Monday, August 31, 2009

The Golem's Eye

The Golem's Eye

The Golem's Eye / Jonathan Stroud
New York : Miramax Books, 2004
562 p.
The Bartimaeus Trilogy, bk. 2

At dusk, the enemy lit their campfires one by one, in greater profusion than on any night before. The lights sparkled like fiery jewels out in the grayness of the plains, so numerous it seemed an enchanted city had sprung up from the earth. By contrast, within our walls the houses had their shutters closed, their lights blacked out.

We need to get something straight before I give you my opinion of this book. I have been reading it a few pages at a time since way back in March. I can't explain why because it's got a pretty exciting plot. I just kept forgetting about it. So my idea of the pacing is off and I forgot who some minor characters were between readings, but I'm fairly certain it all came together in my head when I was finished.

That sort of disclaimer would be more important if I were going to pan the book, but in fact, despite my approach, I quite liked it.

Like the first in the trilogy, The Golem's Eye alternates between the perspectives of three protagonists. Nathaniel is an ambitious and scheming young magician working for the British government (a position he earned after the events of the first novel). Bartimaeus is a sarcastic demon that Nathaniel summons as a slave. (That's the way magic primarily works in this world: the summoning and binding of demons of various degrees of power.) They are both from the first book. The third protagonist that makes an appearance here is Kitty, a spirited young peasant (non-magician) who is part of a resistance movement to take down the magical aristocracy that controls Britain and leaves the commoners as second-class citizens.

A bit of a side note on the magic: The demons in the series are loosely based on the hierarchy of spirits in Arabian mythology. Djinni, marids, and afrits make up the bulk of the more powerful beings. If you're at all familiar with the 1,001 Nights or something like Diana Wynne Jones' The Castle in the Sky, you'll find some familiar elements here.

Getting back to it, I liked this book a lot. The class struggle that was the focus of Kitty's plot line is well-crafted and believable, and the reader can really get behind her and her resistance movement, which involves stealing magical artifacts and using them to cause chaos. (It's not terribly effective, but their spirit is inspiring.) Nathaniel and Bartimaeus, meanwhile, are working with the government to take down a golem, a powerful magical creature made by a magician and used as a powerful weapon of destruction. This is interesting enough, but what I most like about their story is that this is one of few young adult novels that masters the portrayal of Bureaucratic Nonsense.

Magicians in Nathaniel's world are power-hungry, conniving egomaniacs who will do anything to gain credit for things that will promote them and divorce themselves from blame for things that will hurt them. It's startlingly unjust and real, and Stroud uses it to his advantage when characterizing Nathaniel. See, he is an utterly hateable character. He's greasy and rude and self-serving without a noble or heroic bone in his body. But Stroud puts the reader on his side by making everyone around him even more unpleasant. You think: "Sure he's a jerk, but at least he's young and there's still hope for him. He's the lesser of a thousand evils, a little pathetic, and his demon puts him in his place with his unending sarcasm so.... Go Nathaniel!"

The story, on top of being rather funny, keeps it real. There's no silly naval-gazing or improbable character shifts like one might expect from a character like Nathaniel in a book for the young. It's a straight-up good story. I look forward to taking 5 years to read the third.

Golem's Eye

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