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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written by J.K. Rowling

Published by Arthur Levine/Scholastic books

Two disclaimers first. If you have not read any of the Harry Potter books, I would not recommend starting your acquaintance with his world through The Goblet of Fire; this would be similar to starting your immersion into Star Wars by watching The Empire Strikes Back. On the other hand, if you have read the first three books but not the fourth one, feel free to peruse this review: I promise there are no spoilers here.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the pivotal central book in the series; it is by far the longest (at 734 pages, it’s roughly double the size of any of the first three), by far the most ambitious -- and, fortunately, by far the best as well. It is also clearly the darkest, especially in the dazzling climax and its consequences. I am not sure at what age these books are appropriate, but it would not be for anyone under, say, eleven. The adult material is more pronounced here as well, especially in the withering satire of sports fans and tabloid journalism (although both of these subplots do feel somewhat tacked-on, the satire is largely on-target).

The main strength of The Goblet of Fire is something which was present in the first three books in merely rudimental form, and that is the plot. Despite the powerful narrative drive of The Sorcerer’s Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, and The Prisoner of Azkaban, their overall contents can be successfully summarized with “Harry goes to school,” “Harry still goes to school,” and “Harry still goes to school.” This time, J.K. Rowling comes up with a large-scale plot, weaving together the book’s various narrative strands into one tapestry. As a result, the fourth Harry Potter book is perhaps the first one to be more than just a book; this one is entirely deserving to be called a novel.

It doesn’t quite start that way, spending its first 170 pages or so on a somewhat off-tempo introduction: all build-up and little pay-off. The problem with the opening section is not that it feels superfluous, but that its only purpose lies in providing the bulk of pages wherein to hide the essential clues for the underlying mystery.

However, after this introductory section, the action reaches Harry’s school, and the story instantly switches into high gear; the entire narrative is imbued with the sense of high-flying excitement, and the plot twists come along when you least expect them. Speaking of plot twists: I have to admit that in my private competition with J.K. Rowling, she leads with the score 3-1, since I managed to outguess her only in the case of The Prisoner of Azkaban. All the clues are right there in the text; and, presumably, one who is determined enough can stop for a while to deduce the book’s outcome. However, the irresistible pull of “what will happen next?” is too strong to resist, and, ultimately, it is great fun to be thoroughly tricked by a slyly inventive storyteller. Even the seemingly throwaway sequences -- Harry walking around school and getting his foot stuck on the staircase, for example -- keep getting more and more tense with each paragraph, milking every last drop of heart-wrenching suspense to exhilarating effect.

On the character level, this book is at least as good as the first three (is it just me, or is the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher always the most interesting person around?). The way the titular character grows is even more impressive, with Rowling constantly putting him in situations where the kindest and bravest things to do require more and more personal sacrifices. On the broader level, The Goblet of Fire makes true on the implicit promise made in Sorcerer’s Stone: the entire world of these books is changing, and I seriously doubt that the fifth novel will be merely about Harry Potter going to school.

Ultimately, though, the book’s strongest asset is satisfying that irresistible curiosity of discovering what is behind the next corner. For almost all of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire the readers are totally spellbound -- entirely at the mercy of an expert storyteller.