Jonathan Stroud, author of the fantastic Bartimaeus Trilogy, was in Christchurch as the last stop on his tour promoting the final chapter in the series, Ptolemy's Gate, and we were lucky enough to get some time with him before he spoke at the Central Library.
Interview: June 2006
What makes a Wizard?
You’ve all read Tolkien and Harrry Potter - you know all the stereotypes of fantasy that can be found in every second quest trilogy - dwarves, wizards, goblins, magic swords, missing heirs, megalomaniac evil sorcerers bent on world domination… oh, and the occasional ring or magic talisman.
So what would you do if you were wanting to write a fantasy with a difference? Obviously you want to think about your hero - what does he (or she) look like? What magical powers will he (or she) possess? What’s going to happen to him (or her) in the end? And what will your evil sorcerer look like?
Author Jonathan Stroud was struggling with these questions one day while walking home in the pouring rain, carrying large shopping bags in both hands. But he was also thinking about a much bigger question - what would happen if you turned the stereotyped fantasy world on its head? And so Jonathan began building his fantasy world, working on the simple idea of creating the exact opposite to what is normally expected.
The Centre for the Child in the Central Library provided the setting for a meeting between fantasy author Jonathan Stroud and about sixty of his Christchurch fans. Best known for his popular Bartimaeus trilogy, Jonathan told the Centre for the Child audience just how the first book of the trilogy, The amulet of Samarkand, developed.
Which is how we heard all about the rain and the shopping bags.
At this point in the story Jonathan asked the audience to name the wizardly characteristics usually found in a Tolkienesque fantasy. The list that came out included all the usual suspects - old, wise, good, has long white straggly hair and a long white bushy beard, wears a pointy hat, wears long robes, usually with stars all over them, wears pointy shoes, also with stars all over them, and carries a wand or a staff. (And Jonathan illustrated our stereotype by drawing on a whiteboard as we went along.)
A list of opposite characteristics (young, foolish, evil etc) was put together next, and the result was a young man in a pinstripe business suit, complete with briefcase and cell-phone. Strangely like an aspiring politician, in fact.
Then we were asked to consider what such a magician would use as his source of power - and everyone who had read the book knew that the answer was a demon or djinn, which had to be controlled, but which could literally break out at any moment.
Jonathan went on to talk about the character of Bartimaeus and of the other main protagonists, Nathaniel, apprentice wizard, but quite unlike HP, and Kitty, a non-magical commoner (More drawing on the whiteboard).
To those people not familiar with the world of the Amulet, it can now be revealed that the magicians there have consolidated their position in a seriously bureaucratic way. All politicians are magicians, with natures corrupted not only by politics, but by their power as well. The commoners of the world are those without magic, or influence, but with a desire for revenge. And the djinni are just out for what they can get, preferably as quickly as possible, and at the expense of their fellow demons.
Rounding off this fascinating insight into the evolution of his books, Jonathan invited comment from the audience on the different covers which have been produced for his books in places such as the U.S., Israel, Italy and Japan. He concluded with a question and answer session with the avid fans in the audience offering some interesting and well-informed points for discussion.
No doubt a few of the audience may have left wondering whether they too could come up with an idea for a fantasy trilogy which would net them a £2 million advance from a publisher.
Alex from Burnside High has reviewed these three books for us in the Reviews 4 U by U section:
Wahoo! This was one really good fantasy-fiction book - and the first of a trilogy!
Set in modern times on Earth with all the technology, everything seems normal - except for the severe lack of democracy, as wizards run a caste system giving them complete control of the major countries - namely Britain and Czechoslovakia. This isn't a conventional fantasy story, which can be seen in the way wizard works: The only special 'power' they have is to summon and control demons. It is the demons that have the magical powers, and a demon's abilities are based on its class and rank: The weakest demon is an imp, followed by foliots, djinnis, scary afrits, and downright terrifying marids (who require many magicians to be properly controlled). Of course if a demon is not properly summoned or bound it gets out, normally kills its summoner, and causes havoc.
Nathaniel is a child in the midst of his training to become a magician when he secretly summons a many millennia old djinni called Bartimaeus to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from one Simon Lovelace. Bartimaeus is a forth level
djinni who really brings the book to life. Through his actions the young summoner and his demon enter a world of deceit, murder, and rebellion.
