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Following a whirlwind of events which involve blowing up his Aunt and one rather unreliable Knight Bus, Harry runs away from the Dursleys and finds out that someone is after his life, yet again. This person is Sirius Black, alleged mass-murderer who killed a whole street of people, including the wizard Peter Pettigrew, and who has just escaped Azkaban.
With this heavy weight on his mind, Harry leaves for Hogwarts, alongside Ron and Hermione. On the train, he meets Professor Lupin, new and decidedly more competent teacher for Defence Against the Dark Arts (DADA), as well as Dementors, the wizarding “security guards” of Azkaban, which have been sent down to search for Sirius Black and safeguard Hogwarts from him. I say “which” and not “who” because these Dementors aren’t human; they don’t have any corporeal form and feed off one’s happiness. Harry is most affected by them because of his traumatic past.
In order to not give too much away here, I’ll stop at saying that Harry eventually masters the art of performing a Patronus—an advanced form of magic which repels Dementors—and discovers that he has a talent for DADA. The rest of the book is about the Golden Trio working together to save Buckbeak, Hagrid’s latest “pet”, unravelling the true story behind Lily and James’ murders and finding out that some things aren’t what they seem.
This book is by far my favourite of the Harry Potter series. I’m a bit like Goldilocks when it comes to reading for leisure: I generally like novels with lighter themes, but not so light that the book becomes totally forgettable. Which is why this book is just right. It’s the midpoint of the series in every sense of the word: it hints of darker themes that are expanded on in the later books, but there are humorous moments which lighten the mood.
“Divination is one of the most imprecise branches of magic. I shall not conceal from you that I have very little patience with it. True seers are very rare, and Professor Trelawney…”
She stopped again, and then said, in a very matter-of-fact tone, “You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don’t let you off homework today. I assure you that if you die, you need not hand it in.”
Warning: May contain spoilers from here onwards
Interesting places and devices galore
As I mentioned in my review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, part of why Harry Potter draws me in so much is the building of the wizarding world. While there was a bit of a lull of this in the second book, this book brings it back with a vengeance.
Hogsmeade is my dream of a village. There’s something to satisfy everyone: the highly-acclaimed candy shop Honeydukes, Zonko’s Joke Shop, the pub The Three Broomsticks. (I’m not that interested in the joke shop, but what wouldn’t I give for a “fat, honey-coloured toffee” from Honeydukes and a hot, foaming mug of Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks?) I could understand how Harry felt as, his guardian not having given consent to his going, he had to stay back and watch his friends enjoy Hogsmeade every weekend.
Of course, Harry later got to go to Hogsmeade, with the help of the Marauder’s Map, which shows all the secret passages leading into and out of the school. The Map must be every stalker’s dream device: it also allows one to see what everyone else in the school is doing. (I must be overthinking this, but how do you even see the students’ names? Wouldn’t it be just a mass of black ink, especially in the dormitories and other common areas?)
Then there are also Time Turners, hourglasses that can allow one to go back or forward in time when turned. That’s pretty cool on a day-to-day basis, even when they aren’t being used to save innocent prisoners of Azkaban and bloodthirsty Hippogriffs. I especially liked how Rowling weaved them into the plot, without making the entire novel about time-travelling, which could have potentially created massive plot holes (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I’m looking at you).
Love and Loss
This is one of the “midpoint” themes I was talking about earlier. When Harry is about to be Kissed by the Dementors (meaning that his soul will be sucked out and he’ll be nothing but an empty shell), someone who looks like him performs a powerful Patronus charm that dispels all the Dementors. While he initially thinks that it’s his father, he later discovers that he saw himself. And then Dumbledore says possibly my favourite quote of the whole book:
You think the dead we have loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him…So you did find see your father last night, Harry…you found him in yourself.
I had just lost my grandfather when I first read this book, and so this passage spoke to me the most. I was more than ever determined to uphold what my grandfather valued most—diligence, responsibility and integrity—and in doing so I thought I really did see him in myself.
But Rowling diffuses the sentimentality and prevents The Prisoner of Azkaban from being too weighed down by emotional baggage. Harry gains a godfather, Sirius. Though Harry isn’t able to live with him, he experiences all the happiness of finding a new guardian who isn’t the Dursleys. For one, he gets to go to Hogsmeade legally the following year. More importantly, the Dursleys are compelled to treat Harry better for fear that Sirius will take action if they don’t. There’s no wonder that Harry
set off for the station exit…for what looked like a much better summer than the last.