Warning 2: I will not rest until this is my longest review yet.
I'm happy to report to you that this time, the conventional wisdom was correct: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is far and above the best book in the series so far. In fact, I would go so far as to say that after reading it I was satisfied, which is not the way I would have described myself after reading the first three. The reasons for this are myriad, and I shall address them each as well as some other facets of the novel.
Style: Lo and behold, this book doesn't open up with a comically repetitive depiction of life on Privet Drive with the Dursleys, but a long episode contained in a chapter called "The Riddle House," in which the groundskeeper of the Riddle family's old house stumbles upon Wormtail and the newly solidified Voldemort inside it. When Voldemort realizes he's there, he kills him, which, if I am not mistaken, is the first actual non-historical death in a Harry Potter book (but more on that later). What is really remarkable about this section is that it's well-written. No one ever required Rowling to be a fantastically gifted prose writer; all these books really need to work is a sort of utilitarian but well-balanced style that that doesn't get in it's own way, but parts of this book are even better than that. Somewhere between the third and fourth book, Rowling wisely threw away the formula that had been working for so long and went in another direction. Even the dialogue has improved from the sub-television pilot stuff of the first three books. Again, there's nothing really amazing, but it has good flow, and seems natural. Here is a paragraph that comes from the climax, when Voldemort kills Cedric Diggory:
For a second that contained an eternity, Harry stared into Cedric's face, at his open gray eyes, blank and expressionless as the windows of a deserted house, at his half-open mouth, which looked slightly surprised. And then, before Harry's mind had accepted what he was seeing, before he could feel anything but numb disbelief, he felt himself being pulled to his feet.
It doesn't bowl you over, but, hey, I've been reading the short stories from my Creative Writing class for the past hour, and I'll tell you, this reads like Nabokov. And what's more, look at the carefully chosen phrase, "blank and expressionless as the windows of a deserted house." That is a clear reference to the Riddle House that appears in the opening chapter and here at the climax, where two of the three deaths in the novel take place. The Riddle House symbolizes death! Rowling has discovered symbolism, and Harry Potter is a better book for it.
Plot: Each of the three previous books has had serious ending problems, the second one being the worst contender. This novel, however, ties things up quite nicely, I thought. The story is basically this, as if you didn't know: The Quidditch tournament has been cancelled because two other famous wizarding schools, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang, have been invited to come to Hogwarts to take place in the resurrected Triwizard Cup, a competition which pitches one wizard from each school against each other in three tasks. After three years of Quidditch--oh, the first game is against Slytherin, is it? Who knew?--Rowling is wise to give her wizarding sport a break for a while and focus on something new; for this reason Goblet of Fire feels particularly fresh. Harry is supposedly too young to enter, but someone enters his name for him--someone surely trying to kill him--and he is selected as the fourth champion to compete with Hufflepuff Cedric Diggory, Beauxbatons sexpot Fleur Delacour, and Durmstrang student/international Quidditch star Viktor Krum. In the end, it is revealed that the trophy he must grab is actually a "portkey" which whisks him off to the Riddle House to face Voldemort one-on-one, and the whole thing was staged by Voldemort supporter Barty Crouch, Jr., pretending to be Dark Arts teacher Alastor "Mad-Eye Moody." Unlike some of the earlier books which tried to be intense and suspenseful, Goblet of Fire really is both, and it's full of questions and mysteries that keep the reader in. Who put Harry's name in the goblet? Where is Barty Crouch, Sr.? What is Voldemort playing at, exactly? Will Cho Chang go to the ball with Harry? The scene where Hermione yells at Ron for not taking her to the dance is particularly good.
But for all that, the whole thing still takes a little suspension of disbelief, especially for one big plot hole: Why would Barty Crouch, Jr. go through so much trouble to make sure Harry Potter got in the tournament and won just so he could touch the trophy/portkey? Why not just make one of Harry's books a portkey or something? There are probably a thousand things Moody could have gotten Harry to touch far more easily--without running the risk that Diggory, Krum, or Delacour would touch them first (Let's not forget that Diggory actually beats Harry to the thing in the first place). Oh well.
The Wizarding World: One of the great things about the Potter series is how each book adds a little bit to our conception of what the Wizarding World is like. From what I could tell from the movie, the fifth novel gives us a lot more insight into the insides of the Ministry of Magic; in this book, it's the Wizarding World outside England. First, there's the Quidditch World Cup--in which the Irish are pitted against the Bulgarians--and then the Triwizard Cup. They say in the book that no one quite knows where the two other schools are located, but, come on. After all, "Beauxbatons" means "Good Wands" in French. As for Durmstrang, well, all their names (like "Igor Karkaroff") are expressly Russian, but the name of the school is expressly German (Sturm und Drang, anyone?), so, I'm gonna guess Poland.
Death: Brent remarked to me earlier he didn't think the books got perceptively darker until the fourth, and he's right, but the sea change is obvious from the beginning: It begins with the murder of Frank Bryce by Voldemort. Of course, one would expect things to get darker as soon as Voldemort turns up in the flesh again. And then the novel is book-ended by the climax, in which Voldemort kills Diggory. This really is quite exceptional; I can't imagine how many people who read this upon its first release were surprised to find a character killed off, especially one as likeable and genuinely well-developed as Diggory. But Diggory's death represents a great shift in Harry's world--until then, the danger to Harry has always seemed a bit ineffective. How many times have we heard Hermione quote from Hogwarts, a History about how well the castle is protected, especially with Dumbledore's watchful eye around? But Dumbledore's watchful eye does nothing for Diggory; and for the first time in the series Hogwarts isn't all sweetness and light and shifting staircases and headless ghosts and shit. At the end of the year ceremony, all the tapestries, which usually are decked out in the colors of the winning house, are all black in honor of Diggory's death, and they are a sign that Harry no longer has a haven in Hogwarts. From now own, his world, like our own, is surrounded on all sides by the threat of death, misery, and ruin. Awesome.
As a sidenote to the progressive darkness of the books, we also get our first view of Lucius Malfoy, the Death Eater. In the first few books, it seemed to me that Draco Malfoy was the kind of template bully who would end up allying with Potter in the end to overcome some greater evil, but by the fourth book, it's clear that isn't so, and I think the series is better for it. Draco knows his father is a Death Eater, and he's delighted about it; he is full with bigotry and hatred for non-purebloods. Watching Draco go from bullying pest to truly evil should be fun.
House-elves: I'm sick of this B-story. Having to read through Dobby's vaguely racist dialect was bad enough, but having to read about Hermione's crusade to free the house-elves is excruciating, and the one element of this book I really didn't like. I feel as if it wasn't Rowling's plan to include it, but somewhere along the way it came to her attention in the second book that she had basically come up with a legal form of slavery in the Wizarding World, and she felt indebted to soften the practice of keeping house-elves. And so, Hermione creates a society to free the house-elves, whom she learns are the ones keeping Hogwarts clean and well-fed, and to give them benefits, unionization, and competitive wages. But the house-elves resent this effort, because the only thing they like to do is work and being "dismissed" by their master is their idea of torture. All right, that's all well and good and fixes the problem from before, suggesting that Dobby is basically an anomaly, but is anyone else not buying this? Isn't the "but they like it" defense scarily close to what we know to be justifications used by pro-slavery elements in the United States leading up to the Civil War? I'm not saying that Rowling intended anything offensive or racist, but I don't think that this was the right solution. Not to mention the things are just damn annoying.
Hooking Up at Hogwarts: Is anyone else really interested to find out what happens after the Yule Ball? I mean, these kids are all drinking Butterbeer (which is, I think this book implies, an actually alcoholic but relatively weak drink, and really shows you how different it would have been if written by an American) and getting rutty. It's basically a Wizard prom, right? And, well, I don't know this from firsthand experience, but some less morally conflicted than I might use the Wizard prom as an excuse to get a little Wizard booty. What is Wizard sex like, exactly? Does Cho Chang hook up with Cedric Diggory, leading to an awkward discussion when she starts to get involved with Harry? And what would have happened with the 18-year old Krum and the 14-year old Hermione if she hadn't been all pissed at Ron? I shudder to think. These are the things I really want to know about Hogwarts.
I don't think that's longer than the last one, but it'll have to do. Anyone have any other observations?