This long, involved, original and exciting fantasy is the first book of The Bartimaeus Trilogy, and is set in an alternate London, during a time when England is in the power of magicians who hold all government offices. The one dirty little secret that magicians don’t want the commoners to know is that on their own they have no power at all. What little power they do have is gained through the various demons (efrits, djinnis and other spirits) they summon and control with elaborate rituals and protections that force the demons into servitude. Nathaniel is a boy who was sold by his parents at the age of six into apprenticeship to a pompous and stuffy mediocre bureaucrat, Arthur Underwood, who doesn’t see the boy’s exceptional talents. Underwood tutors Nathaniel in magic, but as the pace is so slow and boring, Nathaniel takes the initiative to advance his education behind his master’s back. When he is ten Nathaniel suffers a very public humiliation by an up-and-coming politician Simon Lovelace. He takes revenge by using some of secretly gained knowledge to summon a powerful 5,000-year-old djinn named Bartimaeus. He instructs Bartimaeus to steal an artifact called the Amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace. Little does Nathaniel know that Lovelace himself stole the Amulet (and killed its original owner) and will stop at nothing to get it back. Lovelace has big plans for all of England that involve the Amulet (think overthrow of the government). As if Nathaniel doesn’t have enough problems, he finds out that Bartimaeus has learned his real name, which makes it possible Bartimaeus to gain his freedom from Nathaniel, and to take his revenge on him.
The story is told in alternating chapters: a third-person narrative about Nathaniel (not a sympathetic character by any means, being whiny and self-absorbed), and first-person by Bartimaeus, who is cynical, wise-cracking, and has an extraordinarily high opinion of himself. Bartimaeus’s chapters are filled with very funny footnotes explaining the finer points of magic, details about different planes of existence, types of demons, and the history of magic and the world. Don’t be tempted to skip the footnotes; they’re my favorite part of the book. Review by Stacy Church