Wed 13 Feb 2008
Stroud is apparently better known as a horror writer than as a children’s author, but his YA trilogy about an alternate England and a boy magician has been quite popular. This book, and its two sequels, form the Bartimaeus Trilogy, and I’ve got it on good authority (IMDb) that at least the first book is scheduled to be a movie by 2009.
In Stroud’s alternate England, there are magicians and non-magicians, but they live together in a sort of uneasy peace. Each knows about the other, though. Magicians call power using magical objects or by summoning demons of various kinds, from minor imps to do small duties all the way up to djinni and greater beings. The system works as such: magicians have no children, but they are given talented children to raise as apprentices. They are given a use-name as a child, but not until they pass their test at age twelve are they given their official adult names. Nathaniel is born into this world, which is approximately equal in time to ours; technology is a bit different, though. He is given to Mr. Underwood to raise and train. Underwood is a profoundly mediocre magician, but Nathaniel is very creative and talented. Before he passes the twelve-year-old test, he is insulted by one of Underwood’s compatriots in the government, and not being of a forgiving sort, he summons a djinn named Bartimaeus to steal something in the other magician’s possession. Stealing that object leads us into a great conspiracy, involving powerful magical objects, ambitious magicians, attempts on various lives, houses blowing up, and a good deal of intrigue.
Bartimaeus is our first-person narrator for about half the book; the other chapters (they alternate) are third-person from Nathaniel’s point of view. Bartimaeus is incredibly witty, arrogant, and fond of footnotes. (I admit it: I’m a sucker for fiction with footnotes.) He’s been around for a very long time, and has a sort of been-there, done-that attitude about nearly everything that happens. Djinni aren’t fond of being trapped into servitude, so he obviously chafes at the limitations that Nathaniel puts on him, and tries to trick Nathaniel into setting him free. Nathaniel, luckily, is almost a match for Bartimaeus — at least, much more of a match than the djinn was expecting.
The world-building is my second-favorite part of this book. Places, objects, and history are incredibly detailed; the descriptions are very exacting, and the system of magic is logical and consistent within itself. There is a lot of setup, especially in the early parts of the book, which show important parts of Nathaniel’s life prior to age twelve, and a good deal of attention is given to each location Nathaniel frequents, but this description doesn’t bog down the book or slow the action. It’s a long and wordy book, but it still manages to keep things going at a pretty good clip. Most of all, I like Stroud’s alternate England. It has flavors of contemporary England and Victorian England and Lyra’s Oxford (from the Pullman books) all stewed together into its own new concoction. If this book had a smell, it would be wet cobblestones and dusty books — two things I like very much.
My favorite part of the book, obviously, is Bartimaeus himself. He is the real reason that the book doesn’t bog down, and my number-one reason for recommending it highly. He manages to remain an engaging and sympathetic character, even while being somewhat evil and plotting against Nathaniel at every turn. Nathaniel himself is not nearly as interesting as Bartimaeus, and we never are quite so fully in his mind as we are in the djinn’s. Presumably that’s a function of first-person narration versus third, but in any case, Bartimaeus sparkles, and Nathaniel is merely a good character. If I sound like I’m gushing about this character (which I probably am), I apologize — but he does seem like the best reason to read this book.
Minor characters are physically well-described, and some even attain round personalities, but none is quite so interesting and show-stealing as our main djinn. Can a character who is half the narrator and intended to be the main character steal a show? I don’t know, but Bartimaeus does it anyway, through his acerbic wit, pointed asides, and surprising depth of character.
This book is the first part of a trilogy, and a rather epic one at that, but I feel that it stands on its own as a complete work. It will be quite interesting to see how they portray Bartimaeus on screen; obviously he’d have to be animated or CGI, but will he be doing voice-overs to imitate the first-person narrative? At this point, I can only see things that will go wrong with the movie, but I still have hopes that this can translate to the big screen in a satisfying way. 4.5/5 stars.