Friday, September 10, 2010

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Book Review

If you haven’t read my review of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets yet, take a look before reading on!  Also, just to warn you: the Harry Potter books have been out for anywhere from 3-13 years and have been made into movies, games, fanfiction, et cetera, as well as being a hot topic in the news and just about everywhere else; therefore I will be making absolutely no effort to avoid spoilers in these reviews discussions of the books so for the uninitiated, read at your own risk.

Several years ago, my mother and I went on a trip to Niagara Falls.  While walking among the little Canadian town on the border of the United States, we found all of the normal Canadian souvenirs you’d expect to be found in such a touristy town – pure maple syrup, maple creams, maple leafs.  Probably some non-maple relate paraphernalia as well – a hockey stick maybe?  Okay, I don’t know much about Canada, but moving on.  What really struck me though was the Harry Potter books with different covers.  I guess that up until that point, I’d assumed that the American covers were the standard covers, if I’d thought about it at all.  But alas, they are not, and therefore I had to have one of these strange books.  I think that at that point only the first three or four books were out and, as Prisoner of Azkaban is one of my favorites, I bought the third book.  Little did I know that the differences went beyond the cover!  What had also never occurred to me is that the books were “translated” into “American” English.  So in reading this strange version of the third book, I also was treated to a plethora of very British and very unusual-to-me sayings.  I’d share some with you except that that copy of the book is currently as my parents’ house.  Maybe I’ll update this post tomorrow when I’m there.  Suffice it to say that I felt extraordinarily well-cultured after this experience.  Also suffice it to say that the Canadian versions of the Harry Potter books are much more portable being far smaller than the American editions.

As I’ve said, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has always been my favorite of the first three books.  I tend to group the seven books into three groups – the first three, the fourth, and then the last three.  I will go into this more in my discussion of the fourth book but suffice it to say that Prisoner of Azkaban is both my favorite of the first three books and a contender for all-time favorite (something I have yet to determine).  At this point in the series, the overall plot is still waterproof – partially because each of the first three volumes pretty fully answers all of the questions it poses rather than ending on a cliffhanger and partially (I’d imagine) because the first three volumes was published within a fairly short period of time, meaning that J.K. Rowling had better planned each of the following two before publishing the first.

Though maturity looms around the corner, Prisoner of Azkaban is the last book in which Harry can really be considered a child, when the challenge of making it to a nearby wizarding village for a day of fun takes precedence over protecting himself from a raving murderer.  The larger, more mature themes are hinted at: particularly questions of betrayal and the revelation that Harry is marked, a constant target.  Ultimately, though, Harry remains in his childish bubble, ending the novel with a joke about his godfather, the convicted murderer.

Other characters become a bit more real in this volume as well.  Hermione the student is for once humanized – we see her bowing under the pressure of having taken on too many responsibilities and finally cracking. Ron’s flaws become quite obvious in his willingness to abandon his friendship with Hermione multiple times throughout the novel.  The value of friendship is tested by something so innocuous as a broomstick, before finally proving itself superior (for now) to a petty, immature grudge.   Even Severus Snape, who had previously never been more than a villain, reveals himself to be a man holding a grudge after being wronged in his youth.  People become more than just their surface value in Prisoner of Azkaban: a werewolf is not just a monster, a convicted murderer is something more.

The Firebolt: the infamous friendship destroyer.
Also, apparently I couldn't be bothered to shower after my workout
before jumping back into
Harry Potter.
Much is the same as it was in the first two volumes – the book opens on Harry’s birthday, a matter of utmost importance; Snape continues to be a threatening figure haunting the pages; there are excessively long Quidditch scenes; and there is an ultimate resolution – we know where Harry stands at the end of the book and the current state of wizarding affairs, as in the first two volumes.  But much has changed as well; Harry stops looking for trouble – “Why would I go looking for someone I know wants to kill me?” (73) – and lets trouble find him instead; rather than enemies in disguise, we are presented with the conundrum of hidden friends; and we are introduced to the dementors, who embody fear and force the reader to ask what our allies say about us.
So what is so compelling about Prisoner of Azkaban?  I think this is always an important question to ask oneself, as I discussed in my evisceration review of Twilight.  Nearly every text presents its own ideology and one needs to question it to avoid blindly buying into it.  Anywho.  So what it is that I love about this book, I believe that’s where I was before I jumped on my soapbox.  I think it’s really just all these things I’ve been saying, particularly the intersection between childhood and the darkness to come.  Prisoner of Azkaban is completely unexpected in many ways, which is a pleasure after two volumes whose ends were foreseeable even if the details were not.  Ron’s revulsion at the true identity of his rat – “I let you sleep in my bed!” (373) – really strikes a cord with me, as it is evidence that danger can lurk in the most unexpected places and sometimes we cannot trust our friends (Ron himself often fails as a loyal friend).  Again, there is the reversal of expectations – we thought it was Crookshanks, a new pet/characters, who had evil motivations, but in truth it is the loyal, ancient rat that had never shown a sign of danger who turns out to be an enemy.

Darkness lurks in the most private places, suggesting the true danger of Harry’s world even before he can fully grasp that fact.  Whereas before Rowling let us understand only as much as Harry, here we take a step beyond him, and that is supremely satisfying.  He ends the novel content in the discovery of a parent-figure while we can only look ahead – but what about Wormtail?  The series is changing; the real changes won’t come until the next volume but they are hinted at here.  The reader knows that something is coming even if Harry can not quite grasp that fact.  It is the cliffhanger, the first of any consequence that Rowling introduces, that captivates me.  It is at this point that the series really comes to life and starts moving forward, leaving the reader more excited than ever before for what is to come. 


  1. Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite of the HP books! I'm enjoying seeing your re-read. I really should do one of my own sometime. It'd be interesting to see what I might actually notice theme-wise reading as an adult as compared to reading as a teenager.

  2. The whole British to American translation drives me crazy. When I first read the books I didn't even notice, but now after becoming addicted to British television and finally figuring out most of the language differences I notice it EVERY TIME and I HATE IT. I'm rereading book 1 and they've taken every instance of "Mum" and changed it to "Mom" and it's COMPLETELY DISTRACTING.

  3. I still think Azkaban is my favorite of the novels, even as I work my way through re-listening to them. This is a very incisive review of what makes the third book so special. I'm glad you brought up the difference between where Harry is at the end of the book ("I haz a godfather!") and where we the readers are ("But what about Wormtail and that prophecy?"). Very important point!