Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the last book to come out before I’d started reading the series, and today, a large percentage of fans cite it as their favourite. The title alone is perhaps the most intriguing of the seven books: ‘prisoner’ creates a sense of danger and ‘Azkaban’ reinforces the fantasy element. And while Chamber of Secrets was a slight disappointment upon re-reading, Prisoner of Azkaban was anything but.
There is at least one flaw in the story of Prisoner of Azkaban: the fact that it’s all based on a series of big coincidences. If Mr Weasley hadn’t won the Daily Prophet Draw, if Ron hadn’t included Scabbers in the newspaper photo, if Cornelius Fudge hadn’t had that particular edition of the Daily Prophet on him when he saw Sirius Black in Azkaban….none of it would have happened!
Oh, well. The opening paragraph of this book – is definitely my favourite of the series:
“Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework, but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.”
Even though it’s emphasised that Harry’s situation with the Dursleys isn’t much different from the previous year, we still begin the story on a positive and hopeful note as he receives birthday presents from his friends (while delivering exposition for new or forgetful readers). After a chapter with Aunt Marge, who gives off an aura of unpleasantness with just about everything she does, Harry once again departs Privet Drive under a new set of circumstances, and finds himself enjoying some independence as he spends the last weeks of summer in the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley.
The first few chapters introduces the central conflict – that Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and is apparently after Harry – and builds up the Azkaban guards, whom for some reason, everyone only refers to as the ‘Azkaban guards’ until they are actually introduced and labelled Dementors. The effect they have on people – sucking away all happy thoughts and leaving you with only your worst memories – is certainly horrible, and gives you a sense of dread whenever they appear: it was clever of Rowling to base the Dementors’ effect on the symptoms of depression, which she has personally experienced. It’s notable that on the train at least, Ginny appears to be most strongly affected by the Dementors aside from Harry: no prizes for guessing why that is.
Throughout most of the year, the way that the conflict works feels quite different to the two previous books. There’s no active investigation of the problem on the trio’s part, and while the threat of Black is always there (reinforced by his two break-ins), they’re not constantly thinking about it. A lot of the book feels more slice-of-life, with the focus on lessons (like the wonderful Defence against the Dark Arts class with the Boggart), Quidditch, and other subplots like Hermione’s impossible timetable. This is the only book in which Harry takes part in three Quidditch matches, and they all manage to be different: the match against Hufflepuff in extreme weather, a basic unbiased match against Ravenclaw, and the final against (who else?) Slytherin. This last one is probably the best Quidditch match in the whole series: the buildup and the tension is great, and you really feel the triumph along with Harry as he finally gets to lift the Quidditch Cup.
Alongside the introduction of the very cool Marauders’ Map, and Harry getting to venture into Hogsmeade, we find ourselves delving into the past: first with Harry’s realisation that the screaming he hears when he is exposed to Dementors is actually his mother’s final moments, then with the revelation that Sirius Black was James Potter’s best friend and (apparently) betrayed him. In the overheard conversation where Harry learns this, I like how – as in the previous book – the characters make their observations of Black’s behaviour tally with their false impressions of him (e.g. Hagrid thinking that Black gave him the motorcycle because it was too easy to trace): the red herring makes sense to them, and to the reader.
The second act sees quite a bit of conflict between Harry, Ron and Hermione themselves: over Harry’s desire to seek revenge on Black, over Hermione going behind Harry’s back and telling Professor McGonagall about the Firebolt, and over Scabbers’ apparent death at the paws of Hermione’s cat Crookshanks. But happily, they do become friends again when it matters, and these moments often relate to the subplot of Buckbeak the Hippogriff. The situation with Buckbeak’s trial often feels hopeless and is more depressing than the rest of the book, yet it does manage to be a source of unity for the trio.
The third act, as the trio comes face to face with Sirius Black, is where the book becomes really great. The twist that Professor Lupin is a werewolf comes as a shock but still makes perfect sense. Then we learn that Scabbers was actually Peter Pettigrew all along, which I remember as the twist that got the biggest “WHAT?!” reaction out of me upon first reading the whole series. And once again, there were little hints throughout that we never noticed, like Scabbers being so stressed ever since the news of Sirius’s escape broke, and his missing toe correlating with only Pettigrew’s finger being left at the scene of his death.
It’s really fascinating to hear about what James Potter and his friends got up to at Hogwarts, and when we meet Peter Pettigrew in his true form, the reasons for his betrayal are also interesting. He didn’t just decide one day that he hated James, or that he liked what Voldemort was selling. Instead, it happened out of cowardice: Peter ceased to believe that his side could win the war they were fighting, and under that pressure, he chose to prioritise his own survival. Under other circumstances, without needing to face that potential to do the wrong thing, Peter would probably have remained a good, trustworthy friend. As Sirius says in Goblet of Fire, difficult times bring out the best in some people and the worst in others.
Once Sirius starts talking about Harry coming to live with him, and everything looks peachy, a savvy reader can predict that something bad’s about to happen. (With hindsight, you have to wonder if Dumbledore would have let Harry live with Sirius – would he have been reluctant to let Harry leave the blood protection at Privet Drive?) Sure enough, Lupin transforms, the Dementors attack, and Pettigrew escapes. Another very interesting sequence follows as Harry and Hermione go back in time to save Sirius and Buckbeak, witnessing recent events again from a different perspective and giving explanations for things we’ve already witnessed: it’s not even a deus ex machina, as again, there were clues to Hermione’s Time Turner throughout.
By the end, with Pettigrew escaping and presumably on his way to Voldemort, events that will shape the course of the series are now in motion. It’s a bittersweet conclusion, with Harry feeling sad about what he has lost despite all that he has also achieved. Yet we still get a nice, hopeful ending with Harry receiving a letter from Sirius, and Ron even making peace with Crookshanks – the story comes full circle, with even the name of the last chapter (‘Owl Post Again’) mirroring the first (‘Owl Post’).