I don’t have any recollection of people discussing this series in the early 2000s. I only have vague memories of Bartimaeus’s face leering at me from atop a bookshelf at our school library in middle-school. I chose to read it only because I discovered it among my fiancé’s books from his childhood home. It left enough of an impression on him that he had decided to keep it (along with the other two books in the trilogy) all these years so I thought I would give it a go.
I have to say, I’m glad I did.
In spite of the fact that I’m obviously not in the age demographic this is targeted towards, I enjoyed this just as much as a child would. In fact, I think I enjoy it more as an adult than I would have as a kid. Much like Harry Potter, it doesn’t talk down to its audience, and I believe this is both to the book’s credit and its detriment.
The plot itself isn’t difficult to follow by any means, but some of the vocabulary used in this book might have gone over my head as a child and caused me to lose interest. Hell, I actually had to look up a few words up in the dictionary, especially the architectural terms, because I, a 26 year-old woman, didn’t know what a “cornice” was.
Considering how much is going on in this story, the book handles world-building in an impressively clever way. Rather than doing massive exposition dumps, bits of information are sprinkled here and there, playing in the background of the bigger plot. It makes sense for this to be the case as Nathaniel, a 12 year-old boy, isn’t going to care about adult things that don’t directly effect him, and yet we, the readers, can ascertain what is really going on in the world these characters live in.
Speaking of characters, unfortunately, I found most them to be quite dull and one-note, especially those of the female persuasion. I’m not going to cry “sexist” because I don’t think this was done intentionally, but it’s worth noting. Mrs. Underwood in particular is criminally underdeveloped considering she has such a huge impact on Nathan’s life. I wouldn’t expect for her character to have an arc or elaborate backstory, but she seemed to have no personality outside of being a good person.
That isn’t to say that all the characters were uninteresting, however.
I thought Nathaniel was a unique protagonist for a children’s book considering his moral code is significantly underdeveloped. While not a “bad person” per say, Nathaniel clearly has an ego and covets renown from his peers. He also falls prey to a lot of the same classist prejudices and narrow-minded beliefs many magicians hold. Prejudices he is not cured of by the story’s end.
It’s clear Stroud is playing the long-game when it comes to Nathaniel’s moral awakening and that suits me just fine. I always find it annoying when characters just intrinsically rebel against what they have been taught all their lives simply so the writer can portray them as being “special” right from the off. It’s much more realistic and cathartic for characters to change organically by having their beliefs questioned throughout the narrative.
As for Bartimaeus….I love him. I suppose the whole “sassy other-worldly creature” trope is old at this point, but dammit if I didn’t find him endlessly entertaining. His interactions with others of his kind are some of my favorite moments as you get a clear understanding of how “demon” culture works. I thought the bullet-points were a bit excessive in places, but on the other hand it gives the curious reader more insight all without bogging down the plot with unnecessary details.
I hope in the books that follow we will be able to dive even deeper into Bartimaeus’s past. I know that might slow down the plot a bit, but I found all the nuggets about his previous summonings and experiences to be interesting and I would love to hear more about it.
All in all, I enjoyed all the world-building, twists and turns, and spirit of this novel.
It leaves you with enough questions to keep you longing for Book 2, all without feeling like the entire things was just a set up for the sequel.
If you are looking for a fun, engaging read to ward off your quarantine blues, I highly recommend it.