It has already become a tradition, like a religious rite: A new book in the Harry Potter series is published in English, usually during one of the holiday seasons, impatient children and adults order it in advance, fill the stores at the appointed hour and participate in the launching ceremonies that have become part of the book's well-oiled public relations machine. So far, there have been 18,000 preliminary orders.

Tomorrow at 6 P.M. the sixth book in J.K. Rowling's series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," will be launched in Israel (published by Aliyat Hagag Books and Yedioth Ahronoth). This time too, the publisher has printed a particularly large run - 120,000 copies. At least two launching parties will take place tomorrow, with magic shows, stars from the Children's Channel who will read the first chapter of the book, candies and drinks taken from the book (pumpkin juice, Butterbeer) and an orchestra. The publishers are inviting the children to come in costume.

Many book critics over the world consider the sixth book the best one in the series. The translator into Hebrew, Gili Bar-Hillel, thinks so as well. "From one book to the next, Rowling writes for more mature readers, so this book is gloomier, more emotionally complex and less amusing. In certain respects it is the best written of the books, but it is also the least funny, which is something of a shame - because one of the advantages of the series is that it's entertaining."

Harry Potter fans won't be disappointed by the book, say those who have already read it in English, but it will be hard to read it as a work that stands on its own rather than as part of a series. "Some of the criticism of the previous books was that Rowling invests a great deal of energy in explaining to everyone what has happened so far," says Bar-Hillel. "In my opinion, in this book she has taken several logical and necessary steps - for example, the death of one of the main characters. More than any of the other books in the series, this book does not end a story, but feels like the first part of a story that the next book is supposed to conclude."

Cruel and frightening

Last July, the British newspaper The Guardian wrote that the book is liable to depress regular readers of the series. Potter's journey toward the fulfillment of his destiny becomes quite cruel and frightening; Harry, Ron and Hermione are already 16 years old and are becoming familiar with the more difficult aspects of life - death, for example. The gloomy ending to the plot is not diminished in any way this time.

Many deaths take place here. The book opens with a report from the world of Muggles about a series of murders and about a major catastrophe resulting from the collapse of a bridge (which was apparently engineered by Voldemart's people) and ends with the funeral of one of the main characters. In addition, and this may be no less interesting, the book contains the beginning of sexual awakening in the characters. What is certain is that the unsolved events and the prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled guarantee the sales and the hullabaloo surrounding the next book - the seventh and last.

Since the third book, the appearance of each new book in the series has become a real production. The publishers in Israel already have a better perspective. "In a sense, I'm already used to the book, and I prepare myself for the translation work," says Bar-Hillel. "With each book there is less tension. I had the most difficult time with the third book, `Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,' because in the first book nobody had any expectations, the second was so much like the first that it was actually like continuing to work on the first, but I worked on the third after waves of criticism, and we understood that everything we do is examined in a way that no other book is examined. In addition, there's tremendous pressure from the readers who want the book to be issued quickly."

With the third book, when all the fuss about the series began, the translator and the publisher changed the method of work. The editing and copyediting was reinforced and now an entire team works on the books, including a translator, a typist, a copyeditor, a language editor, printers and organizers - and each of them has relatives who read the book before everyone else and make comments. (The supervisor of the entire project is now Eli Meltzer, the CEO of Aliyat Hagag Books, who replaced his father, Yehuda Meltzer).

Explosion of theories

A month ago, Bar-Hillel finished translating the book. With the last two books, the publisher made a magnanimous gesture and helped pay for babysitters to take care of the translator's young children, so she would be free to work. "Last summer I traveled to England and participated in a conference of fans of the series, at Reading University," she says. "A man who runs the Harry Potter lexicon gave a marvelous speech about the preparations at the Web site before each new book, about the anxiety. They know there will be a great deal of work each time, that each new book will explode all kinds of theories about the series, because that's what the fans love most - to predict what the books will contain, to form theories, to find internal contradictions. Each new book spoils the theories on the one hand and opens possibilities on the other. They keep asking how Rowling dare do things without consulting her greatest admirers."

To date, about 270 million copies of the five books of the series have been sold worldwide, and according to estimates, sales will soon reach 300 million. In Hebrew, about 750,000 copies in all have been sold so far. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is considered the most widely sold of the books in the series - on the first day after publication, about 1 million copies were sold. Rowling announced she will conclude the writing of the seventh book by the end of 2006. Now there is need for a separate book to record the history of this series, whose plot will soon be coming to an end.

The book launchings will take place tomorrow at 4 P.M. at the Tsomet Sfarim bookstore in Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv (where actor Kobi Mahat will read the first chapter of the book), and at 5 P.M. at Steimatsky's in the Arim Mall in Kfar Sava (where actor Avi Greinik will read). For more mature readers, a series of lectures about popular culture begins today in Beit Ariela, and it will include the Harry Potter books as well. Moreover, Beit Ariela is planning to start a members club, which will include meetings, discussions and lectures, as well as a competition of children's drawings on the subject (details at www.knafaim.org.il).

The address of the lexicon site, which includes names and concepts that appear in the books, as well as explanations and links is www.hp-lexicon.org. Several young readers are now translating the site into Hebrew, which will be accessible soon.