Friday, December 3, 2010

Bartimaeus tells it like it is

Book cover: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
Do you have someone in your life upon whom you can depend to always tell you the truth, even when the truth is something that you would prefer not to hear? It was that quality in one of the main characters that appealed to me when I read The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.

The stories: The Amulet of SamarkandThe Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate are set in present-day England but in a world where magicians rule the "commoners," or the non-magical folk.

As the story opens, the magicians' hold on power is increasingly threatened by the commoners' rebellion. There are also unknown traitors operating in the midst of the British government. The magicians' hold on power relies upon their use of otherworldly magical slaves like djinni, imps and foliots.

Nathaniel, one of the human protagonists, is apprenticed to a nondescript wizard at the beginning of the first book. After an older, more powerful wizard humiliates him in front of other wizards, Nathaniel's desire for revenge leads him to attempt summoning Bartimaeus, a powerful djinn.

From the opening pages, the action is fast-paced; the books make for enjoyable reading with well-developed characters.

Nathaniel saves the British prime minister at the end of the first book and in subsequent volumes, is increasingly part of the power structure that produced wizards like the one who humiliated him in the first book. In a poignant scene from the third book, he tries to reconnect with a commoner who was kind to him and tried to protect him as a child but she, observing the person he has become, says sadly that she didn't save him.

The narrative shifts perspective among the main characters, including Bartimaeus, whose first-person account is punctuated by footnotes, sarcastic comments and observations that are more frequently on-the-mark than their hearers want to admit.

Bartimaeus ceaselessly reminds Nathaniel of the person he used to be before he succumbed to political ambition. In many ways, Bartimaeus gives voice to Nathaniel's suppressed conscience.

I really liked this quality in Bartimaeus. He reminded me of a historic court jester, the one person from whom a ruler could accept hearing painful truths. This to me, seems extremely valuable because because I think that most of us too seldom hear genuine constructive criticism.

We might receive insults, extravagant praise or calculated silence instead, none of which does much good.

Some of us may choose to surround ourselves with people who tell us only what we want to hear; I presume that some sort of selection is involved, either conscious or unconscious, in culling people with honest tendencies.

But I think that people need to be told what they need and not want to hear and in spite of his mocking put-downs and his grandiose boasts, Bartimaeus calls it the way he's seen it for hundreds and hundreds of years.

How much better it would be if all of us could rely upon someone like Bartimaeus in our lives.

For more information about the Bartimaeus trilogy, visit The books can be requested through the Lake County Library catalog.

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