Like many people in the early 2000s who found themselves clasped in the claws of fierce Pottermania, I was fond of trolling the internet for Potter related stuff. Somewhere, on some website (probably Mugglenet), some industrious soul listed a bunch of books to read while waiting for the next book to come out. This series made the list. I added it to my Amazon wishlist pronto, because that’s how I kept track of books I wanted to read before Goodreads was a thing.
And then I didn’t actually read it for twelve years.
This turns out to have been a bad move on my part, because 1) It’s a very good book–well-written, imaginative, clever, and does things that kid fantasy didn’t do back then, and still doesn’t do much of now (more on this later); and 2) For as much as I enjoyed it as a thirty year old, I bet I would have loved it even more back then when I was closer to the target demographic.
On the other hand, I might be wrong about that last bit. I’m not sure how receptive I would have been to the idea of a “hero” like Nathaniel, who is clearly on the path to the Dark Side, or whatever.
So, Nathaniel is a young magician in training. The world he lives in, an alternate history Britain, is cruel and brutal. People with magical gifts are taken from their parents as children, fostered with strangers, and made to forget their own names. Once grown, these magicians are power-seekers. They rule the British Empire and subjugate practically anyone within reach. This includes “demons” like Bartimaeus. The real secret of magic is that humans only have magic by knowing how to capture and bind what they call “demons” (magical creatures like jinni, in reality) into magical slavery, and use those demons to perform magic.
The story actually begins as Nathaniel, who has been treated poorly by not only his master, but other magicians as well. He sets out to take his revenge on a magician who humiliated him, and does so by summoning the jinn Bartimaeus. He tasks Bartimaeus with stealing an amulet in the magician’s possession, but when the amulet turns out to be stolen, and connected to murder, both of them are quickly in over their heads. The book is duel-narrated by a first person POV from Bartimaeus, and a third person from Nathaniel. Many of Nathaniel’s scenes are flashbacks, and make you feel badly for him, even as he’s learning to become just as awful as every other magician. Bartimaeus is the real voice of this book. He’s funny and glib and has no patience for human beings. It’s a refreshing point of view to take in a book like this, and has the effect of making us think more critically than we already were about what’s going on with Nathaniel and the world he’s a part of.
I’m really glad I finally read this book. It’s a fantasy that is exploring other aspects of life than the hero’s quest, getting the girl, defeating the Dark Lord. I don’t know when I will get to the second two books in the series, but I’m very much looking forward to it.