This is the third in the Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling. It tells the story of the young wizard, Harry Potter as he attends his third year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Potter is expected to spend seven years at Hogwarts, each year the subject of a single book. Harry's nemesis and supreme baddie in Rowling's fictional world is Lord Voldemort, who for reasons as yet undisclosed, wants to kill Harry. In the first two books Harry and Voldemort have met and fought three times, and Harry has come off the better on all three occasions.
Harry's parents are dead, killed by Voldemort when Harry was still a baby.
Harry has two main friends at Hogwarts, Hermione Granger, a girl born to muggle (non-wizard) parents, and Ron Weasley, a boy born to Wizarding parents. All three attend Hogwarts and all three are in the Gryffindor House, which emphasises courage above all other qualities
His main rival at Hogwarts is Draco Malfoy, who is in the Slytherin house. Slytherins are renowned for their ambition, and also for using any meansfair or foulto achieve their goals.
Rowling said she had the whole seven-book series in mind when she started writing the first book. In this instalment, that seven-year plan starts to take shape. The first two books were great yarns, but spent much of their time establishing the details of the Wizarding world and main characters. With this book we start to see some of the bigger picture emerging. With Prisoner of Azkaban (PoA), Rowling starts to hint at shades of grey in the characters. Up to now, the characters we have seen have been black and white: either completely good, or plain nasty, with no redeeming features. That clarity disappears with PoA.
She also tells us exactly how Harry's parents died. A story of courage and betrayal. She tells us something of the time Harry's parents spent at Hogwarts, the friends they made and the adventures they had. She introduces the idea of a wizarding prison, where wizards go when they break the rules. She tells us of the terrible prison guards.
On a lighter note, we start to see hints that hormones are starting to rage among the group of 13-year olds. It is a mixed school, and there is no doubt that the girls are looking hard at the boys, while the boys are struggling to understand their changed feelings and changing bodies.
For me, the best part of the book, apart from the two new main characters we meet, is the way she deals with time travel. Many books tackle this subject, and try to address the paradoxes which time travel can throw up. Rowling handles this part of the story exceptionally well.
Summary: (lots of spoilers here)
The book opens with Harry at the home of his foster parents, the Dursleys. Harry is not yet mature enough to control his magical nature, and when he gets cross or upset, strange things happen around him. This time, one of his more obnoxious relatives gets blown up, and Harry runs away, believing himself to be expelled from school for illegally practising magic.
He eventually finds his way to London and Diagon Alley, where he is met by the Minister for Magic himself, Cornelius Fudge. Things turn out well, and Harry gets two weeks on his own in London. There is much talk of a very dangerous wizard, Sirius Black, who has escaped from Azkaban, the Wizarding prison. Everyone talks in hushed tones about the terrible guards at Azkaban. Harry discovers that Black is thought to be a supporter of Voldemort, and believed to be planning to kill Harry.
Having met up with his friends, Harry travels to Hogwarts on the train, as normal. As the train approaches Hogwarts, a tall, cloaked figure searches the train. Harry faints when the creature enters his compartment, and as he does so, he starts to hear the screams of his mother when Voldemort is trying to murder him.
Eventually, with the help of the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Remus Lupin, Harry recovers and is told that the creature was a Dementor, one of the Azkaban prison guards, on duty trying to find Black, who is reported to be attempting to break into Hogwarts.
Rowling said she went through a period of depression, and created the Dementors as a personification of the feeling of deep depression. Personally, I find them among the most scary creatures ever described in fiction. And not just childrens' fiction. Dementors feed on happiness and joy, sucking all the good thoughts out of peoples minds, leaving them with only the worst experiences of their lives. In Azkaban, this frequently drives the inmates mad. With Harry, his worst experience was the forgotten murder of his parents, and this is why that memory comes back to him when the Dementors are around.
Things progress more or less as normal at Hogwarts, except that Hermione is taking many more classes then recommended, and seems to keep disappearing. Also, Harry and Ron are taking Divination classes with Professor Sybill Trelawney and she keeps predicting Harry's death. Harry also thinks he sees a large black dog every now and then, which Prof Trelawney describes as a Grim, an omen of death.
In one of the more significant scenes, Ron's brothers, Fred and George, donate their magical map of Hogwarts to Harry. This map shows, in real time, all the people moving about in Hogwarts and its grounds, and identifies them by name. The map also shows various secret passages that lead out of Hogwarts grounds. This map, the Marauder's Map plays a very significant role in future books.
Oh, and Gryffindor, led by Oliver Wood in his final year at Hogwarts, win the Quidditch cup following a spectacular rescue of the golden snitch by Harry on his Firebolt.
