azkaban“Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.”

The third installment of the Harry Potter series is generally, I’ve found, considered to be people’s favourite. I think it’s probably mine. It also marks a change in how the series was viewed, as this is the last one that seemed to arrive with little fanfare. After this, the series had really kicked off in the public conciousness and book releases became big events, getting bigger with each novel. But this book isn’t the turning point in the story, that’s really the next one, but it does, in it’s own way, change the game for everyone involved. Let’s talk about this, but first, an obligatory summary.

If you haven’t been living under a rock since the mid-nineties, you’ll know that Harry is now in his third year at Hogwarts and after a disasterous summer which involves him inflating his aunt, he spends the rest of his summer at the Leaky Cauldron pub and wandering Diagon Alley, exploring the shops. He thought he’d be expelled for use of underage magic, but the Ministry seem to be turning a blind eye to it. They just seem happy that he’s alive.

For as it turns out there has been an escape from Azkaban, the wizarding prison. A notorious criminal called Sirius Black has got out and is now roaming Britain. He’s so dangerous even the Muggles have been told about him. Considered Voldemort’s second, he’s back for blood – specifically, Harry’s. Supposedly determined to finish up what Voldemort couldn’t, the wizarding population strives to find Black and protect Harry at all costs. Harry, meanwhile, is trying not to let the idea that he’s about to be murdered get in the way of his new classes, trying to save Hagrid’s pet hippogriff, and winning the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup. It’s going to be a very interesting year…

So, why is this book the best one? Well, I think for one thing we step up in maturity another notch, no one dies (the only book in the series to make that claim), Voldemort isn’t lurking in the background like a Dungbomb about to go off, and the whole wizarding universe is blown so much wider. We get introduced to great and important characters for the first time – Remus Lupin, Cornelius Fudge, Sirius Black, Peter Pettigrew – and we find out more about Harry’s parents, crime and punishment and magical creatures. Prophecies are introduced for the first time, setting us up for how important they’ll become two books down the line. Dementors, the Marauder’s Map, more reasons as to why Snape hates Harry – they’re all here now for us to enjoy.

But I think primarily it is the lack of Voldemort that makes this book so good. I’m not faulting him, he’s an amazingly terrifying character and very well rounded, but take him out and we finally get to see Hogwarts a little more like it’s supposed to be. More than any other, this installment shows us the students being students. We get to see more of their lessons, all of their exams, and the B-story is really about winning the Quidditch Cup, something that is actually fairly trivial, but shows how seriously some schools can take their inter-house rivalries. The characters feel their ages, with their excitement at getting to visit Hogsmeade and gorge themselves silly in the sweet shop. They have less pressure to save the world this time round. Malfoy is particularly shown as being an idiotic thirteen-year-old, given that he can’t ever seem to let go of the fact that Harry fainted when he saw a Dementor. I think Malfoy has about three lines in this book that he repeats indefinitely: “My father will hear about this”, “My arm really hurts,” and, “Watch out for the Dementors, Potter!”

I have a few unanswered questions about this book, but not as many as the previous ones. For example, if Sirius shows up on the Marauder’s Map, why did Fred and George never notice (or comment on) Ron sharing a bed with Peter Pettigrew for the last two years? Was the Shrieking Shack really built and immediately considered haunted, or was it bewitched so people thought it had always been there? Did the Care of Magical Creatures class look at anything other than hippogriffs and flobberworms? How did Hermione get 320% in her Muggle Studies exam? What does a Boggart look like when no one’s looking at it? How did Fudge ever get elected?

The explosion of the world in this book is, I think, what really makes it people’s favourites. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but this feels like the first time we get a proper look at the backstory. Remus and Sirius allow us to look at what James and Lily’s time at Hogwarts may have been like, and the discussions of Azkaban show a wider world containing more dark wizards than just Voldemort. He’ll be back with full power in the next book, so maybe this book just feels like the last time we could all be happy. There are dark times coming, and I for one am very excited.

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