Seeking some light reading a while back I once again found myself reading young adult fantasy. Having read, and enjoyed, the first book in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand, I was intrigued by the second, The Golem’s Eye. Although a little dismayed at its Harry Potter like size (562 pages), I thought it would be a relaxing change of pace from the barrage of information on the election and war in Iraq. It proved to be an interesting sequel but somehow less satisfying than the first book in the series. Ultimately it tells an interesting story but the material that accounts for its length fails to add much significance. Perhaps this is the pitfall of young adult literature.
The Golem’s Eye again focuses on the life of Nathaniel, a young and up-and-coming magician, and Bartimaeus, the dijin he summons to help him out. Nathaniel is now 14 and the youngest representative ever to the Office of Internal Affairs. His job is to seek out a destroy the rebel group of trouble makers know as the Resistance. Nathaniel had a run in with the Resistance in the first book, but their attacks have been increasingly bold and so have become a growing concern of the ruling magicians. When a series of attacks are credited to the group, and with Nathaniel making little progress, Bartimaeus is brought into help.
In the first book the story centered around Nathaniel while Bartimaeus provided the comic relief and, via humorous and self-serving footnotes, much of the historical backstory. The Golem’s Eye highlights another character, Kitty Jones, who – outside of a small run in with Nathaniel and Bartimaeus – played little part in the first book. Golem’s Eye tells the story of how Kitty became involved with the Resistance and how that involvement leads her to a clash with Nathaniel. As in the first book, the chapters switch perspectives between Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and now Kitty.
Two things struck me as interesting:
1) I found myself wanting a more likeable character to root for as the story unfolded. Perhaps this makes me unsophisticated, but I like to have at least one character I find attractive or at least one I want to succeed. The Golem’s Eye, in my opinion, lacks a strong likable central character. In the first book Bartimaeus was clearly the most likable character. One could sympathize with and feel sorry for Nathaniel at times, but his stubbornness and arrogance made him a little unlovable. In contrast Bartimaeus was the most interesting and the most likable character; even when he was being selfish or teasing Nathaniel.
In the Golem’s Eye Nathaniel is if anything less likable as he has gained in arrogance and his circumstances no longer evoke pity. Bartimaeus is still the jester and the “sensible” character but a little of the novelty has warn off. His selfishness and lack of clear loyalty make him less sympathetic in my eyes. Kitty seems at fist the ideal person to root for but, like Nathaniel, she seems to have a stubborn streak; a kind of hardness to her demeanor. Despite the difficult circumstances that surround her, I found it hard to feel sorry for her or to understand her character.
2) Relatedly, I found the context of the book vague and confusing. Stroud really builds up the tension in this book between the magician ruling class and the rest of the English Empire. Kitty’s story, the infighting within the cabinet that Nathaniel must deal with, and the backstory that Bartimaeus relates all seem to paint a picture of an empire built on power and privilege at the expense of the non-magical. It is sort of a reverse Harry Potter where the magicians are the closed minded bigoted types.
I think these two factors reveal the potential weakness of young adult fiction. While the setting and context of the work raise a great many questions about the social and political make up of the fictional world Stroud creates, the work never really address them. It is as if Stroud wanted to add a layer of meaning a complexity to the story but couldn’t pull it off. In the first book the tension was easier to relieve because it was mostly personal; it was Nathaniel against the world so to speak. In the Golem’s Eye Stroud adds societal and cultural tensions that colour the world of Kitty and Nathaniel (and even Bartimaeus) but they don’t seem to lead anywhere. The characters don’t seem deeper or the world more complete because of them, rather they seem like unused background material.
Perhaps I am reading too much into this, after all it is really just a children’s book. But it seems to me that a sign of good writing is that the setting and background should never become a distraction. While I enjoyed the basic plot, and still found Bartimaeus to be a enjoyable character, I just kept wondering what the larger picture was meant to be. In other words, I was looking for an “adult” perspective on the issues raised; I wanted those tensions to have deeper meaning instead of serving as mere backdrop.
Even given all of the above, I am sure I will read the final chapter in the Bartimaeus trilogy when it comes out. I have invested too much to give up now. Maybe Stroud wraps it all up in a satisfying conclusion in book three . . .