The premise of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is simple: He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, weak as a newborn, is powerless to reassert his will on the wizarding community. He schemes to obtain a specimen of Harry’s blood for the spell that will restore him to a human body: another victim would do,but the poetic justice of forcing the Boy-Who-Lived to be an accessory is irresistible. Until then, the dark lord must carry out his plan through creatures like Wormtail or the pale, hard-eyed Crouch junior, the subject of one of the best portraits in the volume.A lot happens in the 300-odd pages before Harry lands in the Little Hangleton graveyard and squares off with Voldemort. There are peeks into the Burrow’s cluttered kitchen and Ron’s memorabilia-cluttered cave. The flying leprechauns and swaying Veelas cheer on their teams at the World Quidditch Cup. The fans party hearty until the dark mark appears in the night sky. The champions from Beauxbatons, Durmstrang, and Hogwarts must be chosen for the Tri-Wizard Tournament and unscrupulous journalist Rita Skeeter’s coverage endured. Creating space for Jim Kay to illustrate and decorate this sprawling narrative as lavishly as the first three volumes meant some clever redesign. By setting the text in two columns in a smaller font, it was possible to fit the entire story into a 450-page volume uniform with the others. The high point is the sequence of eight double-page spreads for the climactic resurrection chapters: three spreads lead up to the stone cauldron scene, one portrays the arrival of the Death Eaters, and three dramatize the magical duel.The first part of the section shocks with an illustration of a character dying from an unforgiveable curse. When Harry and Cedric share the honors by touching the trophy, their act of good sportsmanship drops them into the graveyard’s murky green darkness. Winning the Tri-Wizard Tournament turns out to be the deadliest game they could have played. Almost immediately, the young men hear a disembodied voice say “Kill the spare” to a short man unrecognizable as Peter Pettigrew. When his curse strikes Cedric, his contorted corpse is silhouetted by blinding greenish-yellow light streaming in all directions. There was no pathos or nobility in the death of Hufflepuff’s champion, the house where Hogwarts places its plodders.The voice, of course, was the dark lord’s. Up until now, all that has been seen of him was the red eye attached to the back of Quirrell’s head in Philosopher’s Stone. In the form of Riddle, he was heard, but not seen in the Chamber of Secrets. He made no appearance in Azkaban. As Pettigrew prepares to cast the spell, the image of a raw, red, bloody creature out of a nightmare suddenly confronts the reader’s eyes. Kay’s monstrous cross between a human embryo and a diseased crustacean is so much more menacing than Rowling’s words, that the second picture of his skeleton rising out of the cauldron seems a cliché in comparison. Would it have been more ominous to see Pettigrew stabbing Harry’s arm? Or more suggestive if the first glimpse of the reembodied dark lord were the cold red eyes and flat nose on pages 396-7?After rebuking the reassembled (and edgy) Death Eaters for their lukewarm loyalty during his thirteen-year-exile, he gives Pettigrew the sign to return Harry’s wand. Voldemort’s next move was to supposed to be dispatching Harry in a farcically unequal fight, but only Ollivander could have predicted how the way their wands would behave in a duel. Voldemort’s startling setback is illustrated in six pages with green-black backgrounds. Seen from below, he looks up with an unfathomable expression at the bead of light Harry has forced to the end of his wand (Harry appears two pages later, after the one of Voldemort and Harry in the eerie yellow cage of light, completing the composition). The eye goes hard right to Harry’s crouching body, arms outstretched in the effort to hold the wand steady. To the far left the dark lord’s smaller, less dynamic figure recedes, while the Death Eaters’ larger silhouettes break up the golden beam of light connecting the antagonists. This spread follows closely Rowling’s words (unavoidably but inconveniently placed after it); yet critical details like the figures of James and Lily hovering over their son are all but lost in the murk. For all Kay’s boldness, the sequence might have been more intense if there had been less detail.Compared to Harry and the dark lord, the champions of the Tri-Wizard Tournament hardly seem to be in contention. The magical creatures were given more space, in any event, than the young wizards. The Common Welsh Green dragon, Swedish Short-snout, the Chinese Fireball, and Hungarian Horntail (a relative of Drogon?) imported for the first challenge bristle with spikes and fangs. A gross of Grindylows lurking below the surface of the Hogwarts lake to as distractions to the champions during the second task are more compelling than the picture following of a splinched Viktor Krum. The life-cycle of the blast-ended skrewt, a repulsive insect with a pimply pink exoskeleton and a slew of long, skinny legs, is carefully documented before an adult makes an appearance in the maze. I wouldn’t have missed another picture of the gigantic spiders from the Forbidden Forest if it had been replaced with one of the funny, miserable moments that happen between the tasks, like Harry in the bath room trying to crack his egg while Moaning Myrtle leers.Humor takes a backseat to horror most of the time in Goblet, but when Kay tries to lighten the mood, as in the underdeveloped Viktor Krum/Hermione subplot, the results can be heavy handed. Krum is introduced to the reader in a splendid poster of him glowering, with broom overhead, every inch the Quidditch star, with nothing of the Durmstrang Academy about him. Off the Quidditch field, however, he is physically and socially awkward, but he looks like a goon with vampire blood next to a radiant Hermione at the Christmas ball. If he were that ghoulishly unattractive, why would Hermione have accepted his invitation or tolerated his constant companionship in the library? Another good subject would have been a jealous Ron finding them in the stacks, but Kay prefers focusing on single figures.The remaining three volumes, like this one, mix up magical derring-do, teen angst, and strange creatures in fabulous settings, giving Kay a wealth of choice for subjects. It would be wonderful if he’d abandon the book decorations, which don’t add as much to the visual storytelling as would illustrations of Hogwarts interiors. Or stretch himself and tackle a few more dramatic scenes where several characters interact. Until The Order of the Phoenix later this year.
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.