With Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire featured on the evening news twice during the weekend it was published, and a print run of one million, it may seem pointless to review J K Rowling's fourth novel. Not so. This is one of those rare books that more than live up to the hype.
The new Harry Potter begins very much like a detective story or Goosebumps novel. Three non-magical ("Muggle") members of the Riddle family are frightened to death in a locked house. Two hundred miles away, the boy-wizard Harry wakes from a terrible dream of murder with his scar burning. The evil Voldemort, whom Harry alone can defeat, is once again in the ascendant.
There are plenty of modern touches - from a Quidditch World Cup to a politician father embarrassed by his son - to make adults smile. What is particularly impressive about this book is how skilfully it weaves in characters and clues from the previous instalments. The defect of the first Harry Potter was that so much was crammed into it. In Goblet of Fire, Rowling's complete cast, plus several inspired new creations, are given room to breathe.
We discover more about Hagrid's parents, and the painful reason why the hopeless Neville has been brought up by his grandmother. Every character is deepened and expanded. Dobby the house-elf from book two plays a crucial role, as does Sirius Black, the former Prisoner of Azkaban from book three, while trying to protect Harry during the potentially deadly inter-school Triwizard Tournament. The similarity of Harry's wand to that of Voldemort, each with the same phoenix feather at its core in book one, becomes of central importance in the climax of book four. If you read this novel fast, the effect is rather like swallowing one of the Weasley brothers' Ton Tongue Toffees.
Each novel tests Harry with one of the seven deadly sins. In this novel, it is envy, both sporting and sexual, of the handsome, successful Cedric Diggory. One loves Harry because his virtue costs him grief: his relations with Hermione and Ron Weasley are full of the scratchiness of real friendship, and all his triumphs are hard-won. His mortification at the Hogwarts school dance is one of the funniest descriptions of teenage angst I can remember. One needs the comedy, because the climax is the stuff of nightmares.
Rowling's genius lies in the extraordinarily detailed world she has created. She understands exactly what an intelligent child feels, yearns for, fears and finds funny. Her style is so transparent that it is easy to miss its skill. Like all the greatest children's writers, she addresses the moral questions that too many adult writers neglect. But unlike, say, C S Lewis, Rowling does not dictate our responses. She is, among other things, a satirist, with a satirist's indignation at injustice, cruelty and sheer silliness - and, crucially, a satirist's willingness to allow the reader the freedom to disagree. This is more than can be said for some of her critics, upon whom she takes ample revenge. Rita Skeeter, Rowling's pushy journalist witch who shamelessly fabricates stories and literally bugs her subjects by turning herself into a beetle for the Daily Prophet, is a gloriously comic creation and seems strangely reminiscent of certain real-life hacks in the Muggle world.
"We could all do with a few laughs," says Harry at the end. The Goblet of Fire is a lot less comforting than its predecessors, and may not be as popular with readers under the age of ten. Good still triumphs - just - but, by the last page, it is clear that the world of magic has darkened with terror and betrayal. Even children's fiction offers no escape from the way we live now.