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children's literature, childhood and culture (and anything else that strikes my fancy).

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carbon-based life form: thinking, reading and gardening. New College alum; current grad student writing a dissertation. I specialize in children's literature, media, and culture, and queer/gender studies, with a strong interest in 19th century British literature and culture. I like history, a lot.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Bartimaeus

Yesterday I finished reading Jonathan Stroud's first book in his Bartimaeus trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand.

What to make of this book?

I admit I'm skeptical to snarly about the proliferation of glossily-packaged magic/fantasy novels for "children" since the breakout of Harry Potter. Fantasy is what I study, it's my favorite genre within children's lit and has been since I started working "professionally" on children's texts (fall 1998, for those keeping track at home).

The premise appeals: a more-or-less modern-day London, ruled by magicians who depend entirely on a vast array of enslaved magical creatures for their power. This is an alternate world with a different history - London is the center of the universe and capital of a vast empire. Prague is its erstwhile competitor for the claim of most powerful city in the magical world.

But Stroud doesn't do enough, I don't think, with his modern magical world. The Amulet of Samarkand is mainly about Nathaniel, a rather brattish - though brilliant - magician's apprentice who calls up and enslaves Bartimaeus, a pompous, self-important and rather snotty djinni. The cleverest bit here is Stroud's use of first-person narration for the Bartimaeus-focalized chapters. Bartimaeus as narrator is very conscious of his position as storyteller - his narration is littered with footnotes, a number of them very textually self-referential.

The problem with The Amulet of Samarkand, for me, is that I don't like either of its "heroes." Bartimaeus gets tedious with his wholly self-centered existence (although we do see glimmers of a kinder, gentler demon - and I hope these glimmers are expanded in the subsequent two books). Nathaniel initially appeals as the downtrodden genius apprentive/slave to a mediocre master, but his boundless desire for power and revenge is thoroughly unappealing.

I don't mind sarcasm at all, but I suppose I like my fantasy fiction to be a little more full of wonder. Samarkand is smart, cynical and, I suspect, a decent political allegory of sorts (conflict between commoners and magicians). I'm hoping the trilogy brings out these themes without being predictable or derivative, but I'm not too optimistic. I've started The Golem's Eye (the second book) and so far I'm curious but not enthralled. Stroud's a decent enough writer but for me, a good fantasy novel (see: anything by Diana Wynne Jones) is completely captivating. The fantasy needs to be believable, I think, to be good (Jane Yolen writes a nice short essay about this, "Turtles All the Way Down") and I'm not entirely sure that Stroud has created a believable fantasy world.

but i will reserve my Final Judgment until after the trilogy is complete.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Jonathan Shaw said...

Kerry, I read two pages of The Amulet of Samarkand and put it down--I think I was suffering from fantasy fatigue. But for some reason I took it up again and was soon hooked. I think I was enegaged because neither Nathaniel nor Bartimaeus is obviously lovable, though both are interesting, and because the schematics of the world are complex and explicit. So it mightn't mean much coming from me, but I'd encourage you to keep on with the trilogy: a third narrative strand begins, which gives the commoners a voice.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

Kerry I recently read the entire trilogy back to back, having finally got my hands on a library copy of Ptolemy's Gate, and like Jonathan, I urge you to keep going - we get to know Bartimaeus a lot better and I feel he turns out to be far more likeable (although I like him a lot in "Amulet" anyway). The final book is fantastic - a gripping finale to the series.

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Pooja said...

Kerry,

I *just* finished Book II of this trilogy and, yes, it does get better in this one, I have a bigger problem with the book. At first, I had no idea when the book was set. I thought, "Hmmmm... Edwardian England, maybe?" (Colonialism is still a huge part of English identity in this book and there is a fetishization of all things from the East.) However, once I realized that the book was supposed to be set present-day, well, I just got even more frustrated. Why would Stroud want to create a world in which a European power was still an Empire? Why is almost everything sinister/magical in this book "from the East"--Samarkand, the Hindu Kush, the djinnis, etc? As a gradchild of folks who experienced some pretty bad stuff that came out of Empire... well... I just *shudder* when reading this series. Do you think I am being too sensetive? Should I read Book III?

Pooja

3:25 PM  

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