Keely's Reviews > Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
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Aug 16, 07

bookshelves: fantasy, contemporary-fiction, novel, reviewed, contemporary-fantasy
Read in January, 2003

The first of her series where Rowling really catches her stride. Though her plotting is always a forced joining of unnecessary moments smoothed over Lucas-style by action and magic, in this occasion, the emotional and character exploration of such moments helps to lend them a certain importance. There is an irony here: that Rowling seems to profit from the reader leaning on Chekhovian Realism in a story where the psychology and meaning are so contrived and poorly-executed that it cannot be considered with that genre.

As ever, Rowlings adoption of characters, themes, and tropes from other British authors prove to be her best and most powerful elements. From Mr. D'arcy to Gandalf to Gaiman, she runs the gamut, arms outstretched and grasping gleefully.

Of course, for those who argue 'there are only XX stories' (scientifically defined as somewhere between 1 and 77), Rowling's gentle lending is not much of a literary crime. Quite the opposite: she is not an author who could create from whole cloth, her strength lies in combination of elements and in romantic adventure.

And though her disparate story elements are as hastily built as old Winchester Manor, and as unkind to see from afar, traveling interiorily--though sometimes needlessly confusing--provides a view of many well-constructed and beautiful rooms: a lovely little tour.

At the risk of insulting someone who misses my intent, the greatest gift to her merry throngs may be that they cannot step back and look upon the whole picture. A house of cards is a pretty feat, after all.

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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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Bookworm "And though her disparate story elements are as hastily built as old Winchester Manor, and as unkind to see from afar, traveling interiorily--though sometimes needlessly confusing--provides a view of many well-constructed and beautiful rooms: a lovely little tour."

" the greatest gift of her merry throngs may be that they cannot step back and look upon the whole picture. A house of cards is a pretty feat, after all."

I think I lost you there. Care to clarify what you meant here?


Keely I meant that, while the series has some moments--some scenes and characters which are amusing or entertaining--overall, Rowling's structure and plotting are haphazard, so the discrete parts do not add up to something greater. But a person who loses themselves in the scene or character of the moment will likely not ask how they are all supposed to fit together.


Bookworm Yes she uses too much of plot devices here and there to add them together, but IMHO, her characterization and character development is, for the most part, top-notch.


Keely I don't think I'd go that far. The characters are definitely the strongest part of her writing, but I don't consider them particularly deep or well-constructed compared to other writers, especially writers who wrote similar sorts of stories before Rowling, like Roald Dahl, Mervyn Peake, or Lord Dunsany.


message 5: by Justin (new)

Justin A bit pretentious and wordy, but an overall decent review.


Bookworm What's romantic adventure?


Keely In terms of literature, 'romance' often means a fantastical story of melodrama, coincidence, good vs. evil, and high action. It's also called 'Heroic Literature'. It's often opposed to 'realism', where the author attempts to write a story driven by a strong sense of character psychology, not coincidence and archetypes.


message 8: by Max (new) - rated it 5 stars

Max "I meant that, while the series has some moments--some scenes and characters which are amusing or entertaining--overall, Rowling's structure and plotting are haphazard, so the discrete parts do not add up to something greater. But a person who loses themselves in the scene or character of the moment will likely not ask how they are all supposed to fit together."-- This is the most pompous and pretentious review I've ever read on anything. The author planned this series for some seven years, and the minute details in each book, the small events that bubble over into big events in the later books, the meticulous structuring of characters and setting that evolve over the years, I'd say, are good enough evidence for a series that fits well together. This is the first HP book I read, and what hooked me to this, more than the others, was the suspense and mystery. I'd say this is the least romantic-adventure book of the series. Keely compares Rowling to Dahl, I've read Dahl (BFG, Charlie…etc) and all I have to say is that Rowling and Dahl have their distinct styles. Dhal's work actually has that written-for-children feel, easygoing prose, almost satirical tragicomic scenarios (of poverty and loneliness for example), while Rowling's books come in a more complex package, and dealing with themes significantly dark for the original target group (child abuse and extremism for example).


Keely "The author planned this series for some seven years, and the minute details in each book, the small events that bubble over into big events in the later books, the meticulous structuring of characters and setting that evolve over the years, I'd say, are good enough evidence for a series that fits well together."

