Book 37: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling, read by Jim Dale, isbn 9780807282328, 448 pages / 10cds, Scholastic / Listening Library, $54.95 (for the cds)
Even with the book series all said and done, I still proclaim the third Harry Potter novel my favorite in the series. At this point, Rowling has mostly smoothed the rough edges off of her style, and she has a much clearer idea of where the series is going. She lays so much groundwork here not just for book four, but for the end-game of the entire series. Draco Malfoy begins the slow fade to the background that will remove him as any kind of main plot participant until Half-Blood Prince, while Severus Snape steps up into the limelight and becomes more than an aggravation / subplot. With the arrival and then departure of Remus Lupin, we get our first hint that the constant vacancy of the Dark Arts position is more than just happenstance. And with the introduction of Lupin, Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew, we start to get the history that will affect every decision Harry makes throughout the rest of the series.
What I've always liked about Rowling's writing is that Harry, Ron, Hermione and their teenage friends don't always make the right decision -- they go on their instincts, their hormones, and sometimes make the kind of mistake we as readers are slapping our foreheads and shouting at them to not make. Every time Harry fails to tell Dumbledore something, every time the Trio hare off on their own someplace, the writer in me recognizes Rowling setting up important complications but the reader in me yells at them to stop being stupid and myopic. Of course, they are teenagers -- they are virtually made of myopia. And that's what makes them so real. They are not perfect. Even amongst themselves -- the discord between Ron and Hermione here, how easily they cut each other out, is a great hint at how Seamus Finnegan will turn completely against Harry in "Phoenix" based solely on what Seamus thinks he knows versus what is the truth.
Prisoner is also the last of the short books in the series, the last that is tightly plotted and in which the subplots are not given equal page time with the main plot. Which also mirrors the age Harry and the gang are at -- life gets more complicated the older kids get, as their world-view expands beyond themselves.
Jim Dale, of course, does his usual fantastic job performing the book. I've commented before that his Hagrid and McGonagall sound just like Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith, while the rest of his characters sound original. This time, he manages to also make Remus Lupin sound almost exactly like David Thewlis. Certain voices, certain inflections, just fit certain characters, and I think in these cases Dale is wise to go with what sounds right rather than differentiating just to avoid comparisons.