Published in 1999, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third book in the Harry Potter series. And this happens to be the novel that really kicked off the Harry Potter craze in America. It was already big in Britain, but it became much more of a worldwide phenomenon after Azkaban (and for good reason, as we'll see). Case in point: check out the huge upswing in interviews that J.K. Rowling did to promote the novel.
This was the last time that a new Harry Potter book was released out of sync as well, much to the relief of newly obsessed American fans. See, for the first three novels, Britain got the books before the United States did. In this case, Azkaban came out in Britain in July 1999; Americans had to wait until September to get their hands on it. Can you imagine that delay occurring for Book 6? There would be rioting in the streets. Disproportionate numbers of Americans would be on planes to London. And there were already a lot of impatient fans all the way back in 1999.
It's also cool to see how the birth of the Harry Potter phenomenon coincided with the rise of the Internet. Crazy as it may seem, there was a time when the Internet wasn't all that big – no, no, we're not making that up. Back in the day, people used dial-up (slower than dinosaurs), AOL was all the rage, and pretty lame looking websites hosted on GeoCities and Tripod were the norm. So it's cool to note that Harry Potter websites, like the Leaky Cauldron, popped up in cyberspace around the time Azkaban was released. This was the first time a literature series really tapped into the Internet, and Harry Potter fansites, discussion groups, and communities, would start catching on like wildfire in coming years.
And since Harry Potter gained that much more publicity in this era, it also gained more scrutiny and more criticism. Around the time that Azkaban came out, some groups of far-right conservative Christians formed a protest groups, decrying Harry Potter as "immoral." Given the huge number of sales, it sure looks as though most people didn't take this kind of talk seriously. And at this point, Harry Potter is pretty much universally beloved. But it's interesting to note that there was actual controversy over these novels. Plus, the controversy itself indicated that Harry Potter was well on its way to becoming more than just a series of kid books – it was turning into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.
Of course, that all took place over a decade ago. What can you expect if you're reading this book now, for the first time, or you're returning to it for a re-read? Well, you can probably expect to be surprised. This book is a change of pace from the first two – it's darker, it starts getting into those awkward teen years, and it really sets the stage for all the later novels in the series. This stage setting is quite literal, too – we're introduced to a huge number of important new characters and places in this novel. It's both fun and surprising to go back and discover how the stage was set in this novel, and to meet some now-beloved characters for the first time.
But this novel doesn't just serve as a prologue for all the action to come; it's also a fitting conclusion to the first story arc in the Harry Potter series. It's a sort of bon voyage to childhood. This novel spends a lot of time thinking about the past, and it thus takes the time to reflect some before plowing ahead into a whole new round of danger.
One other thing worth mentioning: if you're coming to this book after just having seen the movie, then you're definitely in for something of a shock. The movie captured the spirit of the novel, and a lot of its themes. (Check out our "Best of the Web" section for reviews of the film!). But, due to time constraints, it necessarily cut out a lot of major plotlines. You don't need to worry about having spoiled the book if you've seen the movie, at least.
Care because it's cool, guys. Really – the title character of a novel is a wrongly-accused escaped convict who used to ride a flying motorcycle. This novel also features hippogriffs, crazy creepy Dementors, epic flashbacks, people who morph into animals (and vice versa), time travel, Quidditch matches, and more mysteries than you can shake a (broom)stick at.
Aside from superficial reasons, this novel plays a really important role in the Harry Potter series. This is a major transition novel in the series – it effectively ushers us out of the more childish stage and into the more adult novels, featuring a mature and self-aware Harry. We meet a huge number of characters who are really important in the later books, and we get a much-welcomed crash course into the first war with Voldemort and into Harry's parents, James and Lily.