Despite all the claims of careful planning, the way things came together in the end felt rather slapdash to me. For example, the fact that a number of magic items (the 'hallows') suddenly become important and powerful in the last book despite the fact that no one treats them that way beforehand. I'm sure Rowling had some ideas laid out beforehand, but for the most part, it seemed like she was making it up as she went along and retroactively tying in earlier details to try to make things fit.

"Rowling and Dahl have their distinct styles. Dhal's work actually has that written-for-children feel, easygoing prose, almost satirical tragicomic scenarios (of poverty and loneliness for example), while Rowling's books come in a more complex package, and dealing with themes significantly dark for the original target group (child abuse and extremism for example)."

Well, I tended to find Dahl's psychological themes to be darker and more complex than Rowlings, partly because she was delivering hers as part of the standard 'boarding school melodramas' from which the Potter stories derive, whereas Dahl's tended to be about the interior life of the individual, not as an appendage of the plot.

I agree that Dahl's tone on the surface was lighter and more humorous, but I don't think this detracts from the sometimes disturbing qualities and motivations of his characters. To me, the Dursleys seem like a rather comical and light portrayal of a 'hard upbringing' when compared to the apathy and even menace Dahl evokes with some of the parents, teachers, and other adult caretakers who appear in his books.

As for 'extremism' in Potter, the dark wizards felt more like Disney villains to me than portrayals of the 'dangers of extremism'--I mean, they're elitist aristos, not desperate rebels.


message 10: by Max (last edited May 24, 2013 06:11AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Max Wow, that was quick.
A. If Rowling had thrown all the elements of all seven books into one, or scattered them all throughout the series, then the books would have been a confusing mess of experimental porridge now wouldn't it? I've seen lot of people dismiss HP as a children's series, not be attuned to its fantasy elements, but I've never ever read or heard anyone say it was "slapdash" before. It's really hard to keep a series, a long series such as this, well-planned and consistent as Rowling does. If you've read at least some of the books chronologically, you'd notice little things in preceding books showing up later to completely surprise you as important plot elements. Scabbers, for example, who is a minor character in Books 1 & 2. The "plot twist" in Book 2 becomes an important part of plot in Book 6 (and you won't miss it even if you are not a particularly attentive reader.)There are some more important events happening in the first 20 pages of Book 1 that re-appear in Book 5, and so on, without overwhelming the reader. The Hallows (without spoiling much) in Book 7 appears only in Book 7 because no one really knows about them beforehand. Also, you may notice, one of the Hallows did make its grand appearance in Book 1, innocently enough and never appearing as something it was not. Also, the Hallows is actually about Dumbledore not Harry, who from Books 1-6 appears as this wizened wizard of almost super-human proportions, and Book 7 is his revealing, and very humanizing, story. You may not like Rowling's writing style, themes, or even the story in general, but if you think this scrupulously crafted world is "made up on the go" I'd say you are seriously reading the books wrong. Rowling has achieved a particularly hard feat for writers of serials, and this really only occurred to me while reading Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series; now here's a writer, a good one at that too, who is making it up as he goes without planning ahead causing some internal plot inconsistencies (the 'Unkiss' anyone?) and some storylines to lag (Daenerys!).
B. I guess we approach Dahl and Rowling differently in this case. It's also possible that the extremism, prejudice, and even torture portrayed in the HP books, veiled in magic and fantasy elements, does not convey themselves to the reader as gruesomely as the same events in real-life would (maybe that's the point). I've yet to see a Disney villain who tortures people to madness or kills babies. The Dursleys, when I first read about them in Book 1 as a teen, I laughed a bit at their antics. I didn't realize their extremely unsettling prejudice until I re-read Book 1. The worst part about them is that they are "normal" people who work nine-to-five and lives in happy suburbia, but decides to lock their 10-year-old orphaned nephew in the cupboard under the stairs and treat him like some "abomination" to fear. Reminded a little bit of the stories of how some people treat their homosexual or differently -abled children.


Keely Max said: "I've seen lot of people dismiss HP as a children's series, not be attuned to its fantasy elements, but I've never ever read or heard anyone say it was "slapdash" before."

It's a response I've seen quite a few times from people I know here on GR--that the structure of it doesn't really hold up to scrutiny and the 'internal connections' aren't actually important to the story, conceptually.

"If you've read at least some of the books chronologically, you'd notice little things in preceding books showing up later to completely surprise you as important plot elements."

