The Prisoner of Azkaban is the third instalment of the Harry Potter series. The story opens on Harry’s thirteenth birthday. He is staying with his abusive aunt and uncle (muggles, or non-magical persons) for the summer. What follows is a story of his third year at Hogwarts, a boarding school for young wizards, and his discovery of his long-dead father.
Before I begin, I would like to make it very clear that I will only be discussing The Prisoner of Azkaban in this review. I haven’t read any of the other books in the series, so I really can’t comment on how this particular book fits in. Now that that’s out of the way…
I absolutely loved the way The Prisoner of Azkaban brought mythology to life in a modern and relevant way. It’s not Tristan or Siddhartha Gautama anymore, this is just Harry. I have seen many attempts to revitalize myths for children, but this is the first time I have seen it done quite so successfully (at least since The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia).
The plot is undeniably interesting. Many common child issues are brought up and dealt with in quite a nice pedagogical way. Everything from friendships to coping with fears to bullying to dealing with the loss of a loved one. These are all issues that every child faces, and children can learn a lot about how to deal with fear, for example, in the episode with the boggart (just find a way to make the fear look silly, laugh it to death!).
My major qualm with the book was the way that the plot developed. Rather than a subtle movement or clues for the reader to piece together, the plot moves very slowly, takes a huge leap, moves slowly again, etc. Sometimes, an explanation character is thrown in. These characters have no being of their own, no personalities, no relevance to the story. Rather, they are there just to act as Harry’s (and our) surrogate ears. A good example of this would be Rosmerta at the Three Broomsticks pub. The story hasn’t been told in twelve years, and suddenly they are telling Rosmerta every single detail. Of course, it just happens to be right in front of Harry.
The ending pretty much plays itself out in this same way. In a typical Nick and Nora style, all the relevant characters are gathered together and three chapters are spent revealing the truth. A lot of new information is added, sudden leaps are taken so that the reader could not have guessed the outcome for him/herself, and several instances are still left unexplained (for example, why, if Sirius Black is so good, did he break Ron’s leg? One explanation someone has given me is that he’s gone a little crazy with his desire for revenge. Why, then, did he not just kill Scabbers once he had him in the Shrieking Shack? Why did he wait in a dark corner until Harry and Hermione appeared and waited for Ron to shout out that it’s a trap?).
The only other trouble I had with the book was the fact that everything plot critical was repeated several times. So you would have a main character explain something, then someone would ask an idiotic question that pretty much requires that main character to repeat what he just said. I suppose this is technically a children’s book, so it makes sense that it would not require quite so much memory, attention, and piecing together as what I normally read. But as an adult, this was quite frustrating to read. And I feel that, somehow, it’s short-changing children, too. From what I’ve noticed, kids tend to be a whole lot more perceptive than they are typically given credit for.
The use of names in The Prisoner of Azkaban is really interesting and entertaining. The names are whimsical, but also very descriptive of the character. Take “Snape” for example. This man is a jealous, petty, conniving man, one of those bullies in books that the reader just loves to hate. His name sounds exactly like that. “Snape” firstly sounds a lot like “snake,” but it also conjures images of the petty and the low. Then you have “Remus Lupine,” the werewolf. Remus, of course, taken from the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, the twins who were raised by a she-wolf. And “Lupine” from the Latin word “lupus” which means “wolf.” Playing around with pronunciations and possible meanings of the names is almost more entertaining that the novel itself.
All in all, I did enjoy it. I think Ms. Rowling is certainly an extremely intelligent woman and she puts a lot of that intellect into her work. Getting kids to read on such a large scale is certainly an amazing feat. However, the plot development style does not help anyone. If this is a children’s book, I would like to see more clues throughout the novel so that it is possible (note: not ‘easy’) to figure out the ending. I think it’s not just important that children read, but also what they read. Giving them something that has room for guesswork would do far more to improve their critical and observational skills than just having a couple little stories and then having a complete gear shift for an ending that pulls strings out of thin air with which to tie loose ends. As an adult reader, it would make the novel more worth-while.
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Other books in the Harry Potter Series: