Prisoner of Azkaban is an acquired taste, or at least, it was for me. When I first read it, it was my least favorite Harry Potter book, but now it’s one of my favorites. All these years later, I’m still trying to figure out why.
I think what it all comes down to, though, is that the first two books have very high stakes and very obvious dangers. The three-headed dog, the monster from the Chamber of Secrets, and of course the threat of Voldemort’s return are clear-cut and frightening, the tension is palatable, and the main characters’ steps to confront those evils are compelling and obviously worthwhile. Starting in Goblet of Fire, the whole series starts getting darker and darker, with Voldemort back and the wizarding world suddenly at war. Prisoner of Azkaban sits in a murky, ambiguous gray area. We haven’t quite reached the turning point, but nor is it a whimsical adventure story like the first two. It has a certain creepiness about it that becomes more and more frightening as you get older.
When I was ten, dementors didn’t seem scary. I was lucky enough – as every child should be – to not have a whole lot of truly horrible memories, and to have not felt much real despair of the kind the dementors bring out in their victims. I’m still pretty lucky in a lot of ways, but I’ve grown up. I have memories that would be worse to relive than getting sand in my eye or being bullied on the playground. That creeping cold and fear does not seem as far away as it did the first time. It doesn’t seem as fictional, either. Dementors are one of the scariest things in the world of Harry Potter, because even though they’re not real, the things they can do to you are. And I’m grateful I didn’t understand that at ten years old.
It’s not just the dementors, though. It’s Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew, too. I remember feeling let down at the end, when it turned out Harry hadn’t been in any real danger. Of course, Sirius goes on to be a father-figure to Harry, and by the time I got to Order of the Phoenix I certainly wouldn’t have traded that for a Sirius who really was a murderer. But unlike Rowling’s other twists, it didn’t feel like a thrilling revelation that heightened the suspense. I don’t think I understood at the time that the true horrors were the real murderer hiding in plain sight for so long and an innocent man being sentenced to a fate worse than death without even so much as a trial. How strange that the things I missed at age ten are the things that make it all the more compelling now.
It takes a certain amount of maturity to appreciate Prisoner of Azkaban. Much like a thestral, which can only be seen by those who have witnessed death firsthand, the darker themes of Prisoner of Azkaban are nearly invisible to a sheltered child reader but very immediate to a mature adult. Therefore, it’s easy to miss the point entirely, which is a deep, compelling story that confronts evils far more real than Voldemort or the Basilisk.