A few seconds past the wizarding hour of midnight Saturday, the most annoying and unnecessary marketing campaign in publishing history finally delivered the goods. J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press; 734 pages; $25.95) would have sold millions of copies had its U.S. and British publishers simply dumped them in bookstores, unannounced, and then got out of the way as word of mouth spread among stampeding Pottermaniacs. That is pretty much the way the first three books about the boy-wizard so phenomenally caught fire among young readers and then their parents and other adults as well. The trouble with such spontaneous, rapturous enthusiasm, at least to those with their gimlet eyes on the bottom line, is its unpredictability and fickleness, as with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. (The who? The what?) So this time out, the Harry Potter franchise decided to leave as little as possible to the whimsies of taste.
Hence the teasing, intensely publicized secrecy; the warehouses bristling with security; the demands that bookstores not sell or even unpack copies of the new book before the first moments of July 8 (although a few did slip out earlier). Publishing records were noisily announced: a 3.8 million-copy first printing in the U.S., another million in Britain.
"To guard a title that was rich before/ To gild refined gold, to paint the lily," wrote Shakespeare, "is wasteful and ridiculous excess." True, but this is a new millennium, and the gilding of Harry Potter seems to have worked. The carefully built-up demand produced long lines of customers and the curious at the many U.S. bookstores open for business at the crack of Saturday. Some of these settings seemed surreal. At Books of Wonder in lower Manhattan, local TV and print reporters swarmed among the expectant book buyers. "The AP has already hit us," said Dave Lambert, 28, who was waiting with his girlfriend. You've got two lines here, one interviewing the other. A p.r. woman called out, "Anybody need a sound bite from Scholastic?" A satisfied film crew from ABC's "Good Morning America" packed up to leave. "We got the cute little girl," said a cameraman. "I think we're all set. Are we ready to go out and drink?"
It is worth remembering, right about here, that "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" is not a Hollywood summer blockbuster, although its weekend grosses will probably be announced in a breathless press release. It is a book, a really long book, with no moving images, sound track or joysticks. Reading it, or listening to someone else read it aloud, requires a modicum of silence, the exact antithesis of all the bells and whistles and clarions that heralded its arrival.
What will happen once the shouting stops? First of all, those millions who were enchanted by the first three books will almost certainly feel the same way about "Goblet of Fire." Like its predecessors, the new novel is heavily dependent on surprises and suspense. Rowlings readers, understandably, resent being tipped off about details before discovering them on their own. But many of them then go back and read the books multiple times. Indeed, the last chapter of "Goblet of Fire," which starts on page 716, is called The Beginning, which looks like a clue telling readers to start over again.
The new novel follows, in broad outline, the formula of the earlier books, rescuing Harry from some summer suffering at the home of the Dursleys, his dreadful Muggle (nonmagical human) relatives; transporting him and his two best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; and then exposing the hero to another threat from Lord Voldemort, the fearsome Dark wizard who murdered his parents but mysteriously failed to kill the one-year-old Harry at the same time.
As she has in past books, Rowling introduces new elements and characters to keep readers on their toes. This time the trip to school on the Hogwarts Express does not occur until Harry and friends attend the 422nd Quidditch World Cup, pitting Ireland against Bulgaria, in front of a crowd of 100,000 wizards and witches, all of whom managed to assemble unseen by any oblivious Muggles. Back at Hogwarts, the students learn that something called the Triwizard Tournament will take place during the school year, involving competitors from two other magic-training establishments, Beauxbatons Academy and Durmstrang Institute. (Guess, from their names, where those schools are located.) New characters include Alastor (Mad-Eye) Moody, the latest in the series of professors of Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Rita Skeeter, a manipulative reporter for the wizard paper the Daily Prophet.
Although "Goblet of Fire" sags a little now and then, Rowling's astonishing inventiveness in describing new wizardly wonders and her sly sense of humor usually keep things moving along briskly. Nearly every page offers something intriguing or funny. There are, for example, the odd books on magic that the studious Hermione consults, including "Men Who Love Dragons Too Much" and "Where There's a Wand, There's a Way." No wonder the parents who started reading these books to their children found themselves hooked. But this time, some of those parents may want to keep the book away from their younger ones. The rumors that "Goblet of Fire" is darker and more violent than the first three turn out to be true. A significant character dies (don't fear, we wont say which one).
Also, in a lighter vein, Harry goes on a date. Rowling has promised three more Potter books, and the direction she's taking may disquiet some fans. But it is the publicity blitz for the next one that will probably be truly, relentlessly horrifying. With reporting by Andrea Sachs/New York