The Amulet of Samarkand (Book One of the Bartimaeus Trilogy)
So, you’ve finished Harry Potter and are itching for more high-quality stories featuring magic and adventure. Well, The Amulet of Samarkand (2003) by Jonathan Stroud will not disappoint. It’s the first book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy and contains the light tone and fun quality of Harry Potter, but does an absolutely terrific job of distinguishing itself.
Alternate history stories are just ripe for fun with their speculative “What if…?” nature. The Amulet of Samarkand takes place in a powerful version of London where magicians are the elite ruling class of the society over the non-magical commoners, who are not allowed to participate in the government.
Because magic has existed throughout the history of this world, events did not transpire the same as they did in our world. The result is a contemporary fantasy world that blends elements of past and present into an undisclosed time period. For instance, magicians wear contact lenses to see hidden spirits, but the soldiers use muskets.
Interesting Magic System
I love this story’s version of magic. The magicians do not directly wield magic but summon mythical, magical spirits and creatures that can do so. Unfortunately for the spirits, they are forced to serve the magicians. Magicians can even trap spirits in objects to create powerful tools, such as the titular magical object, the amulet of Samarkand.
But, the spirits can gain the upper hand, such as if they learn the true name of a magician or if the magician summons them incorrectly. The master/slave dynamic of magician and spirit creates very effective tension and establishes a great balance of power that tips back and forth to amusing effect.
An Exceptional Character
The standout character is by far Bartimaeus (Bart – im – ay – us), a 5000-year-old djinni. Hilariously sarcastic and witty, he is a pleasure to read and filled with so much history and more depth than you would assume upon first meeting him.
His chapters are told in first-person perspective and are absolutely hilarious to read, which contrasts perfectly with Nathaniel’s (the twelve-year-old protagonist) third-person POV chapters, which have a serious, plot-driven tone. It’s a lot of fun watching Bart and Nathaniel constantly spar, as well as seeing what each thinks of the other from their