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A foundling boy and his corps of wizards

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' is a charming, imaginative, magical confection of a novel. It is just right for those young readers who love Roald Dahl -- better, in fact, because J. K. Rowling has little of Dahl's meanness, and a good deal more poetry and gentle wit. Here, for instance, near the start of the book, a master wizard snuffs out all the streetlights in a stolid, middle-class neighborhood, and puts them on again:

``Dumbledore turned and walked back down the street. On the corner he stopped and took out the silver Put-Outer. He clicked it once, and twelve balls of light sped back to their street lamps so that Privet Drive glowed suddenly orange and he could make out a tabby cat slinking around the corner at the other end of the street. He could just see the bundle of blankets on the step of number four.

`` `Good luck, Harry,' he murmured. He turned on his heel and with a swish of his cloak, he was gone.''

Harry Potter, the young hero of this novel, needs as much luck as he can get. Without giving away too much of the plot, let's say he is known among wizards as a glorious miracle, ``the boy who lived'' when both his parents and an evil wizard did not. Yet he's left to be raised by the dullest of mortals -- mere ``Muggles'' as wizards like to call us; his dreadful Aunt and Uncle Dursley and their ultra-dreadful son, Dudley. It's not until Harry's 11, and about to be shipped off to the local high school, that fate and his fellow wizards step in, and the great adventures of the book begin.

``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' includes everything fantasy-loving children care for most -- magic spells and feasts; midnight escapades; sports played on broomsticks; new friends and vanquishable enemies; an enchanted mirror; the sorcerer's stone itself, of course. There's also a cloak of invisibility, ``shining, silvery . . . strange to the touch, like water woven into material,'' a lovable if bungling giant ``simply too big to be allowed,'' trolls, unicorns, centaurs, several ghosts, even a baby dragon:

``Harry thought it looked like a crumpled, black umbrella. Its spiny wings were huge compared to its skinny jet body, it had a long snout with wide nostrils, the stubs or horns and bulging, orange eyes.

``It sneezed. A couple of sparks flew out of its snout.''

Were it not for the last 20 or 30 pages of the book, ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' could have been a perfect children's classic, like ``Peter Pan'' or ``Mary Poppins,'' one of those works of light-fingered fantasy that come along once or twice in a lifetime. Unfortunately, Rowling (who began this first book as a single mother writing ``on scraps of paper at a local cafe'' in Scotland) takes a few too many shortcuts in her own magic. By the novel's end, several important questions have been answered too facilely, while others remain disappointingly open. Clearly the author is paving the way for a sequel, which, while welcome, should not come at the expense of the novel's richest, full conclusion.

Harry himself remains to the end an enchanting character, full of a tough, skinny sort of heroism and a dozen surprises, as does the chief wizard, Dumbledore, and Harry's two best chums. The plot has some breathtaking twists and hairpin turns. But other, secondary characters who showed such promise at the start are left to flatten out or disappear altogether. The last few pages of plot feel rushed and second-rate, leaving the book to close something like a cheap folding table.

This is perhaps more an editor's fault than a first-time writer's. Indeed, ``Harry Potter,'' whatever its minor flaws, remains a glorious debut, a book of wonderful comic pleasures and dizzying imaginative flights. It won several important prizes when it was published last year in Britain and deserves several more. There is no cause to doubt Rowling's abilities and promise, and every reason to expect great things, truly great things, from her in the future.

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