Friday, March 18, 2005

Jonathan Stroud: The Golem's Eye

On 4 February I wrote about Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand, which is volume one in the Bartimaeus trilogy. Volume two is The Golem's Eye.

You need to be clear at the outset that the Bartimaeus trilogy is a series of books for children -- or at any rate young adults. I mention that because, while some mature readers (me, for instance) are quite content to read books which are aimed at young people, others are not. Also, I have to say, The Golem's Eye is a bit more obviously designed for teenagers than was The Amulet of Smarkand.

What we have here is another book about magic. And if your heart sinks at that, tough. It's like saying that it's a book about crime, or romance. Either you dig that stuff, or you don't. Mind you, you should certainly avoid my mistake, which was to read this soon after reading Susanna Clarke's wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The inevitable comparison had the unfortunate effect of making Stroud look very second-rate. Which of course he is -- because everyone is second rate when compared with Susanna Clarke. Judged on his own, he is pretty good.

The Golem's Eye, like the previous book, is set in a parallel-universe London. Bartimaeus is a 5,000-year-old djinni, or demon, and he is once again he is summoned to work for the teenage magician Nathaniel. But here there is a shift of emphasis from the first book, a shift which Stroud, in my opinion, handles very well. In the first story we were directed to sympathise with Nathaniel, and to be on his side in any of his adventures. To some extent that is still true now, but we are also led to sympathise with Kitty, a teenage girl who is definitely not a magician; indeed she has a genetic resistance to magic.

Kitty is a member of the Resistance movement, which seeks to bring an end to the magicians' domination of society and to restore freedom to the ordinary people. But the star of the show is still, perhaps, Bartimaeus, who has seen it all before, and who entertains us with his sardonic commentary on the foolishness of magicians and ordinary folk alike.

The Golem's Eye is not, perhaps, quite as tightly written as vol. one, but I recommend it anyway. I shall certainly look out for vol. three.

By the way: the Independent, a while back, invited 100 literary luminaries to nominate their favourite characters in fiction. This feature generated much interest among readers, who proceeded to nominate their own favourites. One reader from Somerset put forward Michael (sic) Stroud's creation Bartimaeous (sic), describing him as 'excrutiatingly (sic) witty, engaging without being attractive, awesomely intelligent but lacking self knowledge.' Well, I guess we should give this kid some credit for being a reader, but his teachers get about 3 out of 10 for their spelling lessons.

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