This book is a fantastic, and very funny. To keep the suspense up the author, Jonathan Stroud, varies the style of delivery every few chapters between a third person account of what Nathaniel does, to a first person narration straight from the mouth of Bartimaeus. During Bartimaeus' chapters the story is enhanced with the use of very funny footnotes (appearing as side comments that Bartimaeus deems appropriate to add). This technique is strikingly innovative and used really well - apart from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series I've never encountered such well-done footnotes.
A tale of intrigue, hilarity, and magic makes the Amulet of Samarkand a refreshingly brilliant work of fantasy fiction. Mr Stroud is a skilled writer who has started a great trilogy with very high standards. Keep an eye out for books two and three!
Fresh from the printers comes 'The Golem's Eye', Book Two of the Bartimaeus Trilogy. By just receiving it, the book seems impressive - it's wrapped in a parchment with ancient runes written all over, and on the blurb it warns you that what is in your hands is a mystic spell - A very classy touch.
The story picks up two years and eight months from where the 'Amulet of Samarkand' finished. John Mandrake, real name Nathaniel (shhh! It's a secret!), is the youngest ever English minister and works as the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs (in other words: National Security). Since the first book Nath…John has become a real wizard - That is to say arrogant, self-centred, and snobbish. His current assignment is to find and punish the "Resistance", a non-magical group of rebels fighting against the oppression of the wizards' caste system.
Problems rocket sky-high as a wealthy street is demolished by an unidentifiable foe. The Resistance is blamed and it's up to John to tidy up the case. Left with no other option, John breaks a vow (which he claims to have never made) made at the end of book 1 and summons that loveable character of great wit: You guessed it! Bartimaeus! Thus another adventure kicks off full of humour, excitement and demons.
To make this book better than the first, Jonathan Stroud has introduced a new character: Kitty, a talented member of the Resistance. During Kitty's chapters the Resistance's side of the story is given, histories are revealed, and a new spin is put on the wizards. Cleverly, Mr Stroud has played around with the reader's feelings. In the first book, Nathaniel has full support from the readers, however, in 'The Golem's Eye' Nathaniel loses his sympathy when his true nature and attitudes are revealed, and Kitty becomes the supported character. As usual Bartimaeus stays his humorous self - I mean how much can a 5000-year-old djinni change in two years and eight months?
'The Golem's Eye' is a brilliant sequel to the 'Amulet of Samarkand' and maintains the high standards of writing quality and the intrigue and excitement. As a great read this series is a must for anybody who believes demons are just nasty, evil, malicious creature from hell - they're quite misunderstood - well slightly misjudged at least. Here's hoping book three isn't too far away!
To put it plainly Ptolemy’s Gate is a brilliant book that finishes the fantastic Bartimaeus Trilogy.
Starting with The Amulet of Samarkand, we are introduced to a world similar to our own, but with the difference that the nobles of this parallel universe can summon demons to provide magic and power. England is this world’s super-power but is having a few problems with its American colonies and northern Europe. If you have yet to read “The Amulet of Samarkand” or the second book “The Golem’s Eye” GO AND READ THEM NOW!
Three years on, the author continues the humorous tale of woe between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus (and don’t forget Kitty) as they strive to protect the government against rebels and insurgents (or rather that’s Nathaniel’s job - Bartimaeus just wants a day or two off). But don’t expect this to be the main focus for long as this series is noted for its fast pace and hairpin turns… In this book Nathaniel and Bartimaeus must face their ultimate challenge in the form of some of the real world and the Other Place’s most powerful characters, while Kitty searches for a way for demons and humans to live in harmony. The ending is fantastic and finishes the series in such a way that it leaves you wanting more, yet also feeling that it is completely and carefully over (at least for now - there is possibly room for another series set in this world but further on in time…).
This novel sees a clever use of humour and the return of the infamous footnote - first well implemented by Terry Pratchett (the Discworld Series - another brilliant expanding set of books) but used just as well by Jonathan Stroud. Packed full of twists and turns and a wonderfully innovative take on magic and demons, you will find it hard to put it down. With the entertaining conclusion to the Bartimaeus Trilogy now completed, Jonathan Stroud has established himself as one of this world’s best fantasy writers and leaves us hoping for more from his creative genius.