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Book Review: The Amulet of Samarkand (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 1) by Jonathan Stroud

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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&#8212the 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&#8212gone are the magical school of wizardry, muggles and quidditch; instead Stroud’s world draws on a darker source of magic&#8212demonic 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&#8212word 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.

You can visit the real Samarkand online at Tashkent.org or here. You can also drop in on the real London here.

Drop by The Bartimaeus Triology online and read an excerpt from The Amulet of Samarkand and from the second book The Golem’s Eye.

Here’s a quick magic spell for you (hope it is helpful), courtesy of William Shakespeare:

“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&#8212
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

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About Deano

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Neato, Deano! This seems more in the genre of Scheherezade than Harry Potter, though…

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com Pat Cummings

    This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places as Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • Alex Zamora

    Simply outstanding!!! After Harry Potter, I needed a book that will amuse me a lot concerning wizards, witches, goblins, spells and magic potions. Stroud’s characterization of Nathaniel and Bartimaeus (the demon’s character flies off from the pages!) are excellent. Every chapter is a twist and turn. All I can say is I read it at nighttime after work, walk towards work while reading it and walk towards home while reading it as well. Engrossing, smart and witty, Stroud is a great contender to J.K. Rowling’s throne. I hope his stories will not suffer in quality as I find her storytelling of Harry Potter’s adventures getting weaker after the fourth book. Get your own copy if you love these types of stories. Nathaniel will be YOU as you read his plight through every page and laugh your head off with the smart aleck, Bartimaeus! Happy reading!!!

  • becksta

    I definetly thought this was an awesome trilogy escpecially since it plled away from hte 7 year old books like harry potter and more mature with more politics in it

  • kristina

    I thought the harry potter series had its own amazing plot.. i loved them… Stroud’s books have a completly different perspective and i enjoyed them thouroughly, all though his endings sucked.. i don’t know why but he just can’t end any of his books.. all 6 storys have bad endings but the story is amazing….. You shoudl try reading buried fire, the last seige and the leap.. he wrote those before the bartimaeus trilogy…

  • kristina

    I thought the harry potter series had its own amazing plot.. i loved them… Stroud’s books have a completly different perspective and i enjoyed them thouroughly, all though his endings sucked.. i don’t know why but he just can’t end any of his books.. all 6 storys have bad endings but the story is amazing….. You shoudl try reading buried fire, the last seige and the leap.. he wrote those before the bartimaeus trilogy…

  • Sarah

    Are you sure you read the book before posting that review? I’m sorry if I offend you with this comment, but really doesn’t seem so. I mean, they’re not efrits, they’re afrits, and Nathaniel wasn’t apprenticed to a master magician or anything, he was barely mediocre…. And anyway, though the book is better than most of the new fantasy around, and I think better than the Potter books – but then, anybody who’s read Pratchett can’t think much of the Potter books, you know, especially the last couple of ones, the fan fic was so much better than the real thing – it’s not all that good. A good read, yes, and tackles the darker aspects of things well, though Bartimaeus himself and his footnoted point of view is very reminiscent of Pratchett, but not exactly a rereader. But much better than a lot of trash out there. Much.

  • Destiny

    The Bartimaeus Trilogy is a book worth reading. I won’t compare it to Harry Potter as so many people above have, since this book is not even (according to me, at least) in the same sub-genre as the HP Series. They have their place in fantasy, these books have their own place. I would disagree with one of the commentors here…the one who talks about endings, I found the ending of Ptolemy’s Gate one of the BEST endings I’ve ever read. The book is amazing…and so are ALL the characters. It’s unconventional, granted, but it combines various POV’s, humour, magic, some hints of love, slavery, politics, murder and intrigue and most of all…human emotions, so effectively that it’s beautiful. Go out there. READ IT. Don’t skip anything, least of all the footnotes. I don’t think there are many who’ll be able to resist liking it.

  • Sharvil

    They may not be better than Harry Potter but they sure are a hell funnier

  • Divesh

    I especially loved the manner in which the author randomly switches between first-person and third-person narrative.