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Books: The dark side of Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

by J K Rowling

Bloomsbury pounds 10.99

Like Gameboys, Teletubbies and films by George Lucas, the Harry Potter books have permeated the national child consciousness. For novel that are complex enough to demand work from their readers - and, unlike the above, have no TV tie-ins or merchandise - this is a fantastic achievement.

It goes without saying that teachers, librarians and all parents - especially those whose children are or were reluctant readers - love Harry. My older kids - Jacob, 10, and Chloe, eight - devoured the first two quicker than they would a pack of Starbursts.

Jacob begged me to read it so we could discuss it. Chloe began writing her own version immediately. I know a man who took it on the Tube to the city, furious at having missed the bedtime instalment. And now Harry may even get on the National Curriculum.

So I began with real interest. How does she do it? What is Rowling's hypnotic secret? What makes even the most recalcitrant reader want to keep on reading long after lights out?

Well, the books are extraordinarily vivid and exceptionally well imagined, but the real element that stands out, at least in this new one, is Death. Yes, really and most unnervingly, this book crawls with it - horrible death, omens of death, fevered talk of killing and murders, foul creatures whose main aim is to cause death.

For the uninitiated, Harry is a wizard orphan whose wizard parents were murdered long ago by the evil Lord Voldemort. Oppressed by his "beefy, purple-faced" Uncle Vernon Dursley (who incidentally is pro capital punishment), Harry spends most of the year at Hogwart's Academy for trainee wizards, a welcome relief from life chez Dursley.

Hogwart's is really a boarding school straight out of Angela Brazil. It has common rooms and prefects and dormitories. Just like any respectable Brazil, Blyton or C S Lewis child, you get there, with your trunks, on a steam train with everyone breathlessly comparing notes about their hols. Only this steam train is magic and at Hogwart's there's no Latin or maths, but Care of Magic Class, Defence Against the Dark Arts Class and a wonderful game called Quidditch, played on broomsticks against other schools.

But a terrible new villain, Sirius Black, has just escaped from the high- security prison Azkaban. It is known that he was the cause of Harry's parents' betrayal and murder and now "is deranged and wants Harry dead". As if that wasn't enough, Azkaban is guarded by creatures called Dementors who have hands that protrude from their cloaks, "glistening, greyish, slimy-looking and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water..." Their faces are hidden because when they wish to "destroy someone utterly" they "clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim and suck out his soul".

Looking at a Dementor brings out a person's worst fears. When Harry looks at one, he hears the appalling dying screams of his murdered mother (I kid you not) as she pleaded for the life of her child. As a teacher observes to Harry with insight worthy of In the Psychiatrist's Chair, "The Dementors affect you worse than the others because there are horrors in your past that the others don't have."

And just in case you hadn't had enough death and horror, there is also a strong- ish chance of sighting a Grim - a "giant spectral dog that haunts churchyards". If you see him, your own death is nigh. Phew.

Now of course, like all the best and most enduring children's classics, Harry Potter is all about the battle between Good and Evil and Good wins - well, just. I admire the book's frankness and energy - Rowling just doesn't know the meaning of the word patronise - and also the rigour with which she establishes this strange parallel world (there are plenty of little jokes for grown-ups).

She takes odd, endearing risks too, with the narrative. Now and then the plot daringly dribbles to a halt as a magic lesson or a strange creature is described in heart-stopping detail. Despite the gore there's not a lot of obvious action - a great deal of drama is revealed in conversation with characters explaining past events to one another while everyone stands statically around listening.

Strange, perhaps, but good. Such complexity of character, such emphasis on conversation, demands a proper attention span. There are endless unravellings, riddles and new ideas to keep up with. I am 39 and I had to concentrate. If my eight-year-old finds all this enthralling, then great.

Which still leaves the death.

"Do you find it at all scary?" I ask Chloe as lightly as I can. "I mean all the stuff about death and the Grim and the Dementors... ?'

She pulls her nose out of the book and shrugs.

"Well, a bit," she admits, "But you see, I know if they get him, Harry's only going to almost die."

"Oh, and why's that?" I ask her gently.

"Because there are going to be lots more in the series," she tells me with the utmost pleasure and confidence.