Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'' by the Scottish writer J. K. Rowling is the third in her projected series of seven fantasy novels for children; the first two are ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' and ''Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets''. The books have attracted legions of grownup readers as well.
There's a mystery afoot in the publishing industry. It started in 1997 when an unknown and struggling Scottish author wrote a children's book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The book was not an instant red-hot seller. Sales began with a trickle that--slowly but surely--grew to be a steady stream. Steady streams happen. What was completely unexpected was when--by the time the book was released in the United States in 1999 (albeit with some Americanization that included changing the "Philosopher" in the title to "Sorcerer")--that stream became a torrent. Forget about lists of bestselling children's books. The phenomenon of Harry had left the children's lists in the dust. The first book actually made its US debut on The New York Times list of bestsellers. And in case you'd suspected this but didn't know for sure: children's books do not make the NYT list. Usually.
As the new book begins, Harry is 13 and beginning his third year at Hogwarts. A mass murderer named Sirius Black has escaped from a maximum security prison called Azkaban; he is so notorious that even dull-witted Muggles (non-magic citizens) are terrified. Black is on the prowl for Harry who has been shown to be fingered by destiny to fight Lord Voldemort to the finish. (The lightning scar on Harry's brow is the result of an early skirmish, but a badge of honor too.) In the most gripping scenes, the villain infiltrates the school despite the host of horrifying phantasms--Dementors--deployed to guard the property. Yet even with Sirius Black breathing hot on his trail, ''Harry had no room in his head to worry about anything except the match tomorrow.''
Now this is good boyish thinking, putting first things first, and may be the secret to the success of the books: J. K. Rowling's fantasies celebrate a boy's relish in physical prowess as well as the more bookish values of moral and intellectual accomplishment.
Harry and his friends learned of a special prison for witches who were so evil they had to be removed from the world. The name of this prison was Azkaban, and it is rumored to be a very horrific place. This entire third year of Harry's school is consumed in fighting the most hideous imaginable evil--a prisoner who has escaped and is rumored to be out to kill Harry and the guards who have come to Hogwarts to attempt a recapture. Harry finds this entire sequence of events almost more than he can handle even if he is a Wizard from a generational family who had been very powerful; after all, he is only 13 years of age.
For twelve long years, the dread fortress of Azkaban held an infamous prisoner named Sirius Black. Convicted of killing thirteen people with a single curse, he is said to be the heir apparent to the Dark Lord, Voldemort. Now he has escaped, leaving only two clues as to where he might be headed. The Azkaban guards heard Black muttering in his sleep, "He's at Hogwarts... he's at Hogwarts." Harry isn't safe, not even within the walls of his magical school, surrounded by his friends. Harry Potter defeating evil Lord Voldemort had resulted in Black's downfall as well.
While Sorcerer's Stone was edging Star Wars and White Oleander out of the top-selling spots in the United States, the third book in the series elbowed Hannibal out of the number one UK spot. The phenomenon showed no signs of abating.
One of the troubles with Harry--and, in honesty, they're high-class complaints--has been that though the series was originally marketed for the 8-to-12-year old reading slot, adults thoroughly loved the books, as well. Adults, however, were apparently less than enthusiastic about being seen in public reading what was obviously a kid's book. In the UK, this problem was resolved by actually developing two entirely different sets of cover art. The original art is cartoon-y and fun. The more recently developed covers look like any adult-targeted book: if you don't know who Harry is, you'd be none the wiser. And, once again, this does not happen. Sometimes books written for adults will find a readership in the young adult market, but books originally written for children seldom, if ever, find a readership in the adult market. Yet, here again, Harry has made a considerable dent.
The mystery of the success of the books unravels considerably when you actually read the books. They're quite wonderful. Author J.K. Rowling writes really well. This is solid prose, solid storytelling, solid plot--the type of writing, it pleases me to say, that stands out in any era. It transcends genres and age groups and marketing surveys and, thank god, focus groups. It's just good. And it's delightful to be here watching closely while a classic is born.
Of the first three books, this third one was the most depressing, the most black, and the most filled with real Witchcraft. Author Rowling has stated recently that each of the last four books will get increasingly darker in tone. Well, this book was definitely more dark and foreboding than either of the first two. She also continues to demonstrate her mastery of the Craft, weaving in Witchcraft knowledge both common and rare into this book.
Further, her book revolves around the guards of the Azkaban Prison called Dementors. These horrid creatures are soulless and, therefore, seek human souls on which to feast. When they plant their Dementor's Kiss, they literally suck the soul of their human victim slowly out through the mouth. The presence of the Dementors pervades the greater part of the book, and really casts a demonic spell over it. Refreshing and rewarding!
On reading any of the books, young people will not learn how to deal with their parents' divorce. They won't be thinking about racial issues or the death of a pet, or why they should eat their vegetables. They will, however, be taken by force on a magical journey from which their imaginations may never recover. If there is a lesson for young readers to learn here, it's passion for the printed page and the excitement of being in the thrall of a wonderful story.