July 07, 2003 12:00 PM

By J.K. Rowling

Critic’s Choice

Basilisks and dementors, Malfoys and Dursleys: That Potter kid has faced all manner of beasties and bad dudes. But in the fabulous fifth installment of Rowling’s worldwide phenomenon, the now-15-year-old wizard takes on some even more mysterious forces: flirty girls and raging hormones. When it comes to messing with Harry’s head, archenemy Voldemort has nothing on cutie Cho Chang, a classmate at Hogwarts who gives the love-dizzied Boy Who Lived a “swooping sensation in his stomach, as though he had missed a step going downstairs.” Cosmo-type advice from Harry’s pal Hermione only confuses him more.

Without sacrificing the usual bounty of action (a skirmish with Voldemort’s Death Eaters is dynamite), fantastic creatures (Hagrid’s half brother is a giant named Grawp) and big-time twists, Rowling smartly slows things down for once and fleshes out Harry as a confused, cranky teenager. He has reason to be surly: He gets booted off the Quidditch team. His O.W.L. exams (think SATs with wands) are looming, but Dolores Umbridge, a shady new Hogwarts professor working for a suddenly suspect Ministry of Magic, wants him expelled. And when a bigger, badder Voldemort tries to control Harry’s mind, there’s not much the Order of the Phoenix, a secret society formed by the good wizards, can do to help.

Rowling, in her strongest outing yet, wastes not a word in nearly 900 speedy pages, keeping the swirling plotlines blessedly uncomplicated. After the ferocious closing battle between a certain Gandalfian headmaster and the villainous You-Know-Who, your wrists may hurt, but mainly you’ll be aching for more. (Scholastic, $29.99)

BOTTOM LINE: A near-perfect Potter

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