Yes, I noticed that, but as I said, it didn't feel to me that these were things that were planned out from the beginning, but that Rowling just decided to reuse them again later. I mean, if a character has a red pen in the first book and stabs the bad guy with it in the sixth book, that doesn't suggest to me that the author carefully planned the use of this red pen, because it's just as likely that they looked through the first book, noticed the red pen, and then decided to make it important later on.

In order for something to actually be important to the structure of the book, there must be something about it right from when it is introduced that clues the audience in to the fact that the author is doing this deliberately. The hallows or the diary being a horcrux are things that could just have been changed later by Rowling, because there's nothing about them that makes them important in the first place. There's nothing about the way Rowling treats them that suggests that they were planned out from the beginning to be that way.

I don't know if you remember the whole hoax about 'the snake Harry rescues from the zoo is really Nagini', but when it came out, all sorts of fans were saying 'it proves that Rowling planned it all from the beginning!' But of course, it doesn't, because even if it were true, it's a random fact that has no actual bearing upon the meaning of the story or the characters' journeys. Just making a random connection between two things is not the same as writing a carefully-planned story.

"if you think this scrupulously crafted world is "made up on the go" I'd say you are seriously reading the books wrong."

I've just never seen anything that suggests that there was actually a great deal of planning and structure in what she did, and from what I saw on the page, she seemed to construct her story from what was convenient at the moment, not what made sense, overall.

It's like the whole time-turner thing: here you have this super-powerful item that has the ability to completely change how the world works. Voldemort attacks? Have the Order of the Phoenix use time-turners to go back and prepare for it.

But instead, it's given to a teenage girl to help her get to class. Then, of course, the kids do use it to change the past--though humorously, they keep acting like everything is tense and dramatic, despite the fact that, if they fail, they can just keep going back until they fix it. It's put in as a convenient plot-fixer.

Then, Rowling suddenly realizes how powerful it is and specifically has them all conveniently destroyed in a battle in the next book. That's not what I'd call 'thoughtful structuring'--so yes, I think your description of the books as a 'confusing mess' is accurate.

"this really only occurred to me while reading Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series; now here's a writer, a good one at that too"

I'm afraid I think of Martin as a pretty terrible writer.

"Reminded a little bit of the stories of how some people treat their homosexual or differently -abled children."

Yes, I do think that is what Rowling was trying to get at, I just don't think she did a very good job of it, and I don't think it was the 'magic and fantasy elements' that made her versions less gruesome than Dahl's--after all, Dahl's books also contain those elements--I just think her characters were more cliche and silly.


message 12: by Max (new) - rated it 5 stars

Max " Keely wrote: Just making a random connection between two things is not the same as writing a carefully-planned story/ I've just never seen anything that suggests that there was actually a great deal of planning and structure in what she did, and from what I saw on the page, she seemed to construct her story from what was convenient at the moment, not what made sense, overall.

You've got to be kidding me. This is the woman who even constructed a class roster for Harry's year. Then again, whether you approach a book with preconceived notions and a snooty attitude does make all the difference in understanding the intricate plot & style mechanisms, despite its genre and story.

" Keely wrote: It's like the whole time-turner thing: here you have this super-powerful item that has the ability to completely change how the world works. Voldemort attacks? Have the Order of the Phoenix use time-turners to go back and prepare for it. /But instead, it's given to a teenage girl to help her get to class. Then, of course, the kids do use it to change the past--though humorously, they keep acting like everything is tense and dramatic, despite the fact that, if they fail, they can just keep going back until they fix it. It's put in as a convenient plot-fixer./Then, Rowling suddenly realizes how powerful it is and specifically has them all conveniently destroyed in a battle in the next book. That's not what I'd call 'thoughtful structuring'--so yes, I think your description of the books as a 'confusing mess' is accurate.

Uhhh, Time Turners are extremely dangerous, volatile, and no one is really supposed to go back and change the past anyway, that's why no one goes back and tries to, say, stop Voldermort from being born for example. It could have seriously unpredictable outcomes, as Dumbledore warns. Note that in PoA, Harry and Hermione goes to the immediate past, couple of hours before, to undo the death of an unjustly slaughtered animal and rescue a wrongfully convicted person. Their interference is relatively minor. Besides, magic is not supposed to be as simple as going back to change your mistakes. That's sort of the point of the story. Only the London Ministry's time turners are destroyed, there are still others left.

