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The Golem's Eye

Style: Good

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive

In Brief: Engaging magical adventure story with some intriguing discussions about moral convictions and the rise and fall of empires.

Cover of The Golem's Eye

Author: Jonathan Stroud

Series: The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Publisher: Corgi

Published in: 2004

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: Contemporary

Genres:  AdventureFantasyHumorous


Characters:

  • Nathaniel, now 14 years old, is a junior member of the Department for Internal Affairs. His ambition for power and influence coupled with his ability and determination make him a formidable character, but he is too conscious of image and position and still very inexperienced.
  • Bartimaeus is a middle-ranking Djinn between whom and Nathaniel there is a certain mutual respect bordering on affection but mixed with distrust.
  • Kitty Jones is a young member of the Resistance movement, a small group of Commoners determined to overthrow the power of the corrupt Magicians. Initially fervent and disgusted by the Magicians she later realises that the Resistance members are little better and are unlikely to achieve much.

Synopsis:

Nathaniel and Bartimaeus try to discover who’s controlling the Golem they believe is responsible a series of high-profile acts of destruction across London. While they are in Prague secretly attempting to make contact with any Czech magicians who may still retain the secret of making Golems, the Resistance movement attempts to rob Gladstone’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. The theft is foiled by the Afrit Honorious, insane after a century bound to Gladstone’s skeleton. Nathaniel returns to London and must prove the credibility of his investigation by destroying the rogue Afrit, tracking down Kitty Jones, and locating the Golem’s controller, almost certainly a member of the Government.

Read a précis of the entire story (will contain spoilers)

Notes:

The middle book in a trilogy always has to work a bit harder to keep up the momentum. The first book, if it paces things right, has the set-up and the introduction of characters to carry itself forward. The final book is building up for the dénouement. The middle book has to expand on the existing characters and situations, introduce the reader to anything he’ll need to know for the final chapter, and still produce a credible story in its own right. In short it has to produce a satisfying story in its own right while leaving enough for the final episode to do.

The Golem’s Eye does manage this feat, fleshing out the character of Kitty Jones briefly glimpsed in The Amulet of Samarkand, moving Nathaniel forward although not necessarily in the direction he’ll eventually take, and giving Bartimaeus a chance to elaborate on human-djinni relations to a neutral observer. It also sets up the idea of a Djinn occupying a material body which will become important in Ptolemy’s Gate. True, the titular Golem is something of a sideshow, a catalyst to keep things moving around . So the plot consists essentially of two parallel strands: Nathaniel investigating the Resistance and the Golem-maker; and Kitty and the Resistance being helped by a shadowy benefactor and causing uproar when they rob Gladstone’s tomb.

But there’s a little bit more to this series than merely an exciting story of Commoners vs Magicians, shape-changing Djinni, marauding Golems, and Westminster Palace intrigues. There’s an attempt to use the characters of Kitty, Nathaniel and Bartimeus to explore the three-cornered triangle of Magicians, Commoners and Demons both in the present day and throughout history. And along with that exploration of the dynamics of these different groups comes a growth of sorts in each of the principal players.

The young Kitty, always a little rebellious, is enraged by an arrogant Magician’s baseless attack on her and her friend. She’s even more upset when the Magician is let off and she is fined especially since her parents are too timid to support her. In her anger, she’s drawn to the small Resistance group and is involved with them a few years until their big moment: the raid on Gladstone’s tomb. The group has never been much more than a ragtag bunch, carrying out raids just big enough to get a mention in the press. But it’s not until they are in the tomb and reaching greedily for the treasures hidden in Gladstone’s coffin that Kitty’s eyes are opened and she sees the pathetic reality of them all.

It’s a revelation which affects her not so much because of the sordid nature of their work – she’s been stealing and scrounging for years – but because she had thought that the resistance was something noble and worthwhile; and now she sees it as grasping and futile. This revelation coupled with the death of the others and her own very narrow escape shakes her considerably. She continues to despise the Magicians and all they stand for but finds herself drawn to Bartimeus, temporarily her captor, and understands from him that while she and the Commoners are downtrodden, he and the Djinni are slaves to the Magicians who summon them.

Meanwhile Nathaniel has acquired a layer of sophistication, although not of maturity. He affects a style of clothing which he considers fashionable but which actually makes him something of a laughing stock. The raw emotions and innocence of his early years have given way to ambition and an element of ruthlessness. The Djinn calls him on this after their return from Prague. To persuade the Czech Magician Kavka, Nathaniel had promised to free his children taken as spies in London. Lacking the power to make good on this promise, Nathaniel pushes the matter away until Bartimeus prods his conscience into remembering. But even then, it’s not until the whole affair is over that he’s willing to risk his position by calling in this favour.

Bartimeus is as insouciant as always, but unbends a little in the presence of Kitty whom he finds a refreshing change. And she, for her part, is scornful of his role but is sympathetic when he explains about the relationship that the Djinni have with their masters. And she’s interested to hear that the magical resistance which she carries is historically the precursor to an overthrow of the ruling Magicians. She’s also interested to learn that Magicians will keep Commoners from learning (they are hidden in a building which had previously housed a library). The ages-old Bartimeus has seen empire after empire rise under the Magicians and fall from within to increasingly magic-resistant Commoners.

Matters are brought to a head for all three of them when Nathaniel is forced into a political corner and feels obliged to renege on a promise of freedom he had made to Kitty & Jakob. In an entertaining exchange, which illustrates the Djinn’s ability to misinterpret commands, Nathaniel orders Bartimeus to prevent Kitty and Jakob from escaping just as the Golem arrives and attacks them all. Nathaniel, knocked unconscious by the backblast of Gladstone’s Staff, is unaware that Kitty, in spite of his double-dealing, has saved him from the Golem’s attack. Unaware because Bartimeus, to his own surprise, encouraged Kitty in this act, helped her escape, and then lied to Nathaniel about her supposed death.

In a final exchange, Bartimeus lectures Nathaniel on his lack of morals, something which the youngster loudly resents but inwardly half accepts. By way of farewell, Bartimeus refers to Nathaniel by his assumed Magician name Mandrake, emphasising the loss of the boy’s childhood and his entry into the scheming and self-serving world of adult magicians.

Note that this whole series rests on the idea of incantation-chanting magicians who draw pentacles and conjour spirits from another dimension. I don't find this problematic myself (see my review of the first book in the series but that's the reason the book gets nudged into the “Some Care Needed” Attitude bracket.

Themes:

  • The rise and fall of empires
  • Moral obligations and outside forces

Tuesday 14th February 2012