Monday, November 18, 2013

Class and Equality in the Bartimaeus Series

I'm shocked that I've never told you about the Bartimaeus series.* I've read them three times, I think, and am selectively reading through book 2 (The Golem's Eye) again. Here's a short list of things I love about this young adult fantasy series. Things that I have rarely found in any other book, especially in fantasy (though I'm not a heavy reader of fantasy).

SPOILER WARNING: don't read on if you plan to read these books and don't want to know details. I've avoided spoilers for how the series ends though. Also, a tip, if you're buying these books, buy the paper version. I suspect all the footnotes will make the Kindle version difficult to read.

LONG POST WARNING. I haven't been writing long posts for a while, so brace yourselves.

What is probably my favorite thing about these books (1 through 3, not counting the prequel, which was hilarious but isn't really part of the story) is that they explore and subvert the existing order of things. The world is very like ours, with some crucial differences: magicians are the ruling class, the rich and powerful, and they use "demons" -- beings like imps and djinns -- as "servants" (actually, slaves, since such a being, properly summoned, has to obey its "master").

So broadly, there are three classes (though I suppose one is a race/species, not a class):
Magicians, who can control spirits like imps and djinns. Nathaniel, our protagonist, is one of these, though he is but a twelve-year-old when the series starts and not yet eighteen (I think) when it ends.
  1. Commoners, who are human but have little power since magicians form the government and control much of the wealth. Kitty, who turns out to be our hero even though she barely makes an appearance in the first book, is one of these.
  2. Spirits like imps, djinns, and afrits, called "demons" by humans, belong to another universe but can be summoned and enslaved by magic. Bartimaeus, who is one of the three main characters and lends the series his name, is a djinni. He is also cocky, hilariously snarky, and surprisingly wise.
How does the series subvert the existing order? By having one protagonist of each of these classes to show us what such a society looks like. How the power of the magicians is used to keep them in power and oppress the other classes. By telling us how much Bartimaeus misses his own home, his own world, and resents being forced to live for long periods at a time in this world and be a slave to a human. By showing us how Kitty discovers the limits of her freedom and safety, and how much she resents it, and how she becomes a rebel. By showing us how Bartimaeus and Kitty talk to and learn to trust each other, as fellow disenfranchised members of same society, oppressed by the same ruling power -- the magicians.

By sticking to Nathaniel from when he is a scared orphan at the beginning of the first book to a powerful, though young, magician at the beginning of the third, the novels show how power corrupts. From a boy who shows affection towards his surrogate mother and his teacher, Nathaniel is developing into a ruthless, ambitious, narcissistic politician, a rising star in the government. He still retains vestiges of his earlier idealism and selflessness, so he manages to redeem himself at the end by self-sacrifice. But you suspect that a few years more would have stamped out any residual morality.

Servant races or invisible servants seem to be a thing in fantasy -- the house-elves at Hogwarts, the cleaning harpies and dryads (all gendered female) at the camp in the Percy Jackson series and the invisible servants at Calliope's island, the Dufflepuds in one of the Narnia books. Invisible servants (like those in Calliope's island and the Narnia book, and even the house-elves in Harry Potter are invisible to us for the first few books) are one of the worst tropes in fantasy. You don't have to do the dirty work yourself -- there are slaves for that, races whose entire purpose is doing your dirty work, who love to do it. And even better, they are invisible, so you don't have to feel any guilt. Not only do you not hear their voices, they are literally invisible.

The Hunger Games series takes this trope and subverts it, by showing us the Avoxes who are mutilated and made literally unable to speak.

The Bartimaeus series does one better: it gives one of those servants a voice: in fact, the most voluble and powerful voice, since Bartimaeus is the only character who narrates, the only one who speaks directly to the reader. We see the world, this fantasy world with classes of servants and commoners and rules, through the eyes of the slave. It's the disenfranchised djinni who explains to us what it's like to be summoned out of his world and forced to be a slave in this one. Who explains how exhausting it is to have that happen over and over again, for thousands of years. Who shows us how little these sprits' lives and happiness is worth to their human masters. We are asked to empathize most, not with the magician (the aspirational character with special powers kids might want to be like -- but who is obviously not the hero) or with the commoner (the person like us who fights against injustice), but with the slave, the djinni, the demon, who is least like the reader.

