Wit and wizardry

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

J K Rowling <em>Bloomsbury, 317pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 074

Harry Potter, the schoolboy wizard who has taken by storm children and adults alike, is back at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry for a third adventure. At least a week of utter peace over the summer holidays is guaranteed.

This third book is basically the same as the first two, but that really doesn't matter. There is comfort in formulas as good as this one, and the inventiveness, the jokes, the characterisation and suspense are as enthralling as ever. Sirius Black, the eponymous prisoner and a mass murderer who betrayed Harry's parents to the evil Voldemort, has escaped. To guard Harry, who mysteriously defeated Voldemort as a baby, the school is surrounded by Dementors, hooded figures whose very presence makes people faint with fear. Why, though, is Harry being pursued by a big black dog? Who has given him the deluxe Firebolt broomstick with which to play Quiddich, the wizardly version of soccer? Why is his friend Hermione behaving so oddly, and Ron's rat getting thinner? Over the academic year all is revealed, and evil is yet again defeated.

Rowling has been compared to C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien, chiefly because she has imagined, in considerable detail, a world magically parallel to our own. Unlike these doomy academics, however, her books sparkle with satire, in this case on the evils of capital punishment and revenge. On a more superficial level she is brilliant at the vivid pleasures and pains of childhood, from eating sweets to being bullied.

Orphaned, small, bespectacled and persecuted both by the hilariously horrible Dursleys (his very un-magical aunt and uncle, of whom one longs to see more) and by the snobbish Malfoy, Harry wins our hearts by displaying courage, modesty, intelligence and humour. These are the traditional virtues that come to his aid when confronting Voldemort; those interested in publishing may care to note that they are equally successful at routing the repulsive thriller Hannibal from its position at the top of the current best-seller lists.

As an artist, Rowling isn't in Philip Pullman's league. Her range lies somewhere between that of Edith Nesbit and Roald Dahl, but she is less subversive than either. She has, however, another great gift, and that is the capacity both to create and to transmit joy. It's no coincidence that our hero's battle in this novel is chiefly against the Dementors - creatures who drain their victims of confidence, happiness, sanity and the will to live. Pullman has creatures like these in The Subtle Knife, and in his darker fiction there is no cure.

Harry learns that Dementors can be defeated by concentrating on a single, very happy memory - and eating lots of chocolate. To those familiar with the power of despair, there is now another defence, and that is the Harry Potter books themselves.