The Amulet of Samarkand (2003), Golems Eye (2004) and Ptolemy’s Gate (2005)
“I am Bartimaeus! I am Sakhr al-Jinni, N’gorso the Mighty, and the Serpent of Silver Plumes! I have rebuilt the walls of Uruk, Karnak, and Prague. I have spoken with Solomon. I have run with the buffalo fathers of the plains. I have watched over Old Zimbabwe till the stones fell and the jackals fed on its people. I am Bartimaeus! I recognize no master. So I charge you in your turn, boy. Who are you to summon me?”
— The Amulet of Samarkand (2003)
Have you ever wondered what the Harry Potter books would be like if Harry were a raging asshole? Wonder no more. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books, like those of J.K. Rowling, trace the rise of a gifted young British magician as he is forced to battle evil forces (repeatedly), but the similarities pretty much end there. But that’s okay. The Bartimaeus Trilogy is a ton of fun, and the genre-loving teen should find room for both sets of books on his or her bookshelf.
The three books are set in an alternate universe in which the British Empire, under the rule of a large-ish cabal of magicians, is the world’s leading power. The Brits’ principal rivals are the Czechs, and they’re having a spot of trouble over in the Colonies (that would be the United States), which we hear a little about but don’t really see. Their greatest hero is nineteenth-century magician William Gladstone, whose tomb full of magical accoutrements plays an important role in the later books.
In Stroud’s London, the magicians rule through the use of their magic – but, interestingly, they don’t seem to directly work magic themselves; instead, they summon and enslave spirits from The Other Place to do their bidding. It sounds as though pretty much anyone, given the proper training, can function effectively as a magician; we see at least one commoner become pretty good at it simply through intensive self-study. The magicians do have their weaknesses: For one thing, if a magician gets even a small part of a spell wrong – stumbles over a word, say — the demon can’t be controlled, and all bets are off. Also, If a demon learns a magician’s name, the magician is pretty much toast, so most magicians use assumed names most of the time.
The trilogy begins when young Nathaniel, an apprentice magician, is publicly humiliated by a more senior magician named Simon Lovelace. He vows revenge, and to that end –and behind his tutor’s back – he summons Bartimaeus, a mid-level djinni, to help him steal Lovelace’s most treasured possession, the Amulet of Samarkand. But then Bartimaeus overhears Nathaniel’s real name (he’s known to the world as John Mandrake), and a frequently hilarious battle of wills is on. In The Golem’s Eye, London’s commoners, including shopgirl Kitty Jones, begin to rebel against the magicians’ rule, and young Nathaniel/John Mandrake, now with the Government, is given the job of crushing the Resistance. And in the third book, Nathaniel, Kitty, and Bartimaeus are forced to team up to save London – and possibly the world – from its most daunting threat yet.
There’s a lot to like about these books. First of all, you rarely encounter a protagonist as unlikable as John Mandrake. He’s snotty; he’s arrogant; he’s imperious; he’s entirely sold on his own abilities. Very bad things tend to happen to people who dare to care about him in any way. But very slowly, almost imperceptibly, he starts to evolve over the course of the trilogy, and by the end you can see the making of a decent, and even noble, man.
Of course, it helps that he has Bartimaeus to keep him in line. Thousands of years old, Bartimaeus has both Been There and Done That, and he has absolutely no respect for the callow youth who summoned him, a fact he never allows Nathaniel to forget. His frequent bitchy asides, often in the form of explanatory footnotes in which he clues the reader in to what really happened, are among the highlights of these books.
Kitty Jones – the commoner who becomes Nathaniel’s enemy, and then his ally – is an interesting character in her own right, although she’s not drawn as originally as the other two. I will say that she and Bartimaeus, when they decide that their goals align, make a heck of a team. Oh, and if you think you know where the Kitty and Nathaniel story – powerful and lonely magician + feisty and adorable commoner – is going: You’re right. And then you aren’t. The story goes more or less where you expect it to go, until it doesn’t.
And that leads me what I like best about these books: They are interesting and entertaining, and they don’t talk down to their audience in any way, or insult their readers by insisting on taking the “easy” way out of things. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the final book in the trilogy gives probably the most uncompromising ending I’ve seen in a YA novel.
But it’s not altogether sad! We got more tales of Bartimaeus in the 2012 prequel The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel. This was good news for everyone, particularly magic-loving teens who appreciate a complex, involving, and frequently funny tale.