The Golem’s Eye, by Jonathan Stroud
8/10, a thrilling adventure but somewhat of a letdown from the first
I have a bit of a peeve against trilogies that are clearly written as trilogies; something that comes out as “book 1” before the others are even published rubs me the wrong way; it shouldn’t, really, because why shouldn’t an author plan out a trilogy and know there are going to be three books in advance? Well, because you should be setting out to tell a story, and the story is as long as it should be. I don’t feel any annoyance at Ms. Rowling for planning a seven-book series, so why the bother about a trilogy? Maybe because they’re so common. Still, the three-act structure is a common enough one, and in this case I’ve no objection to reading more about Bartimaeus the djinn and his master, now known as John Mandrake.
Since the first book, Mandrake has come up in the world, now apprenticed to the Information Minister and working for Internal Affairs. But there’s a problem: an unknown monster has been ravaging London, and as it is a magical creature, it’s Internal Affairs’ problem. Mandrake is put in charge of the investigation as it is presumed to be connected with the shadowy Resistance that has been launching small raids on magicians for the past few years, which he is already in charge of investigating. And because he needs magical help of the first order, and some snappy comebacks, he summons again the djinn Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus, having thought that the end of their association at the conclusion of the previous adventure was permanent, is none too pleased, but a judicious threat from Mandrake convinces him to cooperate this time. And so our heroes are off again on another adventure through a curiously time-frozen London, where computers are occasionally mentioned, but the flow of news and information is as sluggish as it was in colonial times.
The problem in this book is that Mandrake has grown up, now a lad of fourteen, and has spent two years under the inflexible tutelage of Ms. Whitwell, who we remember from being in charge of torturing prisoners in book one. He is eager for power, and from his master is learning all sorts of things, not just about powerful magic, but about undermining your enemies and currying political favor; about treating commoners and spirits with the same contempt; about putting yourself and your ambitions first. As a consequence, Mandrake is considerably less likable in this book than he was in the first. Bartimaeus has, of course, contempt for all humans, but even he channels the reader’s thoughts in his disappointment that Mandrake has grown up to be a typical magician.
Into the vacuum of sympathetic characters jumps Kitty Jones, a briefly appearing figure from book one, here fully realized as one of the leaders of the Resistance. Her story illuminates the plight of the commoners and the attitude of most of them: they toil for the magicians, but they don’t mind, because the magicians protect them from the evil foreigners and thus deserve everything they get. (One sees here, and in the third book, definite echoes of modern political issues.) Kitty herself is a scrappy, loyal fighter, who doesn’t accept that magicians deserve all they get. Like John Mandrake, she falls in with a crowd of people who value her abilities and want to help her; like him, she is nobler than the people who surround her; unlike him, she has the strength to carve out her own path.
In fact, the trio of main characters are skilfully drawn with some wonderful parallels. Bartimaeus is literally a slave; Mandrake is just as much a slave to the society he has joined, as is Kitty a slave to the magicians. Through Kitty’s rebellion against magicians, and eventually her companions, we gain a little bit of hope that Mandrake may exhibit similar strength of character. Alas, there is not much of that in this book, which appears to serve primarily to set up the third.
Don’t get me wrong: this book has all the charm, wit, and action of the first, in addition to which the class strife between the magicians and commoners is well explored and well drawn. I tore through this one as quickly as I did the first book. The problem is that there’s too much time spent introducing Kitty, and that, this being the second act of a planned trilogy, the development of the main character must take a downward turn before (one hopes) the final revelation and redemption. Kitty makes for a fascinating character, but she doesn’t have the interesting flaws of Nathaniel/John, nor the sarcastic flair of Bartimaeus, and watching John Mandrake’s descent into cold, calculating efficiency at the expense of human relationships is, well, just a bit depressing. The characters come together briefly at the end, but the overarching feeling from this book is one of intense loneliness on the part of all three.
Despite the problems, I recommend this book heartily, as a fun adventure on its own, and for the societal issues, but mostly because you have to get through this one to read the third one, and I’m hoping that Mandrake’s character arc will finish up in the third.