The third Harry Potter novel kicks things up several notches with a dazzlingly delightful combination of wit, suspense, and pure fantasy. Additionally, Rowling's series is growing up as its characters, and readers, are growing up. No one could mistake this for a children's book; it's a solid young adult fantasy adventure that will satisfy experienced and sophisticated adult readers every bit as much as it will the awed imaginations of young people for whom reading is a new and strange pasttime. Sure, sometimes it seems as if Rowling might well be convoluting her plots too much for their own good. One suspects that the reasons all of her twists and surprises tie up loose ends as well as they do is due as much to contrivance as it is brilliance. But it's such enjoyable contrivance that you're more than happy to make allowances for it.
Harry, now thirteen, and less inclined to put up with the evils of his guardians the Dursleys, runs away from his Muggle home after a bit of rule-breaking causes him to inflate a particularly noxious aunt. He is picked up on the street by the Knight Bus, a bit of wizardly public transportation perfectly in keeping with the childlike wonder of Rowling's magical concepts (it has beds instead of seats), and on his ride he learns a bit of alarming news. The wizardly prison of Azkaban, a place of nearly legendary dread, has had an escape: Sirius Black, a wizard said to be nearly as evil as Voldemort himself, is on the loose. What's more, as Harry learns when he is dropped off at the secret pub that connects to Diagon Alley, it seems that Black may well have had something to do with Voldemort's murder of Harry's parents...and now Black is said to be coming after Harry!
The prospect of this is so shattering that when Harry meets up with his friends Ron Weasley and Hermoine Granger, and they all set off again for Hogwarts, they discover that the Ministry of Magic has cordoned off Hogwarts with a guard consisting of nightmarish creatures called Dementors. These fearsome beasts guard Azkaban itself and are said to be able to suck out a person's soul. Now they are on the lookout for Black, although as terrifying as the Dementors are to Harry, he finds it hard to imagine how Black could be any worse.
What follows is a fresh and original adventure filled with Rowling's hallmarks: numerous subplots, red herrings, twists and surprises. Who is Sirius Black, really? Who, furthermore, is this new professor named Lupin, who is quick to become an ally of Harry and his friends — and what might he know about Black, his escape, and his relationship to Harry's late father? Tossed in to all of this are the expected Quidditch matches; the introduction of an all-wizard village, Hogsmeade, which could well rival Disneyland in the minds of young Pottermaniacs; and the usual rivalries with bullies like Draco Malfoy and the sinister Professor Snape.
There's something of a darker cast to some of Rowling's story elements, and a growing maturity. Harry and his friends learn a cruel lesson about how justice doesn't always win out in the world. Sometimes bad people with the right influence make life unfair for everyone. Also, there's a new satirical edge that I particularly liked. Though this series is all about magical wonders, Rowling takes the opportunity in this volume to toss a barb or two at the kinds of people who take advantage of the gullible in real life. A new professor of Divination is a clear and hilarious parody of real-life "psychics" who rook the credulous by telling them what they want to hear and by counting on their gullibility to cause them to remember the hits and forget the misses.
Occasionally you can poke a critical finger at the way Rowling lets some inconsistencies mar her plotting in order to move her story along. For instance, when Harry's precious Nimbus 2000 broom is smashed beyond repair in an accident, you immediately wonder how, in this school where Professor Dumbledore can conjure whole objects out of nothingness, the broom can possibly be smashed beyond repair when a simple flick of a wand would restore it. Well, it's like this: Rowling has to get the Nimbus 2000 out of the way so Harry can receive the surprise gift of the new Firebolt broom from a secret admirer....
Hmm. Okay. Well, fortunately Rowling doesn't engage in this kind of cheating often enough for it to be a problem worthy of overly strong criticism...but it is irksome all the same, as she has shown that she is quite capable of plotting excellent stories without having to resort to that kind of thing. But as I said, it's minor enough to be overlooked — this time. What counts is that this book has the strongest and most satisfying ending of all of them so far.
Once again, if you're missing out on this series for any reason, you're missing out big time. Ignore all the foolish media hype and remember that there are real books at the core of it. Books that deserve to be classics, and will be.