Azkaban is on an island somewhere in the North Sea, but being unplottable, it cannot be found on a map. The Minister of Magic officially administers rhe prison, but who takes responsibility for daily operations is a mystery. No episode in the Harry Potter series is actually set in Azkaban, so it never seems as real as the Chamber of Secrets or the Ministry of Magic. What readers hear repeated over and over is information everyone in the wizarding world knows about the debilitating aura of the Dementors who guard it. After a few weeks in their presence, most prisoners perish Hagrid survived a two-months’ incarceration in The Chamber of Secrets, but would not (or could not) say anything about his experiences.
Jim Kay makes Azkaban almost as terrifying as Tyrion Lannister’s sky cell in the Eyrie by situating the prison in a somber landscape on the book’s preliminary pages. The front end papers depict a graveyard of ships off a beach outlined by monumental jutting rocks with the prison tower looming behind. On the half title, heavy seas dash an unmanned ship against the island. The next two double-page spreads zoom in on the tower. The first shot is a view of the prison entrance from the ship’s deck; the second pans up the prison’s stone walls. It was not a felicitous design decision to set the list of Rowling’s works, the title page, the extensive copyright information, and dedication on these four pages of sublime drawings. All the type obscures the drawings’ grandeur and the type is largely illegible with the highly textured images as background. But it is consistent with the greater use of ghosted patterns and figures here than in the first two volumes. Some like the embossed paper napkin are relatively unobtrusive, others like the chocolate bar wrapper are distracting enough that the words cannot do their work.Thus far Kay has taken advantage of the artistic freedom J. K. Rowling and the publisher have given him. With the third volume of the set completed, readers can expect certain things. The Hogwarts faculty picture gallery has been expanded with three portraits, complemented with more informal views of the characters elsewhere in the story. Professor Trelawney’s huge glasses, strongly marked features, and prominent front teeth are comically exaggerated for having been painted from below. When she falls into a prophetic trace later in the story, her face appears eerie and mannish. Greasy locks of hair frame Severus Snape’s unsmiling face and his crossed hands are surprisingly full of tension. Lying near the hand darkened with soot is a sprig of lily of the valley, the emblem of Snape’s love for Harry’s mother. On the following page,the potions master looks much uglier as he grimaces at Neville’s toad. A third illustration of Snape in chapter nineteen, which looks down on him as he casts a spell, makes him look quite formidable. By changing his appearance in every illustration, Kay keeps readers uncertain as to which is the true Snape. Remus Lupin, shown in his study before leaving Hogwarts in disgrace, looks down at the floor. It is a startling contrast to his first appearance in chapter five, with his back to the reader and his startled face reflected in train compartment’s door.
Illustrations of magical creatures are among the delights in Harry Potter’s first two volumes and Kay provides some more wonderful ones in Prisoner of Azkaban. Of the “scientific” illustrations, the Grindylow, which supposedly comes from Aquatic Wonders of Yorkshire: A Wizard’s Field Guide, is a gratifying mixture of the scary, gross, and humorous. Hagrid’s hippogriffs, noble hybrids of eagle and horse, are given three illustrations. There’s one of the spirited herd crossing the paddock and an endearing one of Buckbeak asleep on Hagrid’s bed, its head resting on a plate of dead ferrets. The book’s most important illustrations of magical creatures turn out to be three men who can transform themselves into animals. All of them belonged to James Potter’s Hogwarts posse and the pictures contain visual clues pointing to their dual natures. The sinister plate of the Werewolf is drawn in the same sepia tones as Remus Lupin’s portrait. The animage Sirius Black’s thinness, unfathomable dark eyes, and messy, bristly, black hair is unsettling when he is portrayed as a dog, although the gigantic picture of Sirius spread over four pages was an experiment that did not quite work for me. When Kay finally draws Sirius as a half-starved man with an uncanny resemblance to Rasputin, he makes it difficult for the reader to be sure whose side he is on. Peter Pettigrew presented a somewhat different challenge because the secret that he did not die thirteen years previously must be concealed until late in the story. Throughout Prisoner of Azkaban, Pettigrew is present like Sirius, but not in his human form. Until Remus spots Pettigrew’s movements on the Marauder’s Map, only Hermione’s cat Crookshanks knows that there is something peculiar about Scabbers, the Weasleys’ mangy, ancient pet rat. Kay misdirects the reader’s attention by drawing the rat and cat scampering across the pages like a couple of Keystone critters. Given the fact that the chase was dead serious, perhaps these drawings were a little too cartoony in style. If Crookshanks had dispatched Scabbers/Pettigrew, imagine how the plot of The Goblet of Fire would have been altered… Deep blacks and purples in The Prisoner of Azkaban could be associated with the difficulty of reading character from faces, with treachery, with the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. Certainly yellow, blue and orange are prominent in illustrations where the future members of Dumbledore’s army are coming into their own, as when Parvati masters the Ridikulous charm or Harry and Hermione fly Buckbeak to the tower where Sirius is being held. The scene by the lake where Harry is confronted by the Dementor is painted in impenetrable blacks, but a snaky, Slytherin green similar to the one used in the background of his fight with the basilisk. Even the unfortunate accident where Harry blows up his hateful Aunt Marge is bright with color, as if to emphasize that the Dursleys, no matter how awful they may be, are not the real enemies.What’s out of balance in The Prisoner of Azkaban is the weight given to the dark, sometimes nearly illegible illustrations of the past represented by James’ circle, and the colorful light-filled ones of the future, represented by Harry and his friends. The glimpses readers catch of the school days of James, Sirius, Remus, Peter, Severus, and Lily revolved more around competition, cruel tricks, and one upsmanship instead of harmless fun, like visiting the pet store in Diagon Alley. Nor are readers treated to enough scenes like the one in Madame Rosmerta’s pub, where the drama comes from the interaction between the figures, rather than isolated moments of horror or fear. Another major disappointment was the exciting sequence where Hermione takes Harry back in time to save Buckbeak and Sirius. In terms of the number of illustrations the episode was allotted, it ended up being all about Harry’s conjuring of the Patronus, not Hermione proving herself the cleverest witch of her generation as well.For many Potterites and literary critics, The Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the set. Will many readers be disappointed that the children did not get the attention they deserved because Kay was rushing to meet the draconian deadline of a volume a year? I suspect there was added pressure on him to produce enough dazzling drawings for the British Library’s exhibition “Harry Potter: The History of Magic.” At least the powers- that-be have realized that Kay deserves more time to work his magic on the fourth installment–but we’ll have to wait until 2019 to see the results.