The Story: [from GoodReads:]
Harry Potter is lucky to reach the age of thirteen, since he has already survived the murderous attacks of the feared Dark Lord on more than one occasion. But his hopes for a quiet term concentrating on Quidditch are dashed when a maniacal mass-murderer escapes from Azkaban, pursued by the soul-sucking Dementors who guard the prison. It’s assumed that Hogwarts is the safest place for Harry to be. But is it a coincidence that he can feel eyes watching him in the dark, and should he be taking Professor Trelawney’s ghoulish predictions seriously?
My Take: Upon finishing Chamber of Secrets for the very first time back in 2006, I mentally harbored concerns over whether or not the Potter novels were just going to be mystery books transplanted in a magical world. I was cool with it if that’s what it turned out to be, but I was hoping it would be something more because I honestly didn’t figure the series could hold much weight if it continued as it did.
The usual mystery plot is all but gone (though there are vestiges of it present), the characters are more mature, and the novel takes that gentle turn towards Harry’s ultimate showdown with Lord Voldemort. So all in all, it was a nice change of pace and I was pleasantly surprised.
As expected, the plot here does contain a mystery element, only this time around it involves a case of mistaken (or is it?) identity involving the new character induction of Sirius Black. When the novel opens, news of Black’s escape from the dreaded Azkaban Prison dominates the Wizarding world. Evidently, he was seen as Lord Voldemort’s right-hand man and it’s feared he may be after Harry. In time, Harry learns more about who Black really is and his motivations. And, as expected, it’s nothing like what you might initially thought. As Rowling has proven time and again, she’s the master of misdirection as, just when you think you’ve gotten it all figure out, here comes a massive sucker punch.
However, I will say that, if I were to rank the Harry Potter novels, Prisoner of Azkaban would be my least favorite (“least” being used here as a very loose term as I don’t hate it). It’s hard for me to explain why because there are a lot of elements I love and appreciate about this novel. But I sense what keeps me from falling 100% in love with it is due to a lot of the character cut scenes where Ron and Hermione duke it out verbally (the same thing happened for me in Half-Blood Prince). Here, there seemed to be just a few too many Ron/Scabbers v. Hermione/Crookshanks moments that, for a time, were cute and funny but eventually seemed recycled. Yes, it all ties into the main plot, believe it or not, which is fine and does redeem those slightly more plodding moments. Likewise, the final chapters tend to be a little weighted with exposition, especially during the denouement scenes in the Shrieking Shack but, again, the end result redeems it.
My last “criticism” (if I can truly call it that) of this novel is the next-to-last chapter, but this has everything to do with me and my reading likes and nothing to do with the book itself. Personally, I’m not fond of these types of plot devices, and I’m purposely being vague because if I were to discuss it in terms of specifics, it would unleash some major spoilers and I’d rather not do that. But I’ll just say that there are certain plot devices and narrative tactics that, while I don’t hate them or even find them annoying, they tend to be repetitive. As a whole, I felt the final five chapters or so could have been trimmed though the payoff is worth it.
All of that being said, there is still a lot that I genuinely love about this novel. For starters, we get some new characters, the aforementioned Sirius Black; the batty Divination teacher, Professor Trelawny; and Professor Remus Lupin, who is the greatest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher of all time…of all time! (Cue Kanye West voice-over here.) Out of the new faces, I love Lupin the most and he remains a favorite character for me series-wide. He’s just a great character and a good guy: he’s compassionate, wise, humble, insightful, and has no aversion to seeing humor in appropriate situations. Yet he has a side to him that, without revealing spoilers, serves as his fatal flaw. But it’s handled smartly and adds to his character regarding how he handles this struggle as opposed to making you feel sorry for him “just because.”
We also are introduced to some new baddies in the form of the dementors, dark, cloak-wearing shadowy beings who guard Azkaban and who have the dreadful ability to drain away a person’s soul. The way the dementors are used in the story is perfect – they don’t dominate the book as principle villain figures but they’re not tossed in as an afterthought. Oddly enough, this is the only novel where Lord Voldemort does not make a physical appearance yet perhaps this is to prepare Harry for the battles he will face as the series progresses. Harry has more than one encounter with the dementors, and these moments help Harry evolve. After all, if he can’t combat seemingly weaker beings (compared to Voldemort), then there isn’t much hope in him taking on the most powerful wizard of all time. So in a way, the events in this novel serve as Harry’s training ground and the payoff is seeing how successful he is.
Without a doubt, Prisoner of Azkaban is a darker book compared to the two previous installments as it deals with some darker subject matter, namely revenge and depression. Concerning the former, Harry ultimately must make a choice between hunting someone down or holding back, and the way he struggles with his decision comes across as very genuine. Harry might still be young but he’s not a stupid kid character: he learns from his mistakes yet he’s not above letting his emotions sometimes steer his decisions at times, and for that, he’s very human. Regarding the theme of depression, certainly this comes through in the way the dementors affect Harry and how he works to combat it. Honestly, for a novel marketed for middle grade readers, I’m impressed that the book touches on these topics in a way that avoids delivering easy answers. It allows readers to struggle alongside Harry and wonder what they might do in his place.
Content: Content-wise, this novel is still fine for its middle grade target audience and anyone older though it contains less action than the previous two installments as well as darker moments, especially when the dementors come on the scene, and, as such, might not appeal on a story-level to a younger crowd.
Language – There are minimal, PG-level profanities (along with some British profanities) though they’re sporadically dropped. Elsewhere, Harry’s Aunt Marge remarks, “If there’s something wrong with the bitch, there’s something wrong with the pup,” which uses the word “bitch” in its correct context (as it is the proper term for a female dog), but this comment is also a veiled insult about Harry’s parentage. Again, this word technically isn’t being used as a profanity, but it’s worth pointing out in case younger readers have questions about it.
Violence – Violence falls squarely into the fantasy violence lane where magic is used as opposed to weapons. However, the presence of the dementors adds a scare factor that’s more suspenseful than horrific, especially when we learn they have the ability to drain all happiness from a person and, if allowed to persist, can actually suck out their soul but not actually kill the person. Elsewhere, a creature is killed by beheading but the actual decapitation is never described on-page.
Sexual Content – None.
Overall, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban is one of the more cerebral novels in the series as it takes a break from the action-driven mystery plots and, instead, serves up a thoughtful story where Harry must confront both an inner and outer darkness. While not my favorite novel in the series, it certainly is critical to understanding Harry’s character as he progresses. Likewise, it avoids becoming a repeat of the preceding novels and allows itself to mature rather than remain a juvenile read, so for that I respect it very much.