Sunday, July 09, 2000

Latest 'Potter' puts Harry under fire

By Sara Pearce
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In her fourth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, writer J.K. Rowling has created the print equivalent of the summer drive-in double feature. At 734 pages, this is two books in one — all the better to while away a week in a hammock.

        Just as in any summer sequel, favorite characters are back: Fledgling wizard Harry, now 14; his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger; Harry's odious Muggle (non-magical) relatives; Dumbledore, the understanding headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And, yes, Lord Voldemort, the wicked wizard who killed Harry's parents.

        Old themes return, too: Friendship and loyalty are tested; good battles evil; rules are skirted; and ugly ethnic issues resurface.

        A dark, whiz-bang start takes readers straight to the heart of the books: Harry. He awakens from a vivid dream with the lightning scar on his forehead (a remnant of Voldemort's attack on his family) throbbing. We know that can't be good — and it isn't.

        But let's not get ahead of the story — lots happens before Harry and Voldemort face one another again, starting with the spectacle of the World Cup Quidditch championship. In this first glimpse at a large gathering of magical folk, Ms. Rowling's touches are ingenious.

        Advertisements flash across the field for all manner of nifty magic paraphrenalia — “The Bluebottle: A Broom for All the Family” and “Mrs. Skower's All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover.” Campsite tents appear ordinary outside but extraordinary inside — housing full apartments and luxurious digs. Salesmen pop out of thin air to hawk souvenirs such as collectible figures of famous players that stroll “across the palm of your hand, preening themselves.”

        One hundred thousand fans have gathered at the site for the match between Ireland and Bulgaria. Sadly, the competition ends in a riot that starts with a group of wizards tormenting a Muggle family and ends with Voldemort's creepy symbol being projected into the sky.

        At a drive-in, this would be the end of the first movie. In print, it would have been a suitable book on its own. But a book about what happens on Harry's summer break doesn't fit Ms. Rowling's schedule for the series, which calls for seven books, each covering a year at Hogwarts.

        So, the match is merely a warm-up. It entertains and contains a few bits essential to the overall plot but could just as easily be cut. After all, it's really Hogwarts we want to return to. Hogwarts with its population of peculiar creatures, fantastic objects, remarkable courses, house rivalries and this year, emerging hormones and a new competition replacing the usual Quidditch matches.

        Yikes. No Quidditch!

        Not to worry, there's the Triwizard Tournament instead. Once banned because of its mounting death toll, it has been revived as a series of three public challenges. The tests are spaced throughout the school year with champions competing from three schools of magic, Hogwarts and two of its foreign counterparts: Beauxbatons and Durmstrang.

        An age limit of 17, enforced by a spell, has been put on the challenge. But anyone can nominate themselves by dropping their name into the Goblet of Fire. Yet, after the goblet reveals the three champions, a fourth name emerges from the flames: Harry Potter.

        Harry has a difficult time convincing people that he has not nominated himself — and many at the school turn on him. But Dumbledore and others (including Harry's outlaw godfather, Sirius Black) know that evil is afoot, and suspect that someone has entered Harry's name, hoping that he will be killed.

        From here on the book is a swift read. Ms. Rowling recaps the past without tripping over the present. New obstacles and a dazzling array of cinematic touches drive readers forward.

        Amid the fantasy, the teens face ordinary problems sure to bring them closer to young readers. Harry has a crush on fellow Quidditch player Cho Chang but can't work up the courage to ask her to a dance. Ron remains preoccupied with his family's lack of money and jealous of Harry. Hermione, studious as ever, is blossoming into an attractive young woman who wouldn't mind Harry and Ron noticing the change.

        Beyond all this is a horrific reality: Lord Voldemort is back. Big time. Harry will surely face him again and when all is said and done, despite being surrounded by loving and well-meaning friends, Harry stands alone. A seemingly ordinary, geeky kid thrust into an improbable life. We can't help but wonder where fate will lead him.

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