NEW YORK — "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" has everything that made the first three Potter books so successful — an absorbing blend of humor, charm, wit, and a hefty dose of adventure.
But readers will be able to tell this is a different, darker story from the first page of J.K. Rowling's new novel. It just might be time to rethink that whole "Harry Potter is a children's book" theory. Letting an 8- or 9-year-old read this right before bedtime might not be the best way to ensure untroubled sleep.
It's not that there haven't been frightening events in the first three books. The reader first meets the hero in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" after his parents are murdered, and he comes close to dying in "The Chamber of Secrets."
But "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," (Scholastic, $25.95), marks a definite transition as Rowling sets the stage for a future battle between good and evil in this, the fourth offering in a seven-book series about a teen wizard and his years at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
In previous books, Rowling started by talking about Harry and his life with the mean and non-magical Dursleys, relatives who took him in after the evil wizard Lord Voldemort killed his parents.
This time, the tale begins in another little town, where residents still dwell on the horrible deaths of the Riddle family 50 years earlier. For those readers who remember, Riddle was Lord Voldemort's original name.
The wizard — in hiding since an earlier failed attempt to kill Harry — makes his presence felt in the first pages of volume four.
There's a plot afoot to bring Voldemort back to full power, one that requires blood and death, preferably Harry's. An evil minion at Hogwarts is in place to help the wizard get his hands on young Potter when the time comes.
Harry, meanwhile, leaves the hateful Dursleys to join wizard friend Ron Weasley and his family at the Quidditch World Cup finals (think ballgame on broomsticks). After team Ireland wins the wizarding sport, chaos breaks out when Voldemort's former supporters make an appearance, signaling the dark lord's imminent return.
Once back at Hogwarts, Harry is entered in a dangerous magical competition between his school and two other wizard schools. He survives, but someone else doesn't.
And Harry ends up temporarily in Voldemort's clutches, although the evil wizard's plan doesn't go quite as he had hoped. The author leaves us with a shadow of things to come, as Harry and those around him take the first steps toward another showdown with the suddenly more powerful Voldemort.
As usual, Rowling has written a fast-paced story full of surprises. Just when the traitor at Hogwarts seems obvious, it turns out to be someone else. When death strikes, it's a shock. Readers might think they know who's on what side and what they're after, but don't be too sure. Rowling is really good at turning smoking guns into red herrings.
She also puts a wealth of detail into her writing. Some of those details tie up loose ends. Want to know what happened to Oliver Wood, Harry's Quidditch captain, after he finished Hogwarts? He's been signed to the Puddlemere United reserve team. Why have there been explosions coming out of Fred and George Weasley's room for years? They've been inventing things and they want to go into business.
Other details reflect how Harry and his friends are growing up. In Professor Sprout's herbology class, they have to collect a foul-smelling pus that turns out to be a great remedy for acne.
Rowling also seeds plot points that are likely to flower in future books. There's something happening between Ron and Hermione Granger. Clumsy, timid Neville Longbottom's parents have been cursed into insanity. Someone recommends Harry consider a career hunting down evil wizards.
There's almost too much detail, and sometimes it seems Rowling was just squeezing everything in that she could. The death she planned comes without warning, with no setup at all, and almost everyone seems to have some kind of secret coming to light. But she manages to keep a tight enough rein to keep the plot from faltering.
It can get a little overwhelming to keep track of all the little tidbits she throws in. But Rowling has said book four is central to the series, and that she had to get a lot of information into it to make sure the rest of stories fall into place.
So, how long until book five?