Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the least of the first three Harry Potter books, but indispensable all the same. The first two books did a nice job giving us a sense of Hogwarts and Harry’s own world, as well as hinting at the complexities of Harry’s backstory. What about his relationship with Snape? What really happened that night when his parents died? Who were his parents? Why is Voldemort after Harry in particular? Azkaban offers a lot of answers here – we learn a lot about Harry, but Rowling does it at the expense of storytelling. What we end up with is a number of exciting scenes, and a lot of exposition – but the entire recipe does not quite precisely work.
But we’ll get to that in a little bit. Where did we leave Harry? But of course, we start with him back at the Dursleys. As usual, things are not going particularly well. We learn that there is an escaped prisoner Sirius Black on the loose – at least on Muggle television it seems – and Harry is having his usual difficult times. Vernon and Petunia still loathe him and love their increasingly portly son Dudley. Indeed, when Vernon’s sister shows up – she adds to the fun by talking about what a problem child Harry is. Harry knows he can’t practice magic in Muggle world, but sometimes – things happen. This one is particularly funny. As Harry makes his own escape, he ends up on the Knight Bus, where Black turns up to be a very prominent figure in the Magic World also. Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban, the Wizard Prison where Hagrid was sent in the prior novel – and he is alleged to have committed a murder.
It’s a particularly big deal when a Wizard criminal is also being outed as a Muggle one – it’s a high profile case, and Harry is kept close by the Ministry of Magic. Hogwarts has also been facing new security due to this threat – manned by Dementors, particularly nasty creatures who eat souls and who guard the prison. Indeed, Harry faints every time he sees them. Back at Hogwarts, this makes things difficult for him, especially when Dementors are at Quidditch matches or on the Hogwarts express.
Meanwhile, at Hogwarts, Harry has another year to trudge through. Ron and Hermoine are still by his side, though Hermoine’s pet cat is giving Ron’s old family rat Scabbard a good scare. It definitely causes quite a bit of tension throughout. Hermoine’s overachieving in class reaches another level – as her class load seems impossibly large this year. Some of the same professors are still at work – Snape seems to hate Harry even more, if that was at all possible. The new Dark Arts teacher though, Remus Lupin, is a prize – and actually gave the students some useful advice, as opposed to Gilderoy Lockhart from the prior book.
All of the Hogwarts stuff is pretty good here. Hagrid as the Magical Creatures teacher is particularly sweet, and his idea of appropriate lessons is very funny. I particularly liked the introduction of Professor Trelawney, the Divination professor. It sounds like a bullshit field to me too, although the way the class is run, and her own ways of sounding dire are consistently hilarious – and more or less how I’d imagine a Divination class to be.
But of course, there has to be more to the story than lolling about Hogwarts. We still have Black to deal with, and this is where the book starts to slag a bit. I recognize this is a big step up in complexity compared to the first two books, but we get an AWFUL lot of talking here. First, in a crucial scene at the wizard village of Hogsmeade, we get to hear the Ministry’s view of Sirius Black and his connection to Harry Potter (it’s not a spoiler! There had to be one, no??!!) It is interesting, crucial information (particularly once you read the next book – and you must) but we are really just forced to sit through someone else telling us something.
This though, gets much worse in the crucial climax to the story. Let me tread lightly here on the facts. Essentially, our heroic three – for whatever – reason, have been dragged into a secret location, and Sirius and Harry meet. And then Sirius explains how he knows Harry relative to the version Harry had heard before. Sirius knew Harry’s father – nay, was close friends with him. Fair enough. But then we get a very long winded explanation of the dynamic, the murder Sirius is suspected of, and the one that is actually happening. We also get some mistaken identity, and – God help me – time travel. What we get a lack of is any real high stakes conflict here for Harry. Yeah he gets to save somebody, which is nice – but it doesn’t really move the Voldemort ball along, and the scene lacked the sheer excitement of his first two conflicts. Also, aside from a brief flash of his own abilities, we don’t get a ton new about Harry’s battles or the themes of growing into one’s own which Rowling mined so well previously.
The book that Azkaban evokes more than any other to me in this manner is A Feast for Crows, the fourth of the George RR Martin books. There is a lot of information that Rowling needed to get out of there, and trust me – it pays off very much in the next book – but there was not really a compelling novel here, not the way she tells the story. It’s too bad. This certainly was not bad enough to skip the rest of the series – but it definitely did hit the tastebuds the way the first two books did.