" Keely wrote: That's not what I'd call 'thoughtful structuring'--so yes, I think your description of the books as a 'confusing mess' is accurate.

Never "described" the book as that. Only an expression to illustrate the opposite.

" Keely wrote: I'm afraid I think of Martin as a pretty terrible writer.

Too bad.

" Keely wrote: Yes, I do think that is what Rowling was trying to get at, I just don't think she did a very good job of it.

LOL


Keely Max said: "You've got to be kidding me. This is the woman who even constructed a class roster for Harry's year."

Once again, you seem to be confusing the creation of meaningless details with actual plotting, characterization, and worldbuilding.

"whether you approach a book with preconceived notions and a snooty attitude does make all the difference in understanding the intricate plot & style mechanisms"

Huh, and here I thought that the actual style and construction would speak for themselves--but apparently not. I guess the book must be rather vague if its quality is entirely dependent on whether the reader expects it to be good or not, going in. Except for the fact that I didn't approach the books with any bias, I only decided later on, based on what I read, that they weren't well-written or thought out.

"It could have seriously unpredictable outcomes, as Dumbledore warns."

Actually, based on what we see in the book, since past Harry sees future Harry interfering, the suggestion is that anything done with the time turners is not retroactive, but automatically happens.

"Too bad."

It's too bad that I dismissed a bad author and moved on to better things? Really, it seems like a pretty good outcome to me.

"LOL"

Ah, I see we've hit your upper capacity for expressing thoughts and ideas today. Thanks for playing.


Bookworm Honestly, I am not fond of the time traveling concept in literature or art, unless it is used for other reasons behind plot convenience (i.e. maybe trying to explore the possibilities and nature of it). There are so many holes and loop holes attached with it, any author who's going to use the time traveling concept is going to be run after by people. She could have used any other deus-ex-machina she uses generally than this.


Keely Yeah, time travel is very rarely done well, and the fact that Rowling threw it in so will-he-nil-he and used it as a convenient way to move her plot along is just another example of the fact that her structuring is haphazard and based more around arbitrary stand-ins rather than active characters with internal motivations.


Bookworm Aside from this and another plot convenience, I didn't have much of a problem with PoA's plot. Maybe it's to do with the fact that I read the book when I was quite younger, but I liked the last plot twist (the whole Marauder's story + the fact that Sirius wasn't after all evil). I need to reread the books again properly to see if they still hold well.


message 17: by Jocelyn (last edited Jul 24, 2013 10:19PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jocelyn Keely wrote: "I don't think I'd go that far. The characters are definitely the strongest part of her writing, but I don't consider them particularly deep or well-constructed compared to other writers, especially..."

I also thought they shifted a little too much throughout the series, and they're not very subtle. First Rowling beats us over the head with established personality traits (Hermione is a know-it-all, Ron sucks at his classes, Snape is evil and mean), then muddies it up with red herrings and puts them through hell in an attempt to make their sudden character development look convincing (development needed to forward the plot). I never really bought the (view spoiler), for example.


Keely Yeah, I agree. I guess the fact that her characters are the strongest parts of the story sometimes made me overlook the fact that they are often either cliche or inconsistent. I also didn't buy that from Snape--indeed, I thought his whole character setup was overblown, which is how I guessed a certain famous twist: when an author keeps swerving the reader in one direction, over and over, it starts to become obvious that it must be a red herring--otherwise, why harp on it?


message 19: by Jocelyn (last edited Jul 25, 2013 01:18PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jocelyn I think an author who pleads with their audience to suspend disbelief is almost always unconvincing. Which reminds me, something I've noticed while reading fantasy is that it matters a lot more about the way characters are presented than what those characters are in the first place. A cliche archetype can still come alive if a writer is subtle and creative enough to add interesting nuances, and I was hoping the same from Rowling when I first picked up HP...but sadly she doesn't have enough control of her writing and is too straightforward and blunt for that to work.


Keely "A cliche archetype can still come alive if a writer is subtle and creative enough to add interesting nuances"

Yeah, definitely true. Archetypes and cliches aren't bad on their own--they became standards because they are effective. The problem is, as you say, when the author just uses them straight and doesn't add anything else to the story.


Sarah Dear Keely,
I am a huge fan of your reviews. I would love to access the link above but it seems as though your blog has been removed. Could you please post another list of your fantasy book suggestions? :)


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