After visiting the Czech Republic and paying my respects at the tomb of  Rabbi Loew, creator of the legendary Golem of Prague, I decided that this week I should choose a novel featuring golems – monstrous men formed of clay and animated by holy names written on parchment. After dismissing Terry Pratchett’s delightful `Going Postal’ as too well known and Gustav Meyrink’s `The Golem’ as too weird (and arguably anti-Semitic), I’ve settled on `The Golem’s Eye’ by Jonathan Stroud. This is the middle book in his `Bartimaeus Trilogy’. It was first published in 2004 and is available in paperback, ebook and audio formats. I had mixed feelings about `The Amulet of Samarkand’, the first book in the trilogy, but enjoyed the second volume and loved the third, `Ptolemy’s Gate’. By praising `The Golem’s Eye’, I hope I’ll encourage readers put off by Nathaniel, the trilogy’s unattractive leading character, to persevere.  This series certainly provides a bracing antidote to the Harry Potter books.

In Stroud’s alternative history, William Gladstone, that most pious of Victorian politicians, becomes an evil magician who defeats the magical forces centred on Prague to establish a British Empire dominated by an elite group of magicians. These magicians obtain their power by summoning and cruelly enslaving beings from another dimension – afrits, djinn, foliots and imps. In `The Amulet of Samarkand’ , modern Britain and America are being undemocratically ruled by Rupert Devereaux (who is not unlike a certain recent British Prime Minister) and his ruthless fellow magicians. Ordinary people have no chance of advancement or hope of justice but there is a resistance movement. Nathaniel has been taken from his parents at an early age and apprenticed to a mediocre magician. When only eleven, ambitious Nathaniel makes a powerful enemy so he secretly summons the ancient djinni Bartimaeus and sends him to steal the protective Amulet of Samarkand. After plunging into a world of intrigue, conspiracy and murder, Nathaniel is acclaimed as a rising talent and apprenticed to the scary Security Minister, Ms Whitwell.  Nathaniel may start the story as an underdog but, unlike Harry Potter, he’s rarely a sympathetic figure. He is motivated by revenge, believes that magicians are innately superior  and seems to have few qualms about inflicting pain on Bartimaeus. Stroud’s cold-hearted magicians are not wise-cracking super-villains; they are mainly as dreary as they are callous. This is a more realistic approach to evil than is found in most Fantasy literature but it does make these magicians rather dull to read about at length.

All three volumes have an unusual structure. They alternate third-person narratives following the adventures of Nathaniel and of Kitty, a young member of the Resistance, with first-person accounts from the 5,000 year-old djinni Bartimaeus. It was the sarky voice of Bartimaeus that kept me reading. He makes a charming and very entertaining storyteller. No-one describes magical mayhem better than Bartimaeus and he uses footnotes to comment on the follies of human behaviour. At first I felt that Bartimaeus was too like another magician’s familiar who appears in several of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s stories, but he soon develops into an interesting character in his own right. Bartimaeus is different from all the other `demons’ because he once had an equal relationship with a young magician, Ptolemy, who became a friend instead of a master. Can he ever develop the same kind of trust with Nathaniel?

When `The Golem’s Eye’ begins, teenage Nathaniel is working for the oppressive Security Ministry but he has many jealous rivals who would be glad to see him fail. He is hunting for members of the Resistance, especially a young girl he remembers from an humiliating encounter years before. Meanwhile the reader learns more about Kitty’s natural immunity to magic and the terrible injustice that drove her to join the Resistance. A series of attacks in London is blamed on the Resistance. After Bartimaeus discovers that a powerful golem controlled by a magical eye, is responsible for all the destruction, Nathaniel is sent undercover to Prague to investigate. Stroud makes excellent use of real locations in Prague, such as the eerie Jewish cemetery and Golden Lane, said to be haunted by the ghosts of the alchemists who once lived there. Nathaniel discovers a conspiracy he has little chance of defeating while Kitty is soon on the run from Gladstone’s rampaging skeleton.  They will both need to make unusual alliances in order to survive.

It is in this volume that Stroud’s brave decision not to make Nathaniel likable starts to pay off. Given his upbringing and training, why would Nathaniel know anything about compassion or humility or friendship? As Bartimaeus says, `He’s a magician. By definition he’d sell his own grandmother for soap. But he’s marginally less corrupt than some of them. Possibly. A bit.’ Bartimaeus is the only one who can see and bring out that tiny bit of decency in Nathaniel. The gradually shifting relationship between these two characters is at the heart of the trilogy. When Nathaniel does one honourable thing and keeps a promise to a dead man, it seems a massive moral victory but `The Golem’s Eye’ ends with Bartimaeus warning that the innocent boy Nathaniel once was is nearly gone. It’s well worth reading to the end of the trilogy to find out what happens to Nathaniel and Kitty. Then, if you find that you enjoy Bartimaeus’ company as much as I do, go on to the new story that Stroud has written about the irrepressible djinni. Until next week.