Harry’s third year at Hogwarts starts in the most terrifying way possible. The Hogwarts Express is stopped by Dementors, black-shrouded entities that bring an aura of despair and can steal your soul with a kiss. They’re looking for Sirius Black, a dangerous murderer who’s somehow managed to escape Azkaban, where the Dementors stand guard - and who might just come looking for Harry. As if that isn’t frightening enough, the Dementors don’t always show an inclination to obey orders and stay at the edges of the grounds....
But Harry has more to worry about than Sirius and his hunters. Hagrid is the new Care of Magical Creatures teacher, and Draco Malfoy has used the consequences of his own idiocy to get Hagrid’s beloved Hippogriff, Buckbeak, put on trial for its life. Hermione has begun acting oddly and has a timetable that seems to require her to be in two places at once. Sybil Trelawney, the Divination teacher, has a disconcerting habit of predicting Harry’s imminent demise. Ron is furious because Hermione’s cat keeps menacing his rat. And now Harry has come into possession of a very useful magical aid to mischief-making: the Marauders’ Map. It’s just unfortunate that the map can’t tell him why it shows the presence in Hogwarts of a wizard who’s supposed to be dead.
The third book in the series starts with all the usual humour – Harry’s temper causes an unintentional outburst of magic which inflates his Aunt Marge - but soon turns darker with Harry having to fend for himself (aided by the Knight Bus) and then the Dementors. In appearance they reminded me of Middle Earth’s Nazgûl, but in temperament - I think I’d prefer to meet the Nazgûl. They at least don’t have the capacity to suck all hope from their surroundings and leave you trapped in your worst memories; though I’m not sure whether ending up a soulless shell would be worse than being an enslaved wraith. Defence Against the Dark Arts also takes a nasty turn with Boggarts, which take the shape of whatever you most fear. (Like Ron, I’d see a giant spider.) These classes also provide the priceless mental image of Snape dressed as Neville’s grandmother.
What I really loved about the book was the way the major mysteries - Sirius Black’s whereabouts, the dead wizard appearing on the Map, the occasionally odd behaviour of new teacher Remus Lupin (one of my many favourite characters) - all wove together. In doing so they revealed a stack of information about the past and laid the foundations for more to come. They also shed a small - and surprising - amount of light on Snape’s hatred of Harry. The complex way in which these people and events intersect is one of the things I like best about the series as a whole. And by the end of the book, even Buckbeak and Hermione’s interesting method of time management have joined them. This is definitely one for the animal lovers, as a lot of four-legged things appear: Buckbeak, Crookshanks the bandy-legged and very intelligent cat, Scabbers the rat, a wolf, and an eerie black dog which may or may not be an omen of death. Professor Trelawny thinks it is, but since Hermione demonstrates how all her predictions could be the result of cold reading and guesswork, can you really believe her?