The highly anticipated fourth installment of a phenomenally successful series debuts with much hype and hysteria. Fans are delighted but critics are nearly unanimous in calling the latest offering a bloated, overlong affair, lacking the charming playfulness of the earlier episodes.
Of course, I'm talking about the "Star Wars" movies. After all, it's still too early to tell what the critical consensus will be about the fourth J.K. Rowling effort, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (Scholastic Press, $25.95). But early indications have an "Episode 1" air about them. USA Today, for instance, called the book "mediocre." Maybe "Goblet" doesn't have the sense of discovery found in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" or the surprising plot twists of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Instead, this longest of Potter books, weighing in at 732 pages, shows a series reaching a pivotal middle age, poised to explore more challenging territory in the future. Is it darker and a bit more complex? Yes. Is it flawed? Certainly. But mediocre? Not hardly.
The strength of the Potter series, like most good fantasies, is that Rowling has created a fascinating and cohesive alternate reality that the reader is drawn into more deeply with each new book. At the age of 11 (and in the first book), Harry Potter discovered that he is a wizard. Not just any wizard but an extremely famous one thanks to a confrontation Harry had with the evil Lord Voldemort when he was only 1. Since then, Harry has been marked both physically (with a scar on his forehead shaped like a lightning bolt) and psychically (as the target of Voldemort's vengeance).
Each book in the series has covered a year at the Hogwart's School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Among the developments in Harry's fourth year are the revival of a sort of magical Olympics called the Triwizard Tournament and the arrival of a fascinating new Defense Against Dark Arts teacher called "Mad-Eye" Moody. The tournament is one source of the book's length: instead of one major conclusive test for Harry as in previous installments, the tournament provides three. Also contributing to the length are several complicating subplots. Harry's best female friend, Hermione, is involved in no less than three of them.
In the earlier books, Rowling had her subplots come together in fabulous finales. In "Goblet, " she just juggles them around as distractions until the main action works its way to a conclusion. While not as elegantly plotted as the earlier stories, this book introduces several interesting new characters as well as adding depth to old stalwarts like Harry's forgetful friend, Neville.
Rowling's dramatics have always tended toward the hackneyed she actually has Harry tell the bad guy, "You're mad!" but she shows some daring in making this book as dark as it is, including a bit of graphic violence and a death. She also has a surprising tendency toward potty humor: the Blast-Ended Skrewts could have come from a Farrelly Brothers movie. Though the house elves are annoyingly similar to Jar-Jar Binks, "Goblet" is no "Star Wars: Episode 1." Instead, this book is a satisfying launching point for more intense installments to come. D.L. HintzHeads-Up:
Originally published in 1979, Stephen Goodwin's novel "The Blood of Paradise" has been reissued in the University Press of Virginia collection (paperback, $14.95). "The Blood of Paradise" is the tale of a sophisticated couple's retreat to the Virginia countryside. Steadman, his wife, Anna, and daughter Maggie, work to renovate an old farm, and while they rebuild their new home, their marriage falls to pieces. Rabid foxes, a hippie commune, newborn animals and a demonic twin sister share the Big Furnace landscape. Goodwin fluidly moves from Anna to Steadman's point of view, giving the reader a convincing portrayal of how each side of the failing relationship sees the other. Goodwin waits until the final paragraph to reveal the fate of the marriage, but in the meantime fills pages with lovely language and enduring, unforgettable images. J.B. Shelleby
A fine new international literary online journal, Archipelago, is being published out of Charlottesville by Katherine McNamara. You can find there works in translation from Europe and South America and of special interest, interviews with distinguished editors and book sellers of the older generation. The current issue has among many others contributions from Sandor Kanyadi from Transylvania, Romania, and from translator Paul Sohar, who was born in Hungary and now works full-time as a literary translator. The online address of the journal is www.archipelago.org