Friday, June 01, 2007

The Golem's Eye (The Bartimaeus Trilogy) by Jonathon Stroud

(book Review)

It is hard to buy English books in Japan, but if you go into the big cities, you can usually find at least a few big bookstores with a small English section.

After living in Japan for five years and visiting bookstores in Hokkaido, Gifu, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and Oita I've noticed it tends to be pretty much the same set of books in all of them. And, for whatever marketing reasons, they are not usually the same books that are big in the US (probably because these bookstores are not just catering to Americans, but also Brits, Australians, and Japanese people who want to challenge their English).

For example I've already written about how popular Terry Pratchett is over here. (Actually since being back in the US, I realized he was pretty popular back home as well, and I was just out of it. But he represents a bigger percentage of the market in Japan). And also the Darren Shan books (which I don't remember seeing much of in the US, but maybe I missed them).

And also these Bartimaeus Trilogy books, which I see a lot of in Japanese bookstore (both in the English section, and also the Japanese translation appears to be pretty popular over here). I don't remember seeing much of these books when I was back in the US, but maybe I just missed them.

(Actually come to think of maybe part of this is that in Japan all the English books are on the same shelf, whereas in America I have to make a special trip to the young adult section to run into them. This series is being made into a Hollywood movie, so I guess they have to be at least somewhat well known in America)

I read the first book in this trilogy ("The Amulet of Samarkand") back in the fall of 2005, before I started up this book review project. As such it never got a review on this blog, but before jumping into the second book I'll give it a brief few sentences.

The first book tells the story of a young mild mannered British boy (abandoned by his parents and with cruel foster parents) who is in training to become a magician. If this sounds like something you've heard before, it kind of is, but there are also lots of fun elements to the book to redeem it.

For example the story is told half from the boys perspective, and half from the perspective of the demon Bartimaeus, whom the boy has conjured up and bound with his fledgling magical powers. And Bartimaeus is a lot of fun as the quick witted sarcastic narrator, who makes frequent use of footnotes to amend his narrative sections. This might sound corny, but the author pulls it off pretty well.

Also, despite being a children's book there is a lot of black humor and many of the characters (both the magical spirits and the human beings) meet a premature death. This helps to keep the story interesting because you never know what is going to happen to a character.

The biggest flaw in my opinion was that the action scenes could get pretty confusing with all the spirits fighting and the different planes of magical existence. But I'm not sure if this is the author's fault, or my own fault for being such a dense reader.

Anyway, even though I enjoyed the first book, I didn't run out right away to buy the second one for a while. But I was in Fukuoka a few weeks ago, and once again saw these books staring at me from the bookstore shelf, and I thought I might as well figure out how the trilogy continues.

This next book picks up a couple years after the first one ended. The young boy Nathaniel is no longer an apprentice magician, and is now a high level government official at the age of 14.

(Which is the first problem with this book. In the first book Nathaniel was an 11 year old boy, and I thought his portrayal as an 11 year old boy was pretty believable. In this next book however I couldn't believe he is 14. He acts like he's a 25 year old yuppie.)

In the first book, brief hints were given that this was a separate universe from our own, but now this second book were learn a lot more about the world the magicians inhabit. It turns out to be kind of a disutopia 1984 esque world in which the magicians rule everything and the common British people are forced to be subservient.

In addition to Nathaniel and the sarcastic Bartimaeus, this book focuses on Kitty Jones, a resistance fighter to the magicians rule. Kitty appeared briefly in the first book, but in this book we find out a lot more about her. In fact, because this book covers a lot of the narrative from Kitty's perspective, as well as going into all of Kitty's back story, this book is more about Kitty than Nathaniel and Bartimaeus.

Because all of Kitty's back story has to be told, it takes a while before the forward story gets going. But once all the elements are finally set up (about 300 pages into the book), then the story really gets going with a vengeance. Once the story finally got going, I enjoyed this book much more than the previous one.

Despite being a children's book, there is once again a high body count in this book (the standards must have changed since I was young). There is a scene in which the Resistance fighters are on a dangerous mission to rob a haunted tomb, and the author really does his best to draw out the suspense as long as he can. And because you know he's crazy enough to kill off some of these characters, it really does get suspenseful. I was completely hooked. And then when the trap finally does spring, the horrifying pay off is well worth the wait.

Although political movements in these kind of fantasy disutopia books tend to be mainly stock characters and plot devices, I thought the characters in the Resistance were all very life like and their internal dynamics and squabbling were very realistic and believable.

I enjoyed this book so much I don't think I'll wait near as long to read the last book in the trilogy.
Link of the Day
The Mounting Failure of Abstinence Education

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I bought all three of them at the same time. In fact, I just finished the thrid book (Ptolemy's Gate) last week and absolutely adored it. I don't normally go for books that are magician-related, they are full of over-used plots. But I have to say, the Bartimaues Trilogy really pulled it off well, with the spins and the twists. I thought the ending was especially well done, it said nothing yet it meant everything, which in my opinion is something a lot of authors tend to miss.