There has to be a graveyard. If there isn’t a graveyard scene, the book isn’t really taking place in Prague.
Prague is an odd sort of city, a melancholy, dark place. The greatest Prague writer was Franz Kafka–that tells you a lot right there. And every once in a while, Prague turns up in an unexpected place. When that happens, the way to tell if the author has actually been to Prague is to ask “is there a graveyard scene?”
Helen Oyeyemi, author of “What is Not Yours is Not Yours,” lived in Prague. I know that because I read an interview, but also because her book is full of eerie puppets in Prague graveyards. Jonathan Stroud, author of “The Golem’s Eye,” spent time in Prague. I don’t have a clue if he admitted that in an interview, but his protagonist went to the Prague Cemetery pretty quickly.
Certain places are alive in ways that are not quite understandable to the human eye. And when the feel of those places is captured in books–something special happens.
Ursula K Leguin says in an afterword to “A Wizard of Earthsea” that her starting point was to wonder what wizards like Gandalf–or Merlin, or Dumbledore though he came later–were like as young men. Brimming with power, destined for greatness. What would that do to them?
Well, they’d be proud for one. Unable to handle those who cannot recognize their genius. Incapable of explaining why they wanted power, simply seeking it without thought to consequence or need. And, at the last, learning to recognize what is truly important in life. Noticing the little things–happiness, death, love.
Ursula LeGuin was the first to tell that story, but not the last. JK Rowling delved into it in her final Harry Potter book. But perhaps the person who told that story best was Jonathan Stroud–who not only told it, but did not flinch away from the truth of his characters, his story, and the inevitable conclusion.
Setting, characters, and plot. The three are a delicate mix–give too much weight to one, and the whole thing topples over.
That’s why the Bartimaeus books are so incredibly good. They have all three in perfect measure. The setting is genius, gorgeous and stunningly original. The characters are not so original–but their journey through the world is, and their arcs are painfully perfect. And meanwhile, the plot progresses, driving the rest along.