'Goblet of Fire' burns true

For all you Harry fans who have just begun to crack the spine of the massive fourth volume, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," there is good news.

Although 734 pages, the latest of J.K. Rowling's books about a young wizard at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy is as riotous a romp and as quick a read as the first three in the series.

But Harry's world grows darker in this fourth book. It is far too bloody and frightening in the last 200 pages to be suitable for some of the precocious 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds who have become devotees of the series.

It makes one wonder if perhaps as Harry Potter grows older -- with every book he gains a year (he turns 14 in this volume) -- Rowling will gear the books toward slightly older readers.

That said, the book (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, $25.95) absolutely cannot be put down by readers of any age.

Trelawney's foreshadowing

As we open, the prediction made by Professor Trelawney at the close of the third book, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," is still ringing in our ears. Though Trelawney is not always reliable, she has predicted that Voldemort -- the purely evil wizard who threatens the stability of the magical world -- will rise again.

And indeed, "Goblet" picks up with Voldemort's scheming in the first chapter -- a more gripping and scary opener than in the other books and one that immediately sets the tone.

Voldemort, you see, killed Harry's parents when Harry was a baby. Harry escaped with only his "signature" lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Though only an infant, Harry reflected Voldemort's curse back at the evil wizard, reducing him to a weakened state that is just short of death. This does not make Voldemort fond of Harry, and when Voldemort plots, Harry's scar twinges. In short, Harry's life appears to be on the line from the get-go.

Old and new

From such exciting beginnings, the story unfurls with the return of the vivid characters -- Professor Dumbledore, Snapes, Hagrid and others -- and the densely detailed world that enables readers to escape the muggle (read: real or ordinary) life.

This world of Harry's is a place where characters appear and disappear at will; where talking heads appear in fireplaces courtesy of "floo power"; where an unkind student may be turned into a ferret; and where students struggle to turn hedgehogs into pincushions, and read books with titles like "Where There's A Wand, There's A Way."

Quidditch upset

Fans of quidditch -- the soccer-like game played on flying broomsticks by Harry and his pals -- may be disappointed to learn that the game doesn't figure too largely in this book. The Quidditch World Cup games are played, but they turn out to be significant mainly because of a chilling tribute to Voldemort.

Sports lovers will get plenty of excitement, however, from the Triwizard Tournament, the first interscholastic competition we've seen at Hogwarts.

Although the magic and excitement of a Harry Potter book is what keeps people reading, there are also plenty of "lessons" that aren't ultimately too different from those taught in the muggle world.

When some gorgeous women called "Veela" turn ugly, the father of Harry's friend says, "And that, boys, is why you should never go for looks alone!"

And there's lots of attention paid to treating everyone with respect and not judging people by their families or wealth -- whether we're talking about muggles or giants or house elves.

Always, too, there are the lessons about friendship. As in the other books, Harry risks his life for his friends.

Harry Potter groupies will recognize many of these elements as common throughout the series, but few will complain.

Life and love

If you heard anything about "Goblet" before its release, it was probably that one character dies and that Harry falls in love. There is a death -- several, actually -- but none so traumatic as a particular scene in which one character lops off part of his own arm.

The reports of Harry falling in love are much exaggerated, but we will say that he suffers as much over asking a girl to a dance as he does when he takes on a dragon. Sounds like a typical adolescent.


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