Without a doubt, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
is my favorite installment in the series thus far. Imaginative storytelling (the Boggart and Dementor scenes are amazing), likeable new characters (Remus Lupin's wonderful in his turn as professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts), perfect comedic timing (the Marauder's Map expressing its negative opinion of Snape) and emotional moments between Harry and the various father figures in his life--it's all presented masterfully by Rowling. Honestly, I can't wait to learn more!
One of my main complaints has been Rowling's seemingly simplistic, black-and-white treatment of evil. If a name has sounded mean and creepy (Draco Malfoy, Slytherin), or if someone's appearance has been described as swarthy or shifty, then it's been a pretty safe bet that they're evil or at least up to no good. Rowling's now letting some grayness into the Potter universe. Was Snape a victim of bullying at the hands of James Potter and friends? It appears so, which puts his often-spiteful treatment of Harry in a different light. The greatest proof that Rowling's not locked in a fully Manichean mindset is her treatment of Sirius ("Serious"?) Black. Such a name could be attached to the vilest of people. But Sirius' dark appearance is due to Dementor abuse and seething anger at injustices committed against him and his friends. It may just be that Sirius is indeed the brightest star in the night sky. We'll have to see. Such ambiguity of character makes me happy.
Rowling's attention to small things also makes me happy, and lifts the Potter series from good to great. There's something so simple and perfect about her description of the greeting between Aunts Petunia Dursley and Marge:
"Petunia!" shouted Aunt Marge, striding past Harry as though he was a hat stand. Aunt Marge and Aunt Petunia kissed, or rather, Aunt Marge bumped her large jaw against Aunt Petunia's bony cheekbone.
Even the act of greeting looks ridiculous when such spite-filled people are involved. For whatever reason, this encounter between aunts stayed with me throughout the read.
Then there's Dumbledore's simple description to Harry of the interactions between living and dead loved ones:
"You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him."
There's something deeply mystical about parenthood. Genetically, I'm 50% Glenn; 50% Phyllis. I see them both every time I look in the mirror. When I sing random notes, I sound freakishly like my dad. And my Christian tradition includes a unique take on ancestor worship, sometimes describing God as Father-Son-Holy Spirit. For these reasons and more, parent-child relationships hold deep, mystical meaning for me. So, Harry's longing for relationship with his parents resonates powerfully with me. Whether it's Harry standing in front of a mirror and seeing his folks looking back at him, hearing repeatedly his mother's screams at the time of her murder, or from a distance mistaking himself for his father, I tear up every time Harry wonders about his parents. My strong desire to see Harry happy and together with his family makes me want to read more, and quickly.
I'd have given Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
five stars based on everything mentioned above. But throw in her political statement on the death penalty and I'm tempted to put Rowling in a class of her own. Without getting preachy, she points out that innocent people do end up on death row, and that such a black-and-white/life-and-death decision demands the grayness of caution and humility. Harry also chooses not to kill, instead leaving this ultimate decision to the mystical forces of magic (Dumbledore's term) or providence (my term). Rowling the optimistic mystic? Possibly. At the least, there's plenty of mystery infused in the everyday. I love her (platonically, of course), and can't wait to crack book #4.