All right, I admit it - each time I crack open a Harry Potter novel, I'm struck by the fear that it might not be as good as the one that preceded it and that this, this one might be the one that breaks the spell...
Thus far, it hasn't happened - Joanne Rowling's novels have been getting better with time, not worse - but given the media hype surrounding "Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire" and the weight of the expectations resting on Rowling's shoulders, it wouldn't be unexpected for her to crack under the pressure and deliver an unexciting, though workable, story to her eager audience.
I'm happy to tell you that this hasn't happened - "Goblet Of Fire" is one of Rowling's most accomplished and polished books to date, sticking to its tried-and-tested formula while simultaneously introducing a few new literary devices. In a departure from the previous three novels, the story opens with Voldemort, the wizard Who Must Not Be Named and Harry's arch-nemesis, planing to hasten Harry's departure from this mortal coil. His hatred of Harry is so strong that it causes the lightning-shaped scar on Harry's forehead to burn, waking him from a deep sleep and precipitating the events that make up "Goblet Of Fire".
It's only when Harry's friends, the Weasleys, come by to pick him up for the Quidditch World Cup, though, that things actually begin to get interesting. Some strange events at the World Cup strengthen Harry's belief that Voldemort is growing stronger - a feeling that is reinforced once he returns to Hogwarts for his fourth term, and finds that the new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher is "Mad-Eye" Moody, a famous wizard known for his unrelenting - and sometimes paranoid - efforts to track down and imprison Voldemort's followers.
As if that wasn't quite enough, Harry also finds himself unwillingly participating in the Triwizard Tournament, a competition between the three great European schools of magic. Add to that the onset of adolescence and Harry's growing interest in Cho Chang, a pretty third-year; Hermione's efforts to unionize the Hogwarts elves; a nosy poison-pen reporter who's intent on making some mileage out of Harry's history; and the Weasley boys' efforts to make some extra money, and you have all the makings of a great story.
As Rowling's plot lines coalesce and break apart again, it's difficult not to fall under her spell - everything, but everything, is so wonderfully described that, for the duration of the novel, Hogwarts seems more real than the world around you. Rowling's picture-perfect descriptions of the Quidditch World Cup, for example, are alone worth the price of admission to this fairy tale - she's successfully captured the atmosphere of a football match or a rock concert and distilled the essential elements from both - witness the magical advertisements, the cheering crowds, the enchanted souvenirs - to create her own, infinitely-cooler world. Her use of unusual, though descriptive nomenclature - new transport mechanisms like Portkeys and Disapparition, creatures with such intensely-evocative names as Blast-Ended Skrewts and Hungarian Horntails, and individuals like Rita Skeeter, Karkaroff and Viktor Krum - adds to the enjoyment of the story, and leaves the reader in no doubt as to the characteristics of each particular individual.
While knowledge of the previous books is not really essential to enjoy "Goblet Of Fire", Rowling's included a few back references - Voldemort makes frequent references to the Philosopher's Stone, and some characters from the previous stories make a reappearance - and also left herself plenty of room for the next three novels. She's also paid some attention to tracing the character development of Harry and his friends - her description of the Yule Ball, and of the frustration Harry and Ron feel when looking for dates should ring a bell with all those of us who've been there, as also with her young audience. The supporting cast of characters - Professor McGonagall, Peeves the poltergeist, Snape - are all present and accounted for, and Hogwarts' Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, is in fine form.
I'm not going to say any more, for fear of revealing too much of the plot - suffice to say that what you've just read doesn't cover even half the plot twists that you'll find in "Goblet Of Fire". If you're already a Harry Potter fan, this book represents an important milestone in Harry's history; if you're not, it's a great way to introduce yourself to a truly magical creation. Either way, I'd recommend you get yourself a copy, take a day off from work, and dive headlong into the pool of Rowling's imagination...it's a trip you won't regret!This article was first published on 24 Jul 2000.