I was 23 years old and working in an independent book shop when this book first came out. In 2003 Potter Madness was at its height, and it seemed like every second book publishers were releasing was set in a wizarding school. It was horrible. I took this one out of the box, read the back cover copy, saw “magician’s apprentice”, and my eyes glazed over. Pass.
Fast forward 13 years, and after reading some positive reviews I finally give it a go. Turns out it’s really good.
Comparisons to Potter are inevitable, and the magical critters in this are kind of like Rowling’s house elves, but without the fawning docility or shitty cockney accents. There’s a nice variety of them too: from the world-weary baby imp in Nathaniel’s scrying glass, to the mindless spiky flying things used for reconnaissance, right up to the Lovecraftian monster from beyond space and time that crashes the party at the end. It’s easy to impress me: just add more monsters.
It’s an alternative history (not “alternate history” you charlatans), which threw me at first, because I had to keep reminding myself that it’s set in a modern day Europe rather than the routine nineteenth century steampunky world that so many of these kinds of books seem unable to get out of. England is the big superpower, and its government consists of an elite of pompous, conniving magicians. Their big secret is that they’re not particularly magical at all – they just hold (or fail to hold) power over a range of magical critters who do their dirty work for them. The magicians look down on commoners, but are fearful of them. Rebellion is hinted at, and several revolutionaries make an appearance, but that plotline doesn’t really go anywhere, and I can only assume it was being set up to be fleshed out in later books. Nevertheless, it opens the door to some nice thematic stuff, which I’m sure will become clearer in the sequels too. The author (thankfully) refrains from moralising, so it’s left up to the reader to draw parallels (the magicians’ pettiness and ruthlessness reminded me of academia more than anything).
It has two main characters, with the Bartimaeus chapters written in first person and the Nathaniel chapters in third. I found Nathaniel unconvincing: frankly I wouldn’t have cared if the jackal-headed monster ate him back in chapter 3. I did feel like the author was straining to get the reader into Nathaniel’s corner, and first person could have achieved that (it would have helped if Nathaniel was actually interesting, too), as well as making the book flow better. There’s a section of about 5 pages long which is all telling, as Nathaniel Comes to Terms With His Grief and Finds a Way to Go On. Snore. The egotistical djinn Bartimaeus makes up for this in spades though. Bartimaeus’s voice is superb – he’s like a wisecracking cop from a crime novel, but Stroud doesn’t let the gags become annoying. Further, Stroud’s got style (his prose isn’t jaw-dropping but he writes tightly and can turn a neat phrase). Nor is he afraid to let the monsters feed.
Now I’m a sucker for footnotes in fiction, and Stroud does a great job with them here. Most of the best gags are in the fine print for starters. But I’ve always been told that footnotes are a distraction… hold on, I just got 6 Facebook notifications.
It’s a sad thing to admit, but this is the first MG (or YA for that matter) novel I’ve read in a long time that actually makes me want to read the sequel. Which I ordered just moments ago. If only I could summon an imp to bring it to me now.