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'GOBLET OF FIRE' SETS MAGICAL SCENE, BUT LEAVES YOU WANTING MORE

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
By J.K. Rowling
Scholastic Press
734 pages, $25.95
Excerpt:

Well, if you don't like it, you know what the solution is, don't you?" yelled Hermione ... "Oh yeah?" Ron yelled back. "What's that?" "Next time there's a ball, ask me before someone else does, and not as a last resort!" Ron mouthed soundlessly like a goldfish out of water as Hermione turned on her heel and stormed up the girls' staircase to be. Ron turned to look at Harry. "Well," he spluttered, looking thunderstruck, "well -- that just proves -- completely missed the point --"

During my life, there have been two fantasy worlds that are so real, so vivid, that I would trade anything short of my wife to be a part of them.

The first came when I was 13, when "Star Wars" was released and the dream of owning a light saber was deeply held by me and countless other teenagers.

The second is unfolding right now. Unless you have been on the moon, you have heard about the release of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the fourth in a seven-book series about the education of Harry and his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger at the Hogwarts School for Wizards.

J.K. Rowling's books have given the same lost-in-another-world dimension to my 36-year-old second adolescence that George Lucas' movies gave to my 13-year-old first. I read the first three Potter books with what can only be described as child-like enthusiasm and joy. If I could choose between a light saber and a magic wand, the wand wins hands down. After all, deflecting lasers with a glowing beam of light pales in comparison with the ability to give your enemy the "jelly legs" curse, summon a flying racing broom or turn a hedgehog into a pin cushion.

I had the fourth Potter book ordered months before I even knew the title and did my best to avoid any kind of information about the plot. However, in the relentless drum beat of publicity that surrounded the publication of this book, I knew that Rowling considered this the pivotal book in the series and that a character would die. (Don't worry, I won't reveal who dies here).

When my Fed Ex delivery arrived Saturday morning, I did my best both to forget about what I had heard and to keep my expectations low. I had a great time with the first three books and didn't want to be let down by the fourth.

I wasn't let down, but I wasn't overjoyed, either.

The book brilliantly expands the magical world I have come to love, and it had me laughing aloud several times. One favorite moment is when the bloated bully Dudley Dursley inadvertently eats a piece of "Ton-Tongue Toffee," which temporarily gives him a 4-foot-long tongue.

Part of the fun of the books is that we are continually learning about the world of Hogwarts. Until this book, I didn't know that when Muggles (non-magical people) look at the school, all they see is a ruin with a "Danger, Do Not Enter, Unsafe" sign hanging over the entrance.

Dozens of similar imaginative details make this book a real treat for the movie projector in my head. For example, who wouldn't want a clock like this:

"It was completely useless if you wanted to know the time, but otherwise very informative. It had nine golden hands, and each one of them was engraved with one of the Weasley family's names. There were no numerals around the face, but descriptions of where each family member might be. 'Home,' 'school,' and 'work' were there, but there was also 'traveling,' 'lost,' 'hospital,' 'prison,' and, in the position where the number 12 would be on a normal clock, 'mortal peril.' "

Everything new I learned about the wizarding world was delightful, but the plot of this book left something to be desired -- rather like being served the best appetizers you have ever had and then getting a mediocre main course.

This book is the equivalent of "The Empire Strikes Back" -- both are more about setting up what comes later rather than providing a great story now. That's fine for the first act of a play, but in this case, the "intermission" is going to last a year or more.

In addition, the knowledge that a character was going to die was always in the back of my mind. I kept wondering when it was going to happen, and it definitely colored how I reacted to events as they unfolded. That's not the author's fault, but her publisher's, and it ticked me off a bit.

This book centers around two big sporting events, the Quidditch World Cup (a cross between hockey and basketball played on broomsticks and with four balls) and the Triwizard Tournament (more on that later).

The series of books concerns the evil wizard Lord Voldemort and his attempts to return to the power he mysteriously lost at the hands of the infant Harry 13 years ago. Harry Potter is on the same journey Luke Skywalker was: learning how to be a hero in a world filled with dark temptations.

There is an air of inevitability to the events in this book. For instance, the Triwizard Tournament -- a competition between champions from wizarding schools -- is extremely dangerous and is supposed to be limited to wizards over the age of 17. Anyone who thinks that 14-year-old Harry doesn't end up competing should be made to spend the summer with Harry's rotten Muggle relatives, the Dursleys. The same goes for those who believe there will not be a confrontation of one sort or another with Lord Voldemort.

There are great handfuls of adventure, excitement, and fun to be had along the way, but the destination seems clear from the outset.

This book suffers a bit from the amazing success of the previous three. When George Lucas made "Star Wars," he was making one movie. When he made "The Empire Strikes Back," he knew he was going to be making more and felt less of an obligation to give the audience a complete ending.

The same is true here. Since Rowling knows she'll get to publish the rest of the series, her purpose is to give us the beginnings of a good story, but leave the ending for later. The fact that I am left wanting more is a mixed blessing and a guarantee that I and millions of others will read the remaining books in the series, an unqualified good for her.

I am confident that the story in its entirety will satisfy my need for resolution, but I can't help but be a little miffed at the multitude of loose ends left hanging now.

One thing Rowling must be given credit for is the manner in which she handles death. It has always been my opinion that too much of children's entertainment aims to keep kids in a fantasy world where nothing bad ever happens, and if it does, it can be easily made right. There is evil in the wizard world just as surely as there is in ours.

"Kill the spare." Those words sentence a character to death. That casual disregard for innocent life on the part of Lord Voldemort is a better morality lesson than virtually any news report on world atrocities. The feeling of utter revulsion toward anyone who could be so callous is healthy for adults and children alike.

I am beginning to see these books as a magical retelling of World War II. Rowling has said that Potter is a British story, and certainly nothing has defined Britain in this century more than World War II.

I have no way of knowing if that is what the author intended, but I can't help but see the similarities. Lord Voldemort's defeat at the hands of a child parallels Germany's humiliation in World War I. In this book, the dark power is gathering again amidst denial on the part of the Minister of Magic, just as Chamberlain downplayed the threat of Hitler's Germany in the '30s. There is even a Churchill figure in Albus Dumbledore, the Hogwarts headmaster, setting himself foursquare against the rise of evil.

Good is going toe-to-toe with Evil in the next three books. While I have every confidence that Good will triumph in the end, there are going to be losses.

Something this book has that the others didn't, and it isn't a good thing, is inconsistency. Any fiction will be accepted as truth if the rules remain the same throughout a story. There is a major inconsistency in the behavior of a magical transportation device called a Portkey, which activates by time and touch at one point in the story and by touch alone in another. Normally I don't carp on such points, but because it is absolutely central to the plot it cannot go unmentioned.

Overall, this book is another example of what I consider the great charm and strength of the series: children behaving in a believable manner in a world where believable has a different meaning entirely.

However, when all the ingenious disguises, magic spells, hexes, curses and the like are over, I was left feeling that despite the 734 pages of the book, it was just a bit short. There were three words missing:

To Be Continued . . .