I also like how feminist the series is, without explicitly calling it out. As I said, our hero (who arguably gets the least... page-space of the three main characters) is Kitty, a young girl. She leads the rebels (the Resistance, they are called in the novels) in raids and attacks on magicians and people supporting them. But she isn't the only significant female character in the novel. Nathaniel's master is a woman, and one without any stereotypically female characteristics: instead of being affectionate or "bitchy", she is cold and calculating and ambitious. There's another female magician among the few important ministers. There are other women who play a part in the books -- another woman among the rebels, a young woman who works in the government, and so on.

There is little machismo in the books. Nathaniel is supposed to be extremely intelligent, but Bartimaeus repeatedly mocks him as "scrawny" (not nice of Bartimaeus, but then he isn't nice). Nathaniel isn't in good shape and can't climb uphill easily.

Kitty seems to be in much better shape, physically (figures, since she's more of a blue collar worker compared to Nathaniel's fancy government job). She is described as "spry." She is, as I mentioned earlier, physically brave.

Bartimaeus of course, is supernaturally powerful. But this doesn't usually help him, since he keeps getting enslaved and sent on dangerous errands.

The series isn't perfect: I'd have liked a lot more women, but it's better than many books, not just the presence of the women but the treatment of them. I'd have liked more racial diversity, too. I can't comment on sexual minorities because these books lack much sexuality. None of the prominent characters seem to be in long-term relationships, and ones that are -- like Kitty's parents or Nathaniel's first master and his wife -- don't display any sexuality and barely any affection.

But there does seem to be some heteronormativity at play. It's difficult to tell, since the series doesn't explicitly portray the sexuality of most of the characters (perhaps because it's a children's/YA series). But I get the uncomfortable feeling that the main villain is to be read as gay -- and the only character who seems so.

I am also uncomfortable at more than a hint of fatphobia: many of the unpleasant/villainous people in the book are described as fat (though not using that word), including the main villain.

That said, one of my favorite things about the books is that there is no romance. Most young adult/fantasy series seem to feature romance among really young people. Harry Potter, for instance, has, characters "meet the One Person Who Is Truly Meant For You In All The World at roughly the age of eleven," as this amazing article puts it.

There's a hint of lust and even romantic leanings in Nathaniel, but none in Kitty. Nothing. I can't remember when a teenage girl was treated this way in a novel. (The Hunger Games had Katniss being somewhat uninterested in romance, but she wasn't allowed to be so, having romance thrust at her incessantly by her suitors, her "handlers", and the TV audiences she was playing to.)

I need to mention here how much I like Kitty. She is brave -- not just physically, which she is, risking her life on raids and attacks. But she is brave enough to defy a world that's stacked hopelessly against her. She speaks up for justice, and when that doesn't work, she tries other means. She gives up her old life, her relationship with her parents and best friend, to do what she feels is right. This effectively means she is alone (much like our other two characters, Nathaniel and Bartimaeus). But she rarely indulges in self-pity. She is willing, over and over again, to sacrifice herself for her ideals. All the disappointments she face make her wary, not despairing.

This doesn't mean she's perfect, not by a long shot. Unlike Nathaniel, she has little interest in knowledge, in history, until it's pointed out to her that knowledge is essential for her to succeed in her aims. She seems somewhat self-absorbed and narrow-minded, lacking empathy for anyone outside her immediate circle. Perhaps understandably, she abhors "demons" -- spirits like Bartimaeus.

But when she finds herself talking to Bartimaeus (who admires her bravery), she realizes a bit of what she's missing. That one conversation becomes the beginning of her growth as a hero, as she begins to explore the ramifications of the social structure that oppresses her. She grows to trust Bartimaeus, to develop a friendship with him. She treats him with respect. She is willing to risk her life and sanity to gain his trust.

And in the end, it's Nathaniel -- who has often been so selfish and ruthless -- who actually does sacrifice himself to save Bartimaeus, the slave, the "demon." Take that, Harry Potter and your "friendship" with Dobby.

So if you haven't read the books yet, and this description intrigues you, try them out. If you know me in real life, I'm happy to lend them to you.

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