The Bartimaeus Trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate)

Bartimaeus 1 By Jonathan Stroud [LibraryThingAmazon]

When Nathaniel, a young magician-in-training, summons the djinni Bartimaeus to get revenge for a minor humiliation, he has no idea that he’s embroiling the two of them in a massive conspiracy. As the years pass and Nathaniel rises in influence in the government, various coups fall, each one merely an offshoot of the one that threatens not just England, but the world. In the end, it’s up to Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Resistance fighter Kitty Jones to save the day – if they can stop squabbling long enough to do it.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy does two very daring things. The first has to do with the narrative structure. The first book of the trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand, is divided pretty evenly between Nathaniel’s point of view and Bartimaeus’s; the second two books are divided between Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Kitty. But while Nathaniel and Kitty have pretty standard third-person narration, Bartimaeus’s sections are told in a very informal first-person, complete with footnotes for all of his historical tangents and sarcastic asides. Had Stroud come to me before writing this series and told me of his plan to write the books that way, I would have advised him strongly against it, said there was no way anyone could pull it off. And yet – he does. Somehow it works, and works well.

Bartimaeus 2 The other daring thing Stroud does has to do with Nathaniel. Both Rebecca and I have talked about the Everykid problem on this blog. The Everykid (obviously a younger version of the Everyman) is a sort of bland, inoffensive figure who often takes center stage in fiction. By making the protagonist an Everykid, the author seeks to give the reader a featureless character to project him- or herself onto, and when handled poorly the Everykid becomes a void through which the story progresses, rather than a character in his or her own right.

Stroud sidestepped this problem neatly by making his primary protagonist, Nathaniel, a giant pain in the butt. No Everykid, this – Nathaniel is arrogant, cruel, emotionally constipated, and bigoted. He often makes the wrong choice or says the wrong thing, and in fact the first five sixths of the series show his spiral down from “kind of obnoxious kid” to “actually rather horrible young man.” (Naturally, that last sixth brings him back up again, and it’s a very enjoyable journey.) Again, I would hesitate to advise a writer to make their protagonist obnoxious, but it works! And despite it all, there’s something kind of lovable about Nathaniel.

This may be because Nathaniel’s bad qualities are easy to understand, based on his upbringing. The Bartimaeus Trilogy takes place in an modern day but pseudo-Victorian London, where magicians rule the British Empire (and therefore the world), while commoners (non-magicians) are treated like less than garbage. All magic comes from summoning demons of various degrees, though the commoners are mostly ignorant of this fact. Thus it’s a world built half on severe classism and half on slavery, and the series is very serious about exploring alternatives to both of these problems, highlighted by Kitty and Bartimaeus respectively.

Bartimaeus 3 Neither of these characters have Nathaniel’s hard-to-like quality. Bartimaeus is witty, charming, and a fantastic, if unreliable, narrator. But he’s not two-dimensional, despite his non-human, 5,000-year-old status – he grows and changes throughout the books, and is a much deeper character than he original seems. Kitty, meanwhile, is sheer brilliance. The series improves markedly once she becomes a major character in the second and third books. Clever, defiant, and tough as nails, with a journey that reflects Nathaniel’s – from idealism to despair and back to a more mature hope – she’s incredibly fun to read about and I want to be her when I grow up. Furthermore, the relationships that develop between the three characters are fascinating and complex, since they all totally hate each other but also kind of secretly love each other just a little bit. It makes me wish for more books in the series.

What more can I say? The villains are properly villainous, the plots are tight and exciting, the world is fully realized, the moral ambiguities are thought-provoking. I adored the characters and was sad to say goodbye to them at the end. I could go on, but it would get both boring and spoilery, so I’ll just say that The Bartimaeus Trilogy gets the coveted five cupcakes, and a cherry on top.

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    5 Responses to “The Bartimaeus Trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate)”

    1. Ingrid says:

      Oh, this /is/ nice to read. I picked up the first book used a few years back and only just read it last month and was thoroughly delighted by how atypical it was. But I only had that first book, not the second two on hand for easy reading, so I haven’t read past it yet and wasn’t sure if Stroud would be able to keep it up.

      I was also worried because the first book is so devoid of a strong female presence. Or, really, much of a female presence at all beyond the two maternal, idealized, and eventually victimized women in Nathaniel’s life. It’s good to hear that a female protagonist is introduced in book two. I may have to actually start seriously hunting for books two and three now.

    2. Jessica says:

      Yeah, the series just gets stronger as it goes on. His art teacher shows up again in the third book, actually, and sort of reclaims her status from “victim” to “fully-fledged character” in one brief scene. It’s pretty awesome. And Kitty is just fantastic. That isn’t to say that there couldn’t be more female characters in the books, because they are very male-centric, but the second and third books are much better in that respect.

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    4. Hannah says:

      I loved these books!!!!!!!!!! I read the last page of the last book over and over again. I loved it. . .but I hated it. . .but I loved it.
      Kitty was amazingly AWESOME!!! And so was Bartimaeus, he was the reason I picked up the books. I read the back of the first book and thought it looked funny. It was so good!!!!!! Ugh!! I want him to write more books about it!!!!! This may be a spoiler so if any of you haven’t read the books yet, I wouldn’t read the rest of this comment.

      The ending was a bit depressing! And I had just started to like Nathaniel again!! In the first book I had thought he was good but in the second book he drove me insane! But I sort of liked the ending, depressingness and all! I’m defiantly going to read these books again! They were great!!!!!

    5. Melody says:

      I read the first book in this series a while ago and while I had the second and third at the time, the inclusion of Kitty’s POV made me hesitate, because oh man, I have been so burned by obnoxious female characters inserted midway through stories who are *meant* to be strong and asskicking and awesome but are constantly referred to as being “better than the boys,” which is really just another way of writing female characters who are focused around guys. But your description of Kitty helps and I think I probably will finish the series, so – thanks? 🙂

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