Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Amulet of Samarkand Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Jonathan Stroud
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Series: Bartimaeus Book One
Pages: 462

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The Amulet of Samarkand may be one of the most cynical middle grade fantasy books out there. The story focuses on eleven year old Nathaniel, who is trying to get revenge on an elite magician who publicly humiliated him.  He goes over his head when he summons Bartimaeus, a smart ass demon, to help him.

Pairing the naive eleven year old Nathaniel with the sarcastic djinni Bartimaeus creates one of the most dysfunctional partnerships I’ve ever seen.  All though the book is anchored with a traditional good vs. evil style plot; the prose, strong characters, and biting humor make this a great story that doesn’t feel like another fantasy knock off.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy is set in an alternative modern day London, which is ruled by magicians that can summon powerful spirits (sometimes called demons). A young boy Nathaniel is sold by his parents and adopted by a callous magician named Underwood whom he doesn’t get along with, and his caring wife whom he develops a close relationship with.

At a social gathering Nathaniel is humiliated by an upcoming magician named Lovelace.  Shortly after Nathaniel begins planning his revenge, and he summons an advanced, hard to control, djinni named Bartimaeus to help him.  As Nathaniel uses Bartimaeus to help him get back at Lovelace, he begins to uncover a sinister plot that he and his djinni may not be able to handle.

The Amulet of Samarkand’s plot is conventional, but its magic system and mythological creatures add a lot of variety to the story. The setting appears to be in modern day London, but magicians publicly rule the British Empire, which is reportedly the most powerful empire in the world in this series due to the London magicians.

Inevitably with a story about a young boy training to become a wizard, the inevitable comparisons to Harry Potter will arrive.  Let me be frank, this series is nothing like Harry Potter.  Most of the magicians in the Amulet of Samarkand are not good people, and they use their power to oppress the non-magical people they call commoners. Stroud tells a much more pessimistic story than Rowling ever did.

It is this society that the main character Nathaniel is being prepared for. Watching these magicians beginning to convince Nathaniel that he is superior to everyone else is concerning in a real world sort of way. When Nathaniel, who’s a fairly likeable character, begins to incorporate more of the magician world view into his rhetoric, it’s disturbing.  Nevertheless it provides valuable social commentary about how prejudices are formed.

Character development is really the strongest point of the series.  The Amulet of Samarkand is narrated by two characters: Nathaniel in 3rd person limited, and Bartimaeus in first person. The difference in narration style really helps to separate just how different these two characters are, while also making it very easy for the reader to determine who is telling the story.

Bartimaeus’s narrations are the highlight of the book.  As the djinni eventually explains, he has multiple consciences, and in order to narrate these consciences, he adds footnotes in all of his narrations.  The footnotes can provide important anecdotes about history, or how certain magical aspects work. However, the footnotes are at their best when Bartimaeus uses them to mock Nathaniel, the failures of humanity, and whatever else he doesn’t like … which is just about everything.

This is a very cynical character and pairing him with an 11 year old that doesn’t know any better … well you do the math.  Bartimaeus may not be profane, but as far as subject matter is considered, nothing is off limits as he continuously mocks Nathaniel’s failures at magic, his dysfunctional family life, and his lack of a girlfriend.  The carefully concealed adult humor is a huge plus, keep in mind this is a middle grade book, meaning its marketed towards elementary and middle school aged kids.

This is an excellent beginning to a trilogy.  Author Jonathan Stroud’s use of meaningful prose and morally complicated characters to make this story feel unique, despite the traditional good vs evil plot that holds it all together.  With Bartimaeus, Stroud may have created one of fantasy’s most memorable characters.  Don’t let the middle grade publisher marketing fool you, The Amulet of Samarkand isn’t just for children.

Score: 9.0

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