After another miserable summer fraught with muggle-trouble, Harry heads back to Hogwarts for his third year. As usual, things start to go wrong even before he gets there. A cold-blooded murderer named Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban, the prison for wayward wizards, and he's out to get Harry. Worse, the enforcers charged with recapturing Black--the joy-draining dementors--are almost more malevolent than he is. But Harry's got an ally in Professor Lupin, the chronically disheveled Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and with the help of his friends Ron and Hermione, a special mischief-maker's map, and a hippogriff named Buckbeak, Harry delves deeper into the mystery of his past and finds an unexpected new protector.
If Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was formulaic and a rehash of Sorcerer's Stone with a few different critters and magical doo-hickeys, The Prisoner of Azkaban is, by contrast, a refreshing change of pace. The overall writing is better, the dialog is more believable and the characters less cardboard. The twisting plot also keeps you guessing which makes for an enjoyable read throughout. And it's a good thing, too. At over 430 pages and a solid two pounds in hardcover, Prisoner of Azkaban is quite the tome.
Rowling introduces the fascinating character of Sirius Black in Prisoner of Azkaban and he is the boogey-man throughout 90% of the book. The best friend of Harry's parents, Black was accused of betraying them to the wicked Voldemort. He was thrown into Azkaban for murdering 13 people, one of whom was Peter Pettigrew, a bungling wizard who chased Black down to avenge his betrayal of the Potters. That, at least, was the official story. The truth, of course, is considerably more complicated.
From my perspective, what is most intriguing about Black is that he is identified as Harry Potter's godfather. Now, some have used this to demonstrate that the Harry Potter books are indeed steeped in a Christian worldview. Why else would Harry have a godfather if he hadn't been baptized? Unfortunately, one doesn't have to do very much web searching to turn up evidence that wiccans do actually have godparents as part of their rituals. Here's an excerpt from a book that I found that clearly indicates the presence of godparents in wicca ritual. There is also the traditional linkage between witchcraft and the notion of the fairy godmother, though I haven't explored that relationship in any great detail. Given this, the argument that Harry is Christian because he has a godfather seems less credible. At the same time, it doesn't positively confirm any linkage between the books and wicca. The use of the term is simply ambiguous.
The major themes in this book are in general agreement with Christian ethic, even if it is not explicitly stated. Good and evil are clearly defined, though it's not always clear who is on which side. The Weasleys, with their large, rambunctious family, are given a central place and are presented very sympathetically. The notions of courage and self-sacrifice are explored in detail, particularly with regard to the love of a mother and father for their child. Harry also shows compassion and mercy, in very much the Christian sense. In one scene, he forbids the killing of Voldemort's creature when he is about to be done in by Harry's protectors.
There are also some hints in the book about an afterlife, though in a form more closely resembling the Star Wars universe than anything Christian. Toward the end of the book, Dumbledore says, "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" (page 427-8). Kind of like Harry's own Obi-Wan Kenobi. But again, I hesitate to make a call on semi-new-agey stuff like this until I've got a better idea of where it's all going.
Over all, though I enjoyed the writing and the story in Prisoner of Azkaban, I remain conflicted about the series in general, and its suitability for young Catholic readers in particular. I reckon my opinion is going to come down to the wire at the end of Book VII. But I've got to get there first and these books don't seem to get any slimmer as the series progresses. On to Book IV!