Whenever an author finds exceptional success in their field, it tends to spawn wave after wave of second-rate imitations, generally poorly written and badly executed. J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series has been no exception. The bookshelves are sagging under the sheer weight of witches, wizards, and magicians—the vast majority of which range from the forgettable and mundane to the abysmal.
There are some notable exceptions.
Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Triology is one of those notable exceptions.
The Amulet of Samarkand introduces us to a different type of magic—gone are the magical school of wizardry, muggles and quidditch; instead Stroud’s world draws on a darker source of magic—demonic efrits, djinnis and spirits, summoned and controlled through elaborate, cryptic rituals and protections that force the djinnis and many lesser demons into unwilling servitude to those with enough magical knowledge to harness their deadly power.
Enter the two main characters: Nathaniel, a magician-in-training, sold to the government at five and apprenticed to a master magician; and Bartimaeus, a 5,000 year old djinni, summoned by Nathaniel to steal the magical Amulet of Samarkand and effect Nathaniel’s revenge on the famous London magician Simon Lovelace. Stroud has created a fascinating Dickensian alternate London, where the government is dominated and ruled by magicians and their magical servants. Rich, intricate, yet with a bleak understory that belies the magical trappings, The Amulet of Samarkand is a terrifically enjoyable read, albeit one with a dark undercurrent, at times too dark for younger readers.
The standout aspect of the book is, however, the cynical, wisecracking, shape-shifting Bartimaeus, whose character leaps off the page and springs utterly to life. Whether it is musing over what manifestation would be most off-putting for its summoner or cracking wise on the history of magic (much of which is found in the many, many footnotes that permeate the Bartimaeus sections of the book—word to the wise: do not skip reading the footnotes), Bartimaeus is hilarious (and witheringly sarcastic), and nigh on unforgettable. Unwillingly, Bartimaeus finds himself thrown together with Nathaniel, and the unlikely pair find themselves taxed to uncover a sinister conspiracy designed to overthrow the government.
Stroud does an excellent job of pulling together a comprehensive tale, alternating the viewpoint from Nathanial to Bartimaeus and building in a nice, well-rounded world, with just enough of the familiar to give the magical world they inhabit some solidity and depth. One notable (and somewhat unsettling) aspect of the book is that the magicians for the most part are an unpleasant, ambitious and power-hungry crew. The question of whether Nathanial will drift into this mindset is one that makes the tale much more ambiguous than is typical.
An excellent book and well worth a look.
“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”