Imagine a world where magicians aren’t just the hocus-pocus men with a cheap-looking cape who pulls colorful tissues from their pockets and coins from your ear at a 10-year-old’s birthday extravaganza. We’ve all dreamed it at some point in our lives, right? But what if a world filled with magic wasn’t as lovely as many of us like to imagine? In a bleak parallel world of The Bartimaeus Trilogy, magicians are the elite, power-hungry, and self-serving people who run the British government, suppressing the commoners (that would be you and me) by keeping them ignorant or, if that doesn’t work, by intimidation and brute force. Surveillance spheres reminiscent of Big Brother are set up about London allow the magicians to watch the commoners going about their lives constantly. The commoners aren’t the only ones the magicians suppress. In The Bartimaeus Trilogy, magic isn’t some obscure skill that allows a person to make something levitate or shot sparks from her fingertips; a magician’s power comes from the demon he summons into his world, enslaves, and forces to do his bidding. You may have read fantasy novels about magic before, but this series is unlike any other.
If magicians sound like terrible, unsympathetic beings, well, the author, Jonathan Stroud, won’t let readers off so easily. The first book of the series, entitled The Amulet of Samarkand, introduces us to Nathaniel, a 12-year-old apprentice magician trying to work his way through the cold system. Like all magicians, at a young age, he was separated from his parents and placed under the care of a full-fledged magician to cultivate those skills. Under the strict eye of his uncaring master, young Nathaniel was raised and studied the basics of magic. At last he is going to summon his first demon. That’s when his path collides with Simon Lovelace, a charismatic and established magician who cruelly and mercilessly humiliates the boy at a social gathering. Enraged by the mistreatment Lovelace inflicted on him and betrayed by his master who did not raise a hand to stop him, all in order to preserve his own image, Nathaniel plots revenge. Summoning Bartimaeus, a witting demon of power beyond the usual capabilities of a young apprentice, his first order is for the demon to steal a powerful magical item from Lovelace. With that one order, Nathaniel finds himself wrapped up in plots of murder, espionage, and rebellion.
Some of you may have noticed that I make no mention of a female character. Indeed, there is no lead female character in the first book. This disappointed me a bit. While I was somewhat unconvinced that the story was anything amazing at the beginning, the more I read, the harder it became to put it down; I ended up reading The Amulet of Samarkand quicker than I’ve read any book in a while and loved it by the end. I thought it would be that much better if there were just a female character who played an active part. Well, Stroud didn’t disappoint and upon picking up the second entry, The Golem’s Eye, I was introduced to the strong-willed and determined Kitty.
Unlike Nathaniel, Kitty is a commoner. As a young child, Kitty and her friend experienced the inequality of their government firsthand when a magician attacked them and then easily convinced the court system that he only acted in self-defense. Many of the commoners around Kitty are too scared or ignorant to do anything about such a corrupt system, but not her. Soon after this incident, Kitty joins a small group who have chosen to resist the magicians’ rule.
While Kitty only makes one brief appearance in the first book, in the second and third she is just as important a character as Nathaniel and Bartimaeus; she isn’t just some token female character created to appease female readers. The series is set up so that each main character gets chapters from their point of view which creates a feeling that each of them is equally vital to the story. And like the rest of the colorful cast, Kitty is a complicated character who avoids stereotypical traits. For once, the female lead is not involved in a romance (nothing against romance, but it’s a nice change) and it is made clear that she is a force to be reckoned with. Kitty gets my seal of approval.
In the three books that make up this trilogy, Stroud paints an addicting tale full of complex and fleshed out characters in a dark world. Flipping between the narratives of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Kitty, he allows readers the insight of circumstances of each major group (magicians, demons, and commoners) that gives the series a well-rounded and more complex view of events. As these characters try to maneuver in the dangerous world where one wrong step could mean disaster, collide with each other, and grow, one can’t help but get caught up in their lives.
The series is young adult fiction and suggested for kids aged 10 and up, but Stroud’s masterfully crafted story allows older readers well beyond that of the suggested age group to enjoy it, too. It is humorous, thinks to Bartimaeus’ snarky and witting commentary, and adventurous yet full of social commentary, deep characters, and darker elements of the plot that ground it in the realms of reality and add intellect not seen in all of fiction. The trilogy is an original take on magic and the plot is filled with truly unexpected twists. If you liked Harry Potter, especially the later half of the series, or are just looking for a well-crafted and intelligent fantasy that will suck you in completely, I can’t recommend The Bartimaeus Trilogy enough.