This is my 300th review. Yay! Thank-you to everyone who’s followed or otherwise supported this blog over the last three-and-a-bit years! To celebrate, I’m going to dip once again into J.K. Rowling’s magical world.
In case you’ve just returned from a lengthy stay on Mars, the Harry Potter series is known and loved across the world. It consists of seven main novels – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007). Since then, the series has also been expanded to include a couple of scripts – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016 – a sequel stage play) and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016 – a prequel film) – as well as a number of short companion books which further expand the world.
Harry is about to begin his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and couldn’t be more excited to get away from the abusive Dursleys for another year. However, things get off to a bad start when he accidentally blows up his Aunt Marge. Believing that his unauthorised use of magic will get him expelled, he flees into the night. However, he doesn’t get far before he encounters the Grim – the spectral black dog that is believed to bring death to all those who catch sight of it.
Harry manages to survive his encounter and soon meets the very relieved Minister of Magic. Everyone was especially worried about Harry as the infamous mass-murder, Sirius Black, has just escaped from Azkaban and they have reason to believe that Harry could be his next target. The safest place for him to remain is Hogwarts as the Dementors – Azkaban’s terrifying guards – have been posted at the school.
Yet the Dementors may not be enough to protect Harry. In his first Divinations class, Professor Trelawney predicts that Harry will soon die. As Black is sighted within the castle, it soon becomes clear that nowhere is safe. Yet just how is the killer sneaking past the guards? Could he be having help from the inside and, if so, who else has it in for Harry?
As with my other Harry Potter reviews, please bear in mind that due to the books age and popularity, I’m kind of assuming that most people have already read it. Therefore, please be aware that there are likely to be some spoilers beyond this point. You have been warned.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is certainly the strongest novel of the series so far. This came as somewhat of a surprise, as it’s also the only story that hasn’t hinged around the machinations of Harry’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort. While it is still connected to the Dark Lord to a degree, as it has ties to one of his former followers and the night that Harry’s parents were killed, it’s nice that it does break the usual formula – something sinister going down at Hogwarts, Voldemort is to blame, Harry saves the day. Admittedly, it doesn’t shake this up by much, but it still shows Rowling attempting something a little different.
Unlike the previous two stories, I was impressed by how competently structured the plot was. While the others were not bad, I did sometimes feel that the plot twists came a little out of left field. This is particularly true of the Basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as there really aren’t enough clues to allow the reader to figure out the identity of the monster for themselves.
This time, there are plenty of hints scattered throughout the text to give foreshadowing to certain mysteries, including how Sirius is getting into Hogwarts, the nature of Professor Lupin’s illness, and how Hermione is managing to take three classes at the same time. The way that all of these threads come together in the climax is immensely satisfying, creating a climax that is less action-packed than previous novels but ultimately more complex and interesting. My only real issue with the pacing of the story is that it did feel a little rushed in places. This is particularly noticeable towards the middle, when Harry attends class after class while sometimes only spending a couple of pages in each. However, after this point I do note that the books get a lot longer so perhaps this will be less of an issue in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
The world building of the series is still as whimsical as ever, however the books do take a bit of a darker turn in this novel and so it may be a little frightening for very young readers. Nothing in the early books really comes close to how terrifying the Dementors are, both in appearance and action (the Dementor’s “kiss” is more horrible than any form of capital punishment you can imagine). The story also puts a lot of focus on Harry’s past, including flashbacks that show exactly how his parents sacrificed themselves, which is by its nature rather distressing.
I really don’t have that many holes to pick in the use of magic in this book this time around (other than the fact that apparently three fifth years can apparently teach themselves a spell so dangerous and complex that only six other wizards have managed it in the last hundred years). However, the one thing that I did find a little frustrating was the huge McGuffin that is the Marauder’s Map. This magical object has the power to show the location of everyone in the Hogwarts grounds and has seemingly been in the Weasley Brothers’ possession for years. Why is it, then, that they never noticed Voldemort accompanying Quirrell through the halls, or the fact that their own sister was out murdering chickens and exploring secret chambers? Perhaps it’s Fred and George that are the real dark wizards in this story.
Yet for all my whining, the series is as charming as ever and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban still has all the strengths of the previous instalments. In this book, the focus on teamwork and friendship is more important than ever. It shows that Harry, Ron and Hermione are at their best when they work together, and not when they fall out over little things. While Ron doesn’t have that much to contribute to this adventure, Hermione does have some great scenes. While I have a particular liking for the part where she finally slaps Malfoy (long time coming), it is also ultimately her quick thinking that saves the day.
The plot also introduces some of the most interesting secondary characters of the series to date, including the first decent Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher that Harry has ever had. I really liked that Harry got the chance to meet his parent’s childhood friends in this book, as it added a bit of depth to his back story. While we previously learned that James once saved Snape’s life, the actual truth behind this story is less heroic than Harry imagined. I thought this was actually a great bit of plotting as it helps to make them seem more human, and less like paragons of virtue.
As these new characters actually make it out of the book in one piece this time, it will be interesting to see where they will resurface next. However, I will just note that I hope that Rowling’s naming scheme improves in future books. While Sirius is at least excusable, the werewolf character is called “Remus Lupin”. As you have to assume that he was called this before he was bitten, was he targeted by his attacker just because he had the most appropriate wolf name ever? Really, Rowling could not have made a worse job of hiding this twist if she’d named him Professor Wolfy McWolfipants.
Yet the best thing about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the amount of emotional development that Harry receives himself. This is something that we haven’t really seen in the series since his visions in the Mirror of Erised in the first book. While this can be dark and upsetting, it does lead Harry to become a better person. His initial feeling towards meeting the instrument of his parents’ death is the desire for revenge, but he proves to be a better person than both Sirius and Lupin. It nicely mirrors the actions of his father, who proved unwilling to let Snape be put in harm’s way due to a practical joke, and really did help to strengthen Harry’s personality.
Ultimately, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has been my favourite story of this series so far. The plot is fantastic and Rowling shows that her true talent lies in making you really feel for her characters. All in all, this series is still charming and is getting better and better. I would definitely recommend.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk