December 8, 2008
Review: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud
The Bartimaeus Trilogy comprises, unsurprisingly, three books: The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, and Ptolemy's Gate. And, oh buddy, are they ever fantastic. This is probably the best fantasy series I've read in a long time, and though I think technically they're YA books, all three are thoroughly enjoyable for adults.
The series takes place in an alternate England, where magic is predominant, rather than technology. The country (and the Empire, naturally) is ruled by an over-class of magicians, who call upon spirits to help maintain their iron rule. Those who we might know as politicians -- Gladstone, Disraeli, Churchill, etc. -- were in fact some of the most powerful magicians of their respective times.
Enter Nathaniel. Taken (well, bought) from his parents at the age of five, he is apprenticed to Mr. Underwood, a minor magician and civil servant. Somewhat predictably, Nathaniel is mal-treated under his care. But he is also learning. After being humiliated at a dinner party when he is eleven, by the magician Simon Lovelace, Nathaniel is determined to avenge himself.
Enter Bartimaeus, a 6th-level djinni of considerable power and no small amount of wit. Bartimaeus is summoned by Nathaniel as part of the latter's plan for revenge, marking the beginning of a long and tempestuous relationship between the pair.
Does this sound a little like Harry Potter to you? It's not. What we have here is not "plucky orphan learns magic, saves world" so much as "plucky orphan learns magic, becomes idiotic megalomaniac, is saved by djinni, like, a million times." It's good. The chapters tend to alternate between viewpoints and narrative voices: either Nathaniel (and some other, later characters) in the third-person, or Bartimaeus in the first. The writing is definitely strongest when Bartimaeus is speaking; he is much the more interesting character, and I can't help but speculate that Stroud enjoyed writing his chapters the most. And as you might guess from the title of the series, it really is more about him than about Nathaniel. Which is just the way it should be, I think. Nathaniel is a pansy.
Bartimaeus also uses footnotes for amusing and/or informative asides. I know that they drive some people crazy, but footnotes are one of my very favourite authorial conceits. They just tickle me. You're all lucky that I can't figure out how to make wordpress do footnotes, or they'd be in every post. Seriously.