When the fourth Harry Potter novel took home the 2001 Hugo Award for Best Novel, the eruption of righteous wrath from some members of the fan community was an amusing thing to behold, to say the least. SF fandom is nothing if not clannish, and the idea that a mere children's book (ptui!), something as low as a mainstream bestseller (ptui!), written by an outsider (hock! spit!), could win Our Precious Hugo was something no self-proclaimed "true" fan could countenance. Absent, of course, from these snobbish histrionics was any consideration of the possibility that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire might well be a damned swell book, at least as deserving, if not more so, to be on the Hugo ballot as any of its co-nominees.
To all the haters I say only this: get over yourselves. That this is one hell of a series is readily apparent to anyone whose functional literacy isn't hogtied by a dogma asserting that certain books simply are Not To Be Read (those books principally bearing the unforgivable stigma of — shudder — popularity). And with volume four, you'd have to be a born fool to think these were any mere kid's books any more. Goblet of Fire is about as much a "children's book" as The Fellowship of the Ring. As Harry himself is maturing, so too are his stories, reflecting a burgeoning adult sophistication while losing none of the charm that made them popular from the get-go. And did I mention this one's well over 700 pages long? What began as a series of refreshing young-adult escapist charmers are making the transition to epic fantasy, and doing it much better than most VLFN writers have been managing for years.
Goblet of Fire raises the bar for the series' dramatic intensity considerably. Though it still has numerous instances of the humor and charm that helped to make the books so popular when they were new, this fourth entry is darker, with a palpable sense of evil and foreboding threatening the young wizard-in-training moreso than ever before.
Indeed, the novel's opening chapter seems more like something out of Stephen King, as we witness in grisly fashion the return of Voldemort, the arch-evil wizard who murdered Harry's parents and tried to kill him as well. It's true that some readers — and possibly some parents — might be alarmed at this entry in the series, as its depiction of evil is more blunt, less sugar-coated than one might be used to in young-adult fiction. But like the fairy tales of yore, which were much grimmer than the whitewashed, Disney-fied version children are exposed to today, J. K. Rowling understands the value of honesty. You cannot lie to children, especially about the evils of the world, and in days like these in which we all live in some degree of trepidation about our world's Voldemorts (terrorists, kidnappers, killers), forewarned is forearmed. The Harry Potter novels are excelling at the noblest unspoken goal all young-adult fiction should aspire towards: preparing kids for the scary adult world.
It's not all sticks and snails and puppydog tails, though. After the startling opening, Rowling veers from her usual formula (the start of the new school year at Hogwarts) by sending Harry along with the Weasleys — who are turning into the real family he never had — to the Quiddich World Cup, the sporting event of the year with a hundred thousand fans in attendance. It's a hell of a setpiece, that allows readers to see Harry, Ron, and Hermoine interacting outside of the school, and that also gives Rowling a chance to have a ball with her wry wit. (Her imagination runs riot with everything from cheap souvenirs — maybe a tiny dig at the excessive merchandising of her own character? — to leprechaun cheerleaders.) But no sooner is the game over (yay, Ireland!) than trouble strikes. A group of Voldemort's supporters, masked wizards called the Death Eaters, turn up and cause an unpleasant scene. And Voldemort's magical sign itself, the Dark Mark, appears in the sky above the crowd, terrorizing everyone. It seems the evil one has returned, and has announced himself with audacity.
Rumors of Voldemort continue to swirl as the kids return to Hogwarts for their fourth year. And a different year this will prove to be. For the first time in decades, Hogwarts is hosting the Triwizard Tournament, a magic competition in which a champion is chosen from among three wizarding schools. French and Bulgarian students descend upon the bewildered Hogwarts student body. And as the danger of the Tournament makes it restricted to students over 17, Harry is stunned to find his name selected by the Goblet of Fire (which chooses the contest's champions much like the Sorting Hat), even after Hogwarts' actual champion has been picked. A fourth contestant, unprecedented in history!
And it makes Harry none too popular. Many students feel Harry cheated and submitted his own name, even Ron, with whom Harry has a painful falling out. On top of that Harry is hounded by a supercilious reporter whose magic quill scribbles lie after lie about him. (Sure, the media's an easy target, but nothing wrong with getting the kids skeptical about it as early as you can.) Only Sirius Black, Harry's godfather who was rescued from Azkaban prison in book three, seems to understand what may be happening, and he advises Harry to watch his back carefully.
Sure enough, when things get hairy, they get very hairy indeed. Voldemort is becoming a fantasy arch-villian of formidable savagery. So many VLFN "dark lords" are so rote and cardboard they barely raise so much as a neck follicle. But Rowling gives us a bad guy who means serious business. When the novel's denouement sets up what looks like a major war in the offing, it is all too easy to draw a parallel between Valdemort and the likes of bin Laden. All the creepier as this book came out before 9/11 — in fact, Goblet of Fire comes across as more relevant after the 2003 Iraq War than it was when it was first released. When it becomes clear that some wizards at the Ministry of Magic don't take the threat as seriously as Dumbledore, that in fact some of them may be corrupt to the core, it's as pertinent a depiction of the real politics of war, and as biting a political commentary as young-adult fiction has ever seen.
Yet I reiterate — it isn't all dour seriousness. The funniest section of the book deals with the upcoming Yule Ball, and Harry and Ron's fear (indeed it paralyzes them more than the looming Tournament) of asking girls for a date. And Hermoine develops a social conscience with a fervor worthy of UC-Berkeley when she launches a comical campaign to "liberate" the downtrodden house-elves.
In all, the fourth Harry Potter adventure is another fine fantasy opus that proves this series worthy of its fame and success. I will admit I'd love to see the same kind of fan passion — the midnight release parties with hundreds of eager readers descending on bookstores — directed towards dozens of other works. But there's no way anyone can predict or plan for that kind of pop-culture lovefest (and people who attack Rowling on the basis of overblown hype over which she has no control and could not have orchestrated in any way even if she'd wanted to are just clueless assclowns). What needs to be considered are the positives: that children are reading again, reading with such passion that they are leaping several grade levels, and some of them are even picking up pens and starting to write. There's just no greater magic than that, people.