The Amulet of Samarkand

Author: Jonathon Stroud
Published: 2003
Website: Wikipedia Page

The Amulet of Samarkand is the first book of the Bartimaeus Trilogy, though it could easily stand alone. It is a fantastic work of fantasy, employing classic tropes in novel ways, adding in original material and style and doing it all in a readable but thorough way. The two main characters are Nathaniel, an impetuous, ambitious, intelligent and conscientious rascal training as a magician’s apprentice, and Bartimaeus, an irascible, sarcastic, powerful djinni. The world in which they live is late 20th century Britain, but imbued everywhere with magic in the form of objects and creatures. Magicians are those learned figures who can, with a great deal of work and study, learn to control both. The melding of the mundane and the magical is an impressively difficult task for a fantasy writer, especially since it requires a great deal of explanation so that the reader knows where the lines of demarcation are in this alternate universe (a wholly invented world has no such demands put on it). Stroud pulls it off by taking a strongly authoritative tone, treating what is to the reader a new discovery as an obvious feature of the world. This allows him to gracefully place important information, description and exposition wherever they are necessary, without them ever becoming heavy-handed. The lively and engaging plot certainly helps with that as well.

As a result of the author’s sincere security in the world he has created, he is free to not take himself or the story particularly seriously. At times, Bartimaeus seems less like a terrifying magical denizen of the Other Place and more like a cantankerous, impatient mentor to Nathaniel (which he essentially becomes, over time), and this provides levity and fun to the darker parts of the story. Stroud is perhaps best known for his use of footnotes, in which Bartimaeus can continue talking while just happening to explain various more technical aspects of the magical realm.

There is, of course, a quest, a project, which is the underlying structure of the fantasy, but surprisingly, the author very much takes his time getting us there. Yet, the characters are so amusing and sympathetic (Nathaniel, torn from his parents, stuck under the thumb of a mediocre boor of a magician, Bartimaeus, sarcastic and caring in turn, with all sorts of stories from his time in ancient Egypt) and their back stories are so rich and important to the ‘main’ storyline that it doesn’t matter at all. In fact, the book would be much worse without it.

The book is in turn fantastic and very real, dealing equally adeptly with magic and politics, and occasionally blurring the line between good and evil (with, for example, Nathaniel’s easy dismissal of commoners – nonmagicians – as not fit to rule) without undermining the gripping struggle between Nathaniel and the villain, and ends in a very satisfying manner that still leaves a tantalizing expectation of a sequel.

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