Following Hagrid's acquittal of killing Moaning Myrtle (described in book 2), he has become a teacher, and instructs the students in care of magical creatures. For his first lesson he brings out a number of Hippogriffs, flying creatures with the head and legs of an eagle and the body and rear legs of a horse. Hagrid warns the students that these monstrous creatures are temperamental, but asks the students to tame them and fly on their backs. Harry does this successfully, and the others are encouraged to follow his lead.
Malfoy manages to provoke one of the creatures, Buckbeak, and suffers a bad injury from one of its talons. He over-acts and an inquiry decides Buckbeak must die. Buckbeak is one of Hagrid's favorites, and he is very upset about the decision.
Meanwhile, there is a commotion one night in Harry's dormitory and it turns out that Black has been inside the room, and thought to have attempted murder. Harry's movements are restricted following the attack.
All these threads come together on the day Buckbeak is due to be executed. Harry, Ron and Hermione go to Hagrid's hut to comfort him. When the executioner comes, they sneak out the back door, and see professor Lupin, who, they have discovered, is a werewolf (but apart from that, a genuine good, all-round guy) but are attacked by a big black dog.
They pass through a long tunnel under the Whomping Willow into a strange house.
It transpires that the dog is Sirius Black, who was Harry's father's best friend at Hogwarts, and Harry's godfather. James and Sirius led a gang of four close friends. Three of these had managed to transform themselves into animal form at will, in order to accompany Lupin, who was the fourth member of the gang, on the nights he transformed into a werewolf.
The last member of the gang was Peter Pettigrew, who could transform into a rat. Pettigrew, in the form of Scabbers the tame rat, was in Ron's pocket during the whole time. So, in the strange house were Lupin, Black, Pettigrew and Harry, Ron and Hermione. There is a long discussion in which Black and Lupin first agree that neither of them had betrayed Harry's parents, and that Pettigrew had been the culprit.
Then they have to persuade Harry and his friends exactly what happened that night 12 years previously. They succeed in persuading Harry that Sirius is a good guy. Lupin and Black then decide to kill Pettigrew for his crimes. Harry prevents them and saves Pettigrew's life.
They march back to Hogwarts, aiming to hand Pettigrew over to the authorities and clear Black's name. Harry will then go and live with Black, with no need to visit the hated Dursleys any more. It looks like a wonderful ending.
But there is a full moon, and Lupin starts to transform into a werewolf. In the confusion, Pettigrew transforms and escapes. Furthermore, the Dementors sense that Black is nearby and converge on him and Harry. They try to perform their worst act on Harry, sucking his soul out through his mouth, in a terrifying procedure known as the Dementor's Kiss.
However, a mystery wizard performs a powerful spell, which drives the Dementors off, rescuing Harry and Black. Harry, having caught a glimpse of the mystery wizard, thinks it may have been his father. He cannot quite believe it, knowing James to be dead, but still....
They are carried up to Hogwarts where no-one (except Dumbledore) believes Harry's story, and Black is condemned to the Kiss. We then discover Hermione's secret. It is a time turner, which allows her to travel backwards or forwards in time by a few hours. With the help of Dumbledore, Harry and Hermione (Ron was injured along the way, and is in the hospital wing) go back in time, and re-live the previous three hours. They remain hidden, but manage to rescue Buckbeak from the executioner.
They watch themselves disappear under the whomping willow and then emerge an hour or more later. Then they see Lupin transform and watch Pettigrew escape. Harry wants to see if the mystery wizard, who cast the powerful spell, really is his father, so goes to the place where the spell originated.
Eventually, with no wizard showing up, and the Dementor about to Kiss the original Harry, the time-travelling Harry realises that he is himself the mystery wizard, and casts the necessary spell, which drives off the Dementors. The spell reveals Harry's patronus to be a stag. He realises that his father transformed into a stag in animagus form. "Prongs," he gasps in one of the most touching moments of this emotionally-charged book.
Harry and Hermione fly with Buckbeak up to the window where Black is being held, and rescue Black. All three fly up to a tower, and Black flies off into the night. Harry and Hermione just about have time to get back to the place they are supposed to be, and the two time lines match up once more, with Black and Buckbeak having escaped, Harry knowing the truth about his parents and their friends and no-one else (except Dumbledore) any the wiser.
Thus, the scene is set for Black to become a friend and mentor to Harry. Also, for Pettigrew to find Voldemort, and help him return to power. But how that happens is described in book four.
PS. The movie (see below) is just brilliant. Only quibble would be that Movie-Ron is used only for comic relief, and his character is insufficiently loyal and brave. There is no way, for example, that he would have sided with Snape against Hermione over the 'know-it-all' accusation.
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