Book 42: Harry Potter And the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling, read by Jim Dale, isbn 9780807282595 , 17 cds / 752 pages, Listening Library / Scholastic, $69.95
As with the three earlier books in the Potter series, if memory serves correctly this is my third time through Goblet. I've read it twice, and now listened to it on cd. Overall, I still love the story and the way it basically changed everything. While Prisoner of Azkaban, my favorite Potter book (and movie, to date), was a bit darker than its predecessors, the danger still felt a little bit removed and the book still maintained a somewhat lighter tone. With Goblet, Rowling turns Harry's world upside down and almost from the start the book feels darker; the joy and wonder of the Quidditch World Cup, people tend to forget, is preceded by Harry "dreaming" about Lord Voldemort killing a Muggle and beginning his return to power. The bad stuff doesn't start with the Death Eaters and the Dark Mark at the Cup, but it certainly escalates from that point.
Experiencing the book for the third time, I was once again struck by how well Rowling builds on earlier throw-away comments and sets the stage for the later books. She allows her teen characters to grow, while most of her adult characters remain infuriatingly predictable. We can see Hagrid's blast-ended skrewt experiment ending badly before it even begins, and we know Hagrid will have at least one "I should not have told you that" moment; Dumbledore will be so focused on keeping Harry safe that he will neglect to share the very information Harry needs to make the smart decisions that will keep him safe; McGonagall will be stern and motherly at the same time; Snape will have those one or two moments where he vaguely threatens Harry and obstructs Harry's path but will ultimately not be a major part of the storyline .... except that, while all of that happens, Rowling actually gives us reasons this time. We get a bit more of Hagrid's history, we get to see just why Dumbledore is so distracted, and we start to see the Snape of the movies. In the first three books, Snape is a speedbump in the road and not much more. In this book, Snape quite literally is indirectly responsible for a character's death (had he not delayed Harry from seeing Dumbledore, Barty Crouch Sr might not have died) and in the final pages we see that he is going to be more than just a menacing teacher from this point on. Rowling expands even the secondary characters' roles (with the Madame Maxime subplot for Hagrid, and the heightened involvement of the adult Weasleys), and her page count expands to accommodate that change in story-style.
She also introduces at least one intriguing new character: Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody. Moody quickly became a favorite character of mine, and remains so. Even after what I think is one of the best plot twists in the Potter series (if not all of series fiction). Listening to the book, I found myself even more attentive to Moody's scenes than I am when I'm rereading the book. And yes, the clues are all there early on, once you know where to look.
Some people have said that upon rereading Goblet, the teen relationship angst comes across as more forced than on the first read. I didn't find that to be so. Because while spurned feelings and requited attractions motivate the characters at various points, those emotions are still not the main plot (unlike at least one other YA urban fantasy series of great popularity, or so I've been told). Harry's interest in Cho and jealousy of Cedric, Ron's jealousy of Hermione and Krum, the poor Patil sisters stuck with dates who won't even pretend they're interested, even the ease with which Fred (or is it George) asks Angelina (or it is Katie) to the Ball ... all of this fits into the book as fine character work and subplot without taking our attention away from the main plots: the Tri-Wizard Tournament and the Return of Voldemort.
Unfortunately, there is one spbplot that annoyed me on the initial reading, annoyed me again when I reread the book, and still annoys me listening to the book. As wonderful a reader as Jim Dale is (and he is stretched to prove himself in this book, not only due to the length but due to the number of speaking characters to be interpreted), even he cannot generate any interest or excitement in the SPEW sub-plot. Way too much time is spent for a subplot that is ultimately dropped mid-book and not revisited in any of the remaining books. Yes, it's an important development for Hermione's character that she takes up the mantle of gaining equality for a down-trodden race. And yes, I'm sure in adulthood she worked tirelessly at the Ministry to finally get house elves the respect they deserve. But an already long novel could have been 50 pages shorter if Hermione's Crusade had been cut out or at least mentioned less frequently. Perhaps my largest disappointment of the Potter series is that this major subplot ultimately went nowhere. (I can foresee certain arguments having to do with events in Half-Blood Prince which were cut from the movie version, and in Deathly Hallows. I would ask that if you feel the urge to debate me / tell me I'm wrong, you try to be as vague as possible. I know of at least one person reading this blog regularly who has not read the books and so far has managed to not have any of the major events of DH spoiled for him before the movie comes out (which he will see opening weekend, as he has every other Potter movie, I'm sure).
I could natter on for pages yet, I'm sure. I haven't talked about the representation of sensationalist media in the form of Rita Skeeter. I haven't talked about Karkaroff and Krum, or the concept of other nation's schools of magic (I've always wondered why Rowling didn't use an American school, since the books were already selling so well over here. Might have been a nice nod to her American fans. Then again, the portrayal may have been unflattering.) But this is a review, not an essay. Overall, Goblet is my second-favorite book in the Potter series. Great character development, great new characters introduced, lots of groundwork laid for the second half of the series and especially for the next book.