Review: Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand, by Marsha Sisolak

Review: Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand, by Marsha Sisolak

I don’t read enough. Not anymore, at least. Gone are the halcyon days when I would whip through eight to ten books a week. Some of that time has been siphoned off by writing my own fiction; most, however, has disappeared by worrying about my own writing or lack thereof.
So it’s not all that often I can peruse the stacks at a bookstore and take the time to choose a book or a writer I’ve never heard of.
This month, I had the good fortune to hit both.
Mind you, the book is prominently displayed in Border’s; I can’t claim success in ferreting it out from a wrongly shelved location. However, it is considered YA, so don’t search for it in the adult speculative fiction section.
The Amulet of Samarkand is the first volume of The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. While I had my doubts as I scrutinized the cover— Bartimaeus? My brain took five days to assimilate that spelling— the opening pages convinced me it was a keeper.
Meet Bartimaeus, a sarcastic, wiseacre of a djinn, summoned to retrieve (that’s a nice way of saying “steal”) an amulet in the possession of another magician.
Who summons him?
A boy.
Not just any boy, of course. This one is a magician’s apprentice.
Sound familiar?
Keep reading.
This is London, familiar in many ways, but diverging from reality in a few notable ways. Magicians rule the government: running Parliament, in charge of the various ministries— why even the Prime Minister is one of the more powerful, but heavily blessed with Charm.
Nathaniel, the apprentice, was sold to the government at age five by his parents, who promptly re-submerged into their commoner lives. The government bestows him upon his master, Mr. Underwood, a fussy, ineffectual magician with a streak of cruelty. For the next several years of his life, Nathaniel’s joys are numbered in the caring attentions of the magician’s wife and the texts on magic he is allowed to consume.
And consume them he does.
Thus, when one of his master’s colleagues ridicules him in front of others, and his master does nothing to protect him, Nathaniel takes revenge.
But while his motives are simple, the effects are not. The amulet Nathaniel sends Bartimaeus after is a part of a much larger plot— this in a society where power can be achieved by killing off those currently holding that power.
Bartimaeus, constrained to help Nathaniel, battles imps, djinns, afrits, and, strangely enough, commoners who can sense powerful objects and upon whom magic has very little effect. The djinn becomes increasingly involved with the political turmoil, as does his master, Nathaniel. Nathaniel, being human, of course, has to worry about small things like death and mutilation. Bartimaeus, being a djinn, is far more preoccupied with whether he’ll end up in a magicked tim at the bottom of the Thames.
The writing here is excellent—clear and concise, no small feat in a book 642 pages long. Bartimaeus is a djinn of great wit. All his asides, noted in footnotes, the best he can do for the weak humans who have not the powers he possesses, are well worth reading for their amusement factor. Nathaniel, although a youngster, has flaws, and that makes him an interesting character to watch as he grows and develops.
This is not a philosophically heavy read, but it is delightful, and one that I urge you to check out. I know I’m waiting for the next two volumes to appear, to see when the Nathaniel’s and Bartimaeus’ journeys proceed from here.



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