This first of the truly hefty Hogwarts volumes -- 300 pages longer than the last one – launches the darker second half of the series with an exciting tournament and the return of a terrifying foe. In Book 3, we get a break from Voldemort-level evil and are scared out of our wits only when those soul-sucking dementors appear. Book 4 begins in Voldemort's lair, not the safe haven of Privet Drive. Voldemort is a grotesque, infant-size thing accompanied by his giant pet snake and Wormtail, his simpering rat-servant. Right away the tone is unsettling, and when Harry wakes up with his scar searing in pain after being witness to a real murder in his dreams, you can predict the intense showdown to come. Yes, this is the one where a student dies, and geez, it's horrible. But Voldemort is ruthless, and the more we learn during the course of the book about his followers, the Death Eaters, and what happened the last time the Dark Lord was in power, the more this senseless loss makes sense, and the more readers will realize what kind of perilous ride is ahead for Harry and friends in the rest of the series.
Like all the Potter books, though, there's a whole school year at Hogwarts to distract us from the inevitable, and even better, a Triwizard Tournament and students from two rival schools, and a Yule Ball with all kinds of crushes and shenanigans -- Harry and friends are 14 now, so it's time for that stuff. Many, many fans call Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire their favorite of the series for one reason: dragons. Maybe the mermaids, too, but definitely not for Hagrid's blast-ended screwts. Older fans will enjoy the hilariously infuriating antics of crooked reporter Rita Skeeter, and budding activists will feel for Hermione's attempts to bring rights to the house elves (a storyline the fantastic movie version doesn't have the time to touch on). We're nearly lulled into a sense that it's just another school year -- that is, if we haven't been paying attention to those mysterious disappearances, or the casting of the Dark Mark at the World Cup, or how exactly Harry became a Triwizard champion at all.