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If a boxed set of Harry Potter were to fall through the looking-glass, what came out the other side might be a lot like the Bartimaeus Trilogy, of which this is Book 2. The fantasy world in this series is somewhat of a bizarro, backward-land version of Harry’s wizarding world, which forms a secret enclave within the present-day world of us ordinary muggles. In Bartimaeus’ world, the British empire is openly run by magicians, while the majority of the population—dismissively called “commoners”—toils in a condition not far above slavery. The press and the schools feed them a steady diet of pro-magician propaganda. The scales of justice are rigged in favor of the magicians. The security and police forces keep the people too frightened to rise up, including an elite squad of werewolves known as the Night Police—without even the ironic touch of a silent K. Ever since the magician William Gladstone took over the government in the 1860s and led a wave of conquest across Europe as far as Prague, the world has trembled beneath the jack-boot of British magic. Even the American colonies remain under British power.
But their grip is starting to slip. While the most powerful magicians in the land are busy stepping on each other, climbing the ladder of government service by means of knives stuck in one another’s backs, discontent is beginning to stir. And not just discontent: resistance. Kitty Jones, for example, has a resilience to many forms of magical attack. Her resistance cell, led by an elderly art-supply merchant named Pennyfeather, is full of people who are either resilient to magic, or able to see auras of magical power, or gifted in some similar way. Kitty joined up after a magician put the hurt on her best friend Jakob because of an accident with a cricket ball. Now she is starting to worry that the group is taking big risks but achieving nothing. Instead of gathering discontented commoners into their movement, their resistance group carries out small acts of sabotage and burglary that hurt ordinary people more than magicians. They are being hunted as traitors and picked off one by one.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the social divide, who do we find working his ambitious way to the top but a fourteen-year-old magician named John Mandrake—Nathaniel to his friends—which is to say, nobody. Nathaniel’s only fear is that the djinni Bartimaeus, who helped him get started in his government career, will come back and reveal his secret birth-name to all. Nevertheless, he finds himself with no choice but to summon Bartimaeus again, since his career as Assistant to the Minister of Internal Affairs will soon end, probably along with his life, unless he gets to the bottom of a series of terrorist attacks. At first Nathaniel confuses the high jinks of Kitty’s resistance group with the more serious attacks of a golem, a giant remotely controlled mud-man who has been spreading chaos, death, and (for the beleaguered government) political embarrassment all over London. Without reliable support from anyone in his department—with growing suspicions that a high-level traitor is involved—and with political rivals sabotaging his investigation at every turn, young Mr. Mandrake follows a thread of clues to Prague and back. And though the forces spread against him are more numerous, better armed, and highly organized, he holds his own with the aid of one Bartimaeus, fourth-level djinni.
What Nathaniel/John Mandrake lacks in personal appeal, Bartimaeus makes up. The portions of the story told from his first-person point of view are effervescent with irreverent humor. A natural leader among demons (ranking from afrits and marids down to lowly imps and foliots), Bartimaeus brings a steady flow of smart-mouthed banter to every scene he is in. The entertainment value of his patter is often enhanced by the way it makes Nathaniel squirm, especially in the presence of people he wants to impress. The frequent footnotes, in which the djinni confides further details of his sorcerous background, are comedic highlights. In one of them, Bartimaeus explains the seven levels of reality, of which most humans can only perceive the first and lowest level. He then adds:
For example, there’s probably something invisible with lots of tentacles hovering behind your back right NOW.
Eventually, inevitably, the career paths of Kitty and Nathaniel intersect. He suspects her of being one of only two survivors when her resistance cell makes the hideous mistake of plundering Gladstone’s tomb. Thanks to this mostly thwarted break-in, a deadly afrit runs amok across London, clothed in Gladstone’s skeleton. A magician’s staff that once brought Europe to its knees is now at large. Using Jakob as a hostage, Nathaniel must bring Kitty in and recover the staff or his life and career are over. Meanwhile, his every move is being watched by the highest level of government ministers, including the very traitor who controls the golem that nobody but Nathaniel believes in. And when young magician, golem, afrit, hostage, and staff come together in one blind alley at the climax of the tale, Nathaniel’s only hope for survival lies in the hands of a mutinous djinni and a resistance fighter who has everything to gain from his death. In Harry Potter’s world, the most likely person to save an enemy’s bacon would be Harry Potter. But in this instance, the nearest thing to Harry Potter is the one whose bacon needs to be saved—and he is, if you’ll pardon my Sanskrit, a son of a bitch.
Will Kitty’s human decency overcome her dislike? Will they live to fight another day? Will Robbie spoil everything by answering these questions? Well, if you need a clue, let it be the fact that the trilogy continues with Book 3, Ptolemy’s Gate. Plus, just to throw a whiff of irony across the word “trilogy” on the front cover of the book, there’s now a fourth book in the sequence: The Ring of Solomon, though this is reportedly a prequel. Other magical tales by the same author include Buried Fire, The Leap, The Last Siege, and Heroes of the Valley. Plus, coming in September 2013 is the first book of his new “Lockwood & Co” series, Screaming Staircase.