One of the scariest things we learn in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is this: Even wizard celebrities can't escape the tabloids. During year four at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter famous for having defeated the evil Lord Voldemort while only a baby gets an education in celebrity's downside when pesky Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter begins buzzing about campus, looking for a scandalous scoop on the wunderwiz. ''She can't keep writing about what a tragic little hero I am,'' explains Harry to the school's kindly gamekeeper, Hagrid. ''It'll get boring.'' Adds Harry's chum Ron Weasley, media savvy beyond his years, ''She wants a new angle.''
The same can be said for J.K. Rowling. With Goblet, the author gives her characters complex new dimensions even exploring the chamber of secrets known as wizard puberty without losing the whimsy that makes Potter fans long to ditch the Muggle world for a cottage in Hogsmeade.
Rowling wrote Goblet at 734 pages, a massive Bludger of a book under enormous time constraints; still, her remarkably smooth narrative is in no hurry. After an eerie prologue, in which we learn that Voldemort is angling for a comeback, Goblet opens with Harry living every English wizard's dream: The Weasleys have scored tickets to the Quidditch World Cup. It's a hilarious, vivid sequence, as magic folk from all over Europe camp out in enchanted tents and try unsuccessfully to blend in with the Muggle townspeople. But the post-Cup festivities take an ugly turn when a mob of Death Eaters (Voldemort's sinister minions) rages across the campground, and the Dark Mark, the sign of Voldemort, lights up the sky.
The situation looks even more dire once Harry reaches Hogwarts. Quidditch has been canceled for the revival of the Triwizard Tournament, a perilous interschool competition. Though Harry's underage, someone illegally enters his name into the enchanted Goblet of Fire, and he's selected to compete. Harry quickly links the Dark Mark disturbance to the malfeasance behind the Triwizard tourney: Voldemort is at it again. (Good thing he's not as poky as Rowling, who takes 17 chapters to bring Goblet's central conflict to the forefront but I quibble.)
While Goblet is a brimming cauldron of inspired images like bubotubers, enchanted herbs that cure acne and are ''oddly satisfying'' to squeeze, and the teacher whose magical eye allows him to see through the back of his head Rowling's also got grander, more (dare we say it?) mature themes in mind. Goblet presents Harry with a task more daunting than defeating Voldemort: asking a girl to the Yule Ball. Cootie-phobic readers need not panic; Harry's crush on the Quidditch-playing cutie Cho Chang remains unrequited. The real magic is between wiseacre Ron and huffy Hermione, whose bickering evolves into a screwball-style courtship especially after Ron learns Hermione is attending the dance with someone else. (''Just because it's taken you three years to notice, Ron, doesn't mean no one else has spotted I'm a girl!'' she fumes.)
Rowling, who has dipped her wand into Issues before, brews up more political themes, too. Hermione becomes a champion for house-elves a high-strung species of domestic servants by forming the ungracefully titled organization S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). Prejudice also gets some play, as Hagrid is excoriated publicly because his mother was a Giant (a ''bloodthirsty and brutal'' race). Heady stuff for the under-10 set, but Rowling keeps her hand light, letting headmaster Albus Dumbledore do the lesson teaching: ''It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!''
Goblet lulls the reader for so long with its lovely, meandering tale that when Rowling finally gets to the Harry/Voldemort showdown, the effect a huge shift in tone for the series is shocking. The denouement, a spectacle of violence, wrenching emotion, and horror, may be a nightmare factory for younger readers; a student does die, but the episode is conveyed without melodrama or gore.
For Harry, however, it serves as a profound milestone, as his boyhood innocence gives way, reluctantly, to the realities of adulthood: ''The full weight of everything he had seen that night seemed to fall upon him... until he was screwing up his face against the howl of misery fighting to get out of him.'' Harry's world is unlikely to brighten soon (Rowling recently said this is just ''the beginning of the deaths''), but Goblet's grim ending also snaps the Potter series into focus. Harry's odyssey now has a clear objective, though how he'll ultimately vanquish You-Know-Who remains a deliciously suspenseful mystery. Our hero may be on the brink of even more tragedy, but his story is still anything but boring. A-