Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Jonathan Stroud - The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Jonathan Stroud
These books are strictly for fantasy fiction fans.  Bartimaeus is a djinni with a formidable lineage.  He is ancient, 5000 years old.  Here is what wikipedia has to say about him:
The title character, Bartimaeus, is a five-thousand year old djinni, a spirit of approximately mid-level power. There are five basic levels of spirits; in order of increasing strength they are: imps, foliots, djinni, afrits and marids. Above these levels exist even more powerful entities, who are rarely summoned. Human magicians use spells to compel these spirits to perform feats of power.
Bart loves to hang out in the Other Place, where can while his time away in nothingness.  The earth is NOT his favorite place, he seems to dislike humans who can summon him through spells and incantations.  If he were to have his way, he would like to spot a mistake in the spells and gobble up the upstart who dared to disturb his peace.  It is merely because the spells are so binding that he is forced to do the bidding of his master.

At the start of the story, Bartimaeus finds himself pulled back to earth (London, to be specific) by a very correct pentagram and proper incantations by Nathaniel, a very young magicians apprentice.  He is give the difficult job of stealing the Amulet of Samarkand.  Soon we learn all about the precocious Nathaniel.  His parents gave him away to be trained as a magician ever since he was a little child.  He was taken in by Arthur Underwood as an apprentice.   Nathaniel is gifted, but his overbearing master is not in a hurry to teach him, hence he takes to educating himself, by reading books.

The place he lives in is London, but apart from the some shared geography and history, Stroud's London is a different place, peopled by magicians and commoners, djinns and spirits.  It is a tumultuous place,  ready to burst into a revolution, as the commoners are weary of the ruthless and ambitious magicians (politicians?).

Nathaniel is an unlikely hero, bumbling at times and a bit of a prig.  He is overambitious too, and Bartimaeus is an unlikely sidekick.  There is barely any love lost between them, or so it seems.  Bartimaeus is anything but a fawning or a supportive helper.  He is acerbic and loves bringing Nathaniel down a peg or two. Not exactly a Batman-Robin kind of a situation, we see.

Jonathan Stroud takes this unlikely team and gives us a trilogy that is funny, imaginative and full of all the things that we love in a fantasy, an alternate world, lots of magic and magical creatures.  The dangers that the major characters face are huge and seem real.  I don't know if the word 'funny' is enough to explain the humour in these books.  If you like British humour, Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse and all that, you will just love Stroud. In fact, if this magical world had been real, Stroud's books would have been described as a satire.  As the magicians play the role of a politician, I am not sure if it really IS a satire.

The Trilogy comes in three parts:

1. The Amulet of Samarkand :

 Here the story starts with a very young and scared Nathaniel summoning the ancient djinni Bartimaeus and sets him a task to steal the Amulet of Samarkand.  What starts as a prank to teach a fellow magician a lesson, turns into an adventure that seems clearly beyond the scope of Nathaniel.  In this book we get introduced to several characters that we will meet again during the rest of the trilogy.

2.  The Golem's Eye:                                                                            

A couple of years have passed, Nathaniel is more ambitious than before.  He is no longer the child he was.  But yet he finds himself facing troubles for which he can think of no other ally than his old acerbic friend, Bartimaeus.  Kitty, a character we meet in the passing in the first book has a larger role here.  She is the part of Resistance, the commoners' answer to the atrocities committed by the ruthless magicians.

3. Ptolemy's Gate:

The grand and the satisfying finale to the trilogy.  Kitty, Nathaniel and Bartimaeus find themselves facing a kind of danger they could not even imagine.  The solution has to come from ancient history, which is very painful for Bartimaeus.  Nathaniel must quit his supercilious ways if he is to spot the truth.

Comparisons are inevitable with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, but really, how can you compare?  Lord of Rings is in a class by itself.  It is an epic.  Harry Potter is, well, very popular, very different, it is more like a whole franchise.  Perhaps in scope, Jonathan Stroud's series is not as vast, but it is very sure.  There is no misstep anywhere, the humour in his books and the world weary Bartimaeus are the USP of the series.


couchpapaya said...

Ooh, fab review!! I'm dying to pick these up, will have to see where I can get them the quickest from. On an unrelated note, I was browsing the shelves in my library and not really finding anything interesting when I spotted the Mary Bennett book by McCullough. One thing led to another and I brought it home :S I wish I could do a search and replace for Fitz before I even start reading it!!

avdi said...

Haha ! Well, at least you are forewarned, and hence, perhaps, fore-armed.

But do pick up the Bart series.. its awesome

dustedoff said...

I need to re-read these all over again. So gripping, and so much fun. And I love those brilliant footnotes!

Vee said...

While reading the post I had question in mind whether it is something like LOTR and HP series which of course I saw you have mentioned in the end. LOTR I enjoyed a lot and still read couple of pages now n then. HP I liked the book but not enjoyed it much. This one I think I can give it a go.

Honestly, Books you have recommended have never failed my expectations. Kafka on shore and Sea of Poppies to cite. Thanks. Keep reccoing.

avdi said...

Madhu, Oh those footnotes! They were delicious. It is easy to fall in love with Bartimaeus.

Vee - Every fantasy fiction winds up being compared to HP and LOTR, which is ridiculous. HP is more like Enid Blyton meets magic, LOTR is like - well - grandfather of them all, no one can ever touch 'em. Padh ke dekhna, its FANtastic.

PiRatE said...

WOW your review makes it sound very very interesting. I feel like i just have to get out there and grab me a copy of them.
What would be even better is if the LOTR folks make it intoa movie

avdi said...

Pirate - doncha worry.. they are making a movie..

nishitak said...

I love love loved this trilogy for all the reasons you state and more...

I loved that it was more complex than Harry Potter, and yet not such a long read as LOTR.

I think this series just rocked :)

If you are interested, you can read my review here:


avdi said...

Me too Nish. I have already been to your blog. CP had pointed it out to me when I had queried her about the books.

Moushumi said...

Hey! I read this series ages back and then the review today made me nostalgic!!! Totally agree with the review - It is quite different from Harry Potter and a lot of seem-alikes that its popularity spawned. The books are really enjoyable - remember going through 3of them in about 3days!Plus cant help but adore its rude, overbearing djinni Bartimaeus and his love -hate relationship with Nathaniel.

avdi said...

Moushami, thanks!

The books are really great!

couchpapaya said...

Just finished the first one, you were spot on! It's hilarious, enjoyable and quite darker than i expected (which was a pro). Looking forward to reading the rest!!!

avdi said...

CP :) I knew you will like it.

thebutterflydiaries said...

Thanks for posting a Fantasy trilogy review Avdi.

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