It’s not surprising that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a series favorite for many. The third book is dense with mythology, heavy on suspense, and full of the kind of originality that makes this series so appealing. It doesn’t need the physical presence of Voldemort to provide some truly harrowing sequences, and it introduces some of the Potterverse’s most beloved characters. What’s not to like?
As it turns out, very little, if anything at all. Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban is solid from start to finish, adding previously unseen dimension to each member of the Golden Trio and offering a glimpse into Harry’s parents’ pasts. It’s in this book that we meet Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew, who, along with James Potter, formed the Marauders, a largely brilliant, often reckless group of pranksters, the likes of which Hogwarts never saw before, and only saw glimpses of again (in the forms of Fred and George Weasley, naturally).
As an aside: watching Harry’s relationship with Remus, the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor (for one year as usual), unfold is really a thing of beauty. As much as Harry forms Sirius into a father figure (more on that later—I’m sure I’ll come back to that around book five), I think Remus is just as much a role model for Harry, even when the man’s choices are less than stellar. He helps Harry in ways no one else is able to, and their cross-generation friendship only gets more complex as the series continues.
In addition to all the mystery this book contains—is Sirius Black really in Hogwarts, and is he really out to murder Harry? Where does Professor Lupin disappear to? Why does Lucius Malfoy have so much power over the school governors? It’s his hair, right?—there are also, in equal measure, joy and frustration. Sure, Gryffindor wins both the House and Quidditch Cups, Hermione slaps Draco Malfoy across the face, and Harry and Hermione save the lives of Sirius, who’s not a murderer after all, and Buckbeak, who’s a kinder hippogriff than the Malfoys make him out to be. But we also endure Golden Trio infighting, Lupin’s departure, and one of the series’ most heartbreaking offerings yet. That’s when Sirius, Harry’s godfather, asks Harry if he’d like to live with him, Harry gleefully accepts, and within 100 pages, Sirius, still a murderer in the eyes of the law, is on the run while Harry heads back to the Dursleys.
It’s the combination of light and dark, I think, that makes Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban successful as it is. While the previous books certainly had their sadder moments, this one gets downright grim with the addition of the terrifying-by-definition dementors and the harsh reality that one of James’ best friends (Peter Pettigrew, AKA Wormtail, Dark Lord devotee who’s been posing as Ron’s pet rat Scabbers for years) betrayed him to the point of death. The stakes are ever raised, and the series is all the stronger for it. Now, Harry knows the extent to which a follower of Voldemort will go—betrayal, yes, but also murder of innocents, used to frame Sirius—in order to please his master, and that’s knowledge he’ll need to carry with him as his journey progresses.
Overall, I think this is the series’ best book. But as I’ve said again and again and again, best and favorite aren’t the same thing, and the book that follows, Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire, has always been my favorite. I’m taking a breather to read Moshe Kasher’s memoir, but after that, I’ll be returning to the world Rowling created and reminding myself just why I love Harry’s fourth year so much.