Top critical review
Not Rowling's best work.
on June 6, 2002
_Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban_ is a book-long indulgence of J. K. Rowling's worst literary vice, her tendency to revel in misery and bang readers over the heads with anvils of her bullies' petty villainy. I do not mind dark stories - I gravitate toward them, in fact - but Rowling seems here to wallow in suffering for its own sake. While this material - a ghastly penitentiary which inflicts violating mental torments upon its prisoners, a painfully vivid look at the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Harry's parents, a hero who is steadily becoming ever more embittered and angry under the weight of his misfortunes - by necessity demands a somber hand, the complete, unrelenting saturation of wretchedness throughout drowns out the important, truly pauseworthy dark elements and deprives them of the focus they require. (The problem is exacerbated by the most aggravating incarnation yet of the endlessly-frustrating fact that while the heroes will happily rise to the occasion against the would-be world-conquering fiends which confront them, toward villains like Snape, Malfoy, and the Slytherins who spend their time plotting comparatively lesser but very real dangers and evils, they are greatly permissive. If the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, then Good spends a conspicuous amount of time doing nothing in these books in general and this one in particular.)
A dose of light is not the only thing missing from _Azkaban_. For one, this book doesn't delve as much into the world of magic as the others (we are presented with one promising opportunity in the students' occasional visits to the wizards' vilage of Hogsmeade, but we glimpse only a bit of one candy store and a pub and very little at all of the town proper). Also, while the previous books' many plot developments unfolded at a lively pace, _Azkaban_ has little sense of the passage of time, mired in a few dismal subplots - Gryffindor's seemingly cursed quest for the Quidditch Cup, a nasty rift between Ron and Hermione, a flaky, self-satisfied Divination teacher who plays the favoritism card almost as badly as Snape, Malfoy's gleeful endangerment of both Hagrid's new teaching job and the very life of one of the gameskeeper's most beloved pets - which mostly stagnate, unchanging, until the end of the book, stifling any sense of adventure in the process. And while the _Harry Potter_ endings have probably been the series's strongest, most memorable parts, in contrast to the thrilling climactic confrontations with the meaty villains of the first two volumes, _Azkaban_'s denouement is limp and unsatisfying - and at times muddled in terms of who's where doing what, the literary equivalent of bad stage direction.
The book does have its flashes of strength. The Dementors, sepulchrous creatures guarding the Azkaban prison whose very presence invokes in those around them their most painful personal recollections, who feed on human misery, sucking "every good feeling, every happy memory" from their prey until they're "left with nothing but the worst experiences of [their lives]", and who can devour one's very soul are an emotional metaphor vivid enough to stand with Rowling's best such creations. New teacher Remus Lupin, who disarms his Hogwarts antagonists with unflappable politeness and good humor, brings a happy, much-needed infusion of self-confidence and good sense to the scene, and a harrowing flight from home at the beginning incorporates the best parts of the series' spirited feel for adventure and exploration of the curious workings of the bizarro wizard world. And though I've impugned the book's overuse of the dark, how it is seeded with creeping shifts towards the malevolent in Harry's behavior, unsettling portents of further discontent, is one of its most effective aspects.
Still, however, although I'm not the biggest Harry Potter fan, most of the elements which I love of the books are missing from _The Prisoner of Azkaban_. I must say that it will probably go down in my eyes as the least of the series.