A Dutch court recently banned Dmitry Yemets' Tanya Grotter and the Double Bass for copyright violation, due to excessive similarities to the Harry Potter series. Yemets' Dutch publisher argued unsuccessfully that the book is a parody of Rowling's work.

And Pottermaniacs experienced a frisson of excitement a couple of months ago when pages from the new novel turned up in an English field after they disappeared from the printer's shop. Recalling the rare snafu just prior to the publication of Goblet of Fire, when a few copies were sold at Wal-Mart well before the embargo date, fans dared to hope that genuine information about the contents of Order of the Phoenix might soon be available.

Frustrated by the publisher's embargo, fans are reduced to trading scoops gleaned from the production notes for the full-length audio edition (26 hours long, on 17 CDs or 23 cassettes), which will be published at the same time as the print version. To wit: Actor-reader Jim Dale will create 134 vocal characterizations for OP, compared to 125 for Goblet of Fire. Muggle math reveals that as many as nine new characters -- give or take a returnee or five from earlier books -- may be introduced in the fifth installment.

As to what actually happens in the story, rumors fly on the Internet like the Snitch in a Quidditch tournament. Among them:

Professor Snape, already sinister, will go to the dark side, seduced by Harry's nemesis, the rogue wizard Lord Voldemort. Or he'll turn unambiguously good, tamed by the love of a good woman.

The Order of the Phoenix turns out to be Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore and some fellow old-school wizards. Or it's Harry and his young pals. Or it has something to do with the giant groundskeeper Hagrid, who has a weakness for dangerously exotic pets.

Hagrid will sacrifice his life to save Harry. Dumbledore will die to save Harry. Percy Weasley, brother of Harry's pal Ron, will sell his allegiance to Voldemort in exchange for power.

Ron and Hermione Granger, Harry's other close friend, will become an item. Hagrid will find love. Harry's crush on fellow Quidditch player Cho Chang will fizzle. In fact, a lot of Internet speculation features various members of the cast falling in and out of romantic entanglements. After all, the students are just reaching the full bloom of adolescence, so some hormonal ping-ponging seems inevitable.

Grains of truth?

A few of the rumors may turn out to be true, not because they are better-informed but because of the comprehensive variety of the guesswork. What is known about the story comes from Scholastic's PR notes and remarks made by Rowling in interviews over the past year or two. For example, Rowling has promised that while OP will be scary, there will indeed be more "boy-girl" stuff. We'll learn why Voldemort killed Harry's parents, an attack that left the hero, then a baby, with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead.

Something important will be revealed about Harry's mum, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts will be a woman, and some surprising information will emerge about Harry's Muggle guardians, the Dursleys. Plus a main character will die -- one of "Harry's fans," Rowling has said -- and Harry will learn more about the meaning of death. We'll also find out why some wizards become ghosts after they die, while others don't.

The theme is choice -- choosing between what is right and wrong, what is right and what is easy. And political subtexts enter the narrative as Harry finds himself let down by (quoting Scholastic here) "the unreliability of the government of the magical world, and the impotence of the authorities at Hogwarts."

Harry instead finds "depth and strength in his friends, beyond what even he knew: boundless loyalty and unbearable sacrifice."

Like a Rowling stone

The real unknown variable in this multimillion-dollar equation of hype and anticipation is Rowling. Can she pull it off, under the pressures of media glare and the astronomic expectations of readers? It's one thing to sit in an obscure Edinburgh coffee shop, scribbling a quaint novel about a school for wizards. It's quite another to write book five while the whole world is watching. Impatiently.

The fact that Rowling needed three years to finish OP is not reassuring, given that she knocked out the first four books at a rate of roughly one a year. The interim has brought incalculable changes to her life. At one point, she was a divorced mum on public assistance. Since the publication of Goblet of Fire, she's become the richest woman in England and, by some accounts, the first billionaire author.

She got married to a London doctor who bears a disconcerting resemblance to what Harry would look like if he were 35 years old (straight hair in a bowl cut, round glasses, unlined face), had a baby, bought a mansion in Scotland and spent a fortune just for the pictures hung on the walls. Maybe, with all that success, she was no longer hungry enough to put in the hard, slogging effort required to produce a new novel as good as the first four.

Meanwhile, the word "Muggle" became an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Rowling, while keeping a stiff upper lip and endeavoring to protect her privacy -- one British paper reported disapprovingly last year that she was seen buying teddies in a London lingerie shop -- has not been immune to all this. According to another paper, the author admitted that she was tempted to break her own arm so she would be unable to write (although, even if the quote was accurate, she may have been joshingly overstating the case).

While many readers feel betrayed by the movies -- overlong, overly faithful to the books, with most of the child characters miscast -- and have turned their backs on the novels, it is well to remember how strong the first four books are. Each, though derivative of earlier works from C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to George Lucas' Star Wars, is a finely turned adventure story, loaded with invention, character and fun. Each one is a bit more substantial and accomplished than the last. And while the excessive length of OP is problematic -- does it mean that no one dares to edit Rowling anymore? -- the author has proven herself over and over again to be a real writer.

The written evidence suggests readers can safely expect Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to provide the high quality of entertainment they've enjoyed in the earlier books. There's no reason to suppose Rowling can't reach down, past the fame and the money and the new family and the lacy underthings and the elevated expectations, to pull up from her writerly soul the kind of book Harry deserves.

One thing is certain. By the time Rowling participates in a much-ballyhooed webcast on June 26 (11 a.m. at -- reading from the book, chatting with actor-writer Stephen Fry, congratulating the 10 winners of an essay contest -- we'll know the answers to this question and more.

Chauncey Mabe can be reached at or 954-356-4710.