Jan 21, 2009

The Bartimaeus Trilogy

This is another young adult fantasy trilogy, but it's utterly different from the first I reviewed. These three books by Jonathon Stroud are set in an essentially modern-day London. Machines such as cars and planes exist, but instead of electricity or gas, they run on...magic. Specifically, magic supplied by "demons," or, as Bartimaeus, a fantastically snarky djinn prefers to be called, spirits.

These spirits are summoned from the Other Place, what can be thought of as a parallel dimension to Earth. They are enslaved by the magicians who summon them, and it is these magicians, relying on the power of their servants, who run the government. Vain, callous, and completely self-serving, the magicians consistently step on those they are supposedly meant to serve and protect: the people (or as they like to call them in order to keep the class distinction clear, "the commoners".)

Throughout the books, we follow three people. Nathaniel, a young magician is essentially the protagonist; we follow him from age six, when his parents abandon him to the government for the payment they receive for giving up a promising child, until age seventeen. Nathaniel is, on the outside, a perfect magician, just as self-concerned as the rest. Intriguingly, however, he manages to maintain possession of a conscience. This greatly interests the second main character, the djinn Bartimaeus. He's hilarious, delivering extremely dry, British comments throughout the series. But he, also, is more than the stereotype of his kind. He once had a most uncommon bond with one of his masters, and it is this bond that makes the spirit act in ways foreign to the entities of the Other Place. The third character plays only a small role in the first book, but becomes the key to the message of the novels. Kitty is a commoner, but possesses a remarkable ability that allows her to act out against the ruling class of magicians. Her efforts to inspire like-minded action in others often leave her frustrated, but her determination and selflessness hold true.

Nathaniel and Kitty can get annoying at times. Both characters are deeply flawed, as they are clearly meant to be. Kitty's frustration with those around her can lead to the reader's frustration that she doesn't seem to understand why others would be afraid to act against a powerful part of society that would have no compunction to kill and torture them. It is Bartimaeus' comedic relief that tempers this and other literary frustrations.

The world Stroud has created is intricately detailed, and he describes it with great skill. These books are absolutely wonderful, particularly because there is nothing out there quite like them. The ending, especially, is masterful and unexpected; it fits perfectly, whereas other similar endings may seem cheap. These books are definitely worth buying and keeping to read over and over again.

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