Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Bartimaeus Trilogy



The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud, Read by Simon Jones, Listening Library, 2007


The Golem’s Eye, by Jonathan Stroud, Read by Simon Jones, Listening Library, 2004


Ptolemy’s Gate, by Jonathan Stroud, Read by Simon Jones, Listening Library, 2005


There’s something about a trilogy. Especially with books featuring magic and mythology and such. The power of the three.

Numbers themselves don’t play any particular role in Jonathan Stroud’s entertaining series known as The Bartimaeus Trilogy, though any number of your standard magical tropes are on display. This much is to be expected, as it gives the reader familiar ground in unfamiliar circumstances, it has such historical significance, and in a literary sense it adds poetic heft.

Stroud’s books read as a kind of cross between Harry Potter’s lively wit and magical ministries and Philip Pullman’s more somber, amalgamated universe of His Dark Materials (also a trilogy). Told in alternating third person limited narration following the two major human characters in the series, Nathaniel and Kitty, the book really comes to life when the story is given over to the 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus.

Smart-arsed, anachronistic, self-inflating, Bartimaeus relishes his role as provocateur of his masters and confidante to the reader. His jolly telling of events is replete with footnoted commentary as amusing as the rest of the text. He acts as our guide to the universe, filling us in on little details and helping shape our knowledge of the Britain of this series.

Part of what makes Stroud’s novels so fun here is in catching glimpses of the regular British history as warped through magical retelling. Thus the Prime Minister William Gladstone is depicted as one of Britain’s most illustrious magicians, especially as he led the country to victory in their war against the Czech Empire and their magicians.

But there is a darker side to all of this, a side we only partially are given in the first novel of the series, The Amulet of Samarkand. It seems that the magicians of England actually have little power themselves save for what they wield over their much more powerful slave demons (who do all the real work). This doesn’t prevent them from lording their power over the vast bulk of non-magical humans who inhabit the island. In fact, it kind of encourages them to behave abominably as compensation, which naturally causes a reaction in the commoners. Brief mention of this is made after a bombing at a governmental meeting, said to have been done by shadowy members of the resistance. But the first novel is more involved in introducing us to our human protagonist Nathaniel, setting up the world of magical Britain, and explaining the rules of magic.

It is these last that are of particular note in the world Stroud has created, for without strict adherence to the laws of magic, any practitioner of the arts could easily be consumed or otherwise killed by the demons under his control. Humans here summon the demons, then bind them to their will, but woe to the human who steps out of the magical circle prior to completing the binding and double woe to any magician who lets a demon learn his birth name. Precisely why this gives power isn’t made clear, but we know that it will definitely complicate matters when Bartimaeus, summoned and bound by the eleven year old prodigy Nathaniel, overhears Nathaniel’s foster mother use that name instead of his assumed one of John Mandrake.

And it’s that complication which makes the main relationship in the books so entertaining. While Nathaniel holds a particularly powerful binding curse over Bartimaeus’ head should he reveal the name, the djinni’s knowledge gives him strength against some of his master’s power. And he demonstrates this strength through a saucy wit that never fails to amuse the reader.

It’s a relationship with many ups and downs. As Nathaniel moves from triumph to triumph through the series, he grows dependent on then later becomes abusive of and resentful about his connection to Bartimaeus. Their relationship grows throughout the course of the trilogy, and it’s set against the backdrop of Nathaniel’s rise in government circles, the waning of the British magical elite’s control, the growing discontent among the populace for these offensive upper classes, and an eventual all out demon revolt.

As a contrast to this master and slave relationship, we are given the street urchin Kitty, part of the resistance, an organization of magically immune youths under the control of an elderly well-to-do shopkeeper. In the beginning, the resistance merely steals and stockpiles the magical artifacts possessed by the many magicians in government and business. Slowly, though, they expand their horizons toward the possible toppling of the powers that be. Kitty, disbelieving the notion that only the elites are capable of performing magic, begins to teach herself summoning spells.

She ultimately summons Bartimaeus and develops a friendship with him. Meanwhile, Nathaniel, as head of a police task force tracking down the resistance, is captivated by Kitty, having had one brief early encounter with her. Kitty, with her common roots and her sense of decency, is the novel’s counterpoint to Nathaniel’s growing ambition and desire for fame and admiration. In her simple wish for understanding and a life free from oppression, Kitty acts as a foil to Nathaniel’s sense of entitlement, keeping his conscience alive.

The clever aspect of this is that we sympathize with all three protagonists in their respective plot lines despite their conflicting aims. Our shifting loyalties tug us in one direction after another. Part of us wants Nathaniel to defeat his enemies in the government and outfox his competitors, part of us wants Bartimaeus to escape his master’s control, and the largest part of us wants the resistance to be successful in their struggle against the stuffed popinjays of the government. The more odious and more like older magicians Nathaniel becomes, the more we wish for this latter to occur.

Each book is punctuated by a specific magical dilemma as listed in the title. The first book features solving the mystery of who stole the powerful Amulet of Samarkand, a potent charm that absorbs any magical spell cast at the wearer, and what the intended uses for it are. The second book has Nathaniel trying to not only find and crush the resistance, but also solve the mystery of who is controlling the golem smashing through London, destroying homes, businesses, and in one highly charged episode, the British Museum. The third and final book answers the questions of who has been behind the plots from the first two books and what is their even more sinister final plot, why does Bartimaeus frequently take on the human form of a small boy, and what will be the fate of England and the world.

The third book makes its particular political commentary rather pointedly obvious when trouble starts brewing over in England’s American colony. One of the wrinkles of time in the novels is that with all its magical strength, England never let loose its grip on its New World holdings. As we learn of England’s historical past, making a pre-emptive strike against a weakened Czech Empire, we also see its collapsing present as it finds itself bogged down in an increasingly unsuccessful and unpopular guerilla war in the States. Stroud is careful never to let this kind of interpretation become strident in his work, leaving it simmering as a general mood of discontent among the populace and a frequent topic of news and gossip, and instead he keeps his narrative focused on the individual struggles of his characters.

Stroud’s novels are breezy, slyly subversive, sneakily political (making a rather overt economic, class-conscious arguments, a kind of Marx versus magic struggle, as well as the obvious post-colonial debate engendered by Bartimaeus’ pedigree [Mesopotamia, Israel, Sumer, Egypt, and all over the middle east in general]) and enchanting reads. While you don’t need a great familiarity with English history to understand them, there are some lovely jokes that improve with your own knowledge. For example, in considering the archeological collecting mania that swept the nation in the 17 and 1800s, we learn that items such as the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian funerary statues and sarcophagi, and other artifacts ring the nation with protective magic galore, raising the country’s standard in the magical realms.

If there’s a trick Stroud misses in telling the story, with a lying demon as one of the narrative voices, it’s how many ripe opportunities there are for introducing younger readers to the lovely device of the “unreliable narrator.” Why should Bartimaeus tell us the truth of events when he will lie and cheat when he can elsewhere in the story? One needn’t go to the difficulty of making the entirety of his version of events questionable, but having him deliberately withhold information among other tricks would certainly have spiced things even more so.

What’s an interesting comparison with Harry Potter (a comparison we can hardly avoid these days with all the subsidiary magical series appearing in that series’ wake) is how morally complicated a character Nathaniel is with his divided loyalties. Harry we never question his goodness, only his patience; if he has a flaw it is that, his inability to keep his cool, his raging emotions. Nathaniel here finds himself torn by his heart’s secret desire to do good, to be good, while his ambition and fear of insignificance force him towards unworthy actions.

Stroud keeps things at a tight tension in this conflict of the soul, crushing one dream of Nathaniel’s then another, his ambition writhing and struggling to find some new goal, some new honor on which to batten. It is ultimately the heroic growth of Nathaniel’s character that the novels are primarily dealing with, the signal to all the magical noise, and for that Stroud’s trilogy is a worthy addition to the latest crop of younger readers’ books.

Simon Jones, recognizable to fans of the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC radio series, turns in some fine work here. His comic timing is used for maximal effect, while his warm-timbred pipes gives Bartimaeus’ droll asides a rather enjoyable sneering quality.

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