Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Bureaucracy of Magic: A Review of The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Jonathan Stroud’s 'trilogy', featuring the wise-cracking djinni Bartimaeus, is actually four books, counting the prequel “Solomon’s Ring". A YA series, the books detail the development of a young boy, Nathaniel, who is taken from his parents to train as a magician in an alternate history where the British Empire continues to keep the American colonies under its thumb, and where an elite class of magicians enslave millennia-old genies and other spirits to maintain control over the population. Although the book treads popular ground in a story about a young boy training in magic, the 5,000 year-old Bartimaeus steals the show, with his quirky sense of humor and an underlying humanity his ‘human’ masters rarely show.
Some classical concepts of the Jinn are used in the novel, including the concept of summoning demons and binding them to a task with magic. As always, the rewards of such an endeavor have to be balanced against the risk: Bartimaeus is quite prepared to devour his new young master if a single detail is left unattended to.
         Stroud also uses some of the traditional subdivisions of Jinn into ‘Afrit and ‘Marid. In his story world, the Jinn exist in an ethereal alternate world where they have no form, and they are capable of taking on the appearance of animals and humans only when summoned. The concept of possession, which appears frequently in classical literature about the Jinn, isn’t employed much until the final book, “Ptolemy’s Gate”, and even there plays a minor role.
         The history of the ancient Middle East is delved into, with references to King Solomon, who reportedly used the power of captive Jinn to build his empire. The prequel “Solomon’s Ring’ is set entirely in this ancient world, with a feisty female assassin as Bartimaeus’s counterpart. References to the more contemporary Middle East of the novel’s setting are more limited. As in many YA works, the religious life of the characters is largely ignored, so any Islamic interpretations of the Jinn don’t play a role in the story.
         A charming and lively series, the ‘Bartimaeus’ books provide a wonderful anti-hero Jinn and an engrossing story world. Although the budding sexual urges of the young people in the novels are only hinted at, the book does contain a fair amount of violence and the final book’s resolution is far from a stereotypical happy ending. Young fans of darker fare such as ‘Divergent’ certainly won’t have an issue with it, and the series will entertain many adults as well.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Hackers, Tyrants and the Jinn: A Review of G. Willow Wilson's "Alif the Unseen"


            In a near-future city, Arab-Indian hacker Alif (the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) sells his illegal skills to the highest bidder while dreaming of a future he can't have with his aristocratic lover. Meanwhile, the devout, niqab-wearing girl next door warns him that the local mouser may be more than she seems: "All cats are half jinn, but I think she's three-quarters."
            What follows next is an exciting urban fantasy set in the Middle East that blends thriller elements with a strong romantic subplot. Wilson, an American convert to Islam who wrote about straddling two different cultures in her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, pulls in different religious concepts about the Jinn to populate her story-world. She includes an appendix with great graphic depictions of the five types of Jinn, and incorporates the concept of the 'Unseen' as having free will, including the choice of what religion to follow. Unlike most fiction, which treats the Jinn as creepy monsters or wish-fulfillment machines, 'Alif' depicts them as complex characters who are more sympathetic than the police state the hero struggles against.
            Themes of autocracy, as well as ethnic and class differences, are woven in nicely and provide a glimpse of the diversity of the 'Arab Street' so often talked about by Western journalists. Especially refreshing is having a POC protagonist from the culture being described, and details of Muslim women's religious dress are treated as part of the story, without exoticism.
            I had a few quibbles with the story. I found a side character who was too much based on the author herself less interesting than Alif and his companions, and I wanted to read more about the world of the Jinn and how their magic worked. Overall, though, I enjoyed the book and didn't want to put it down. There's strong romantic tension and great pacing, and the novel would appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. There's no explicit sex, and the violence is not graphic, so some teens might find it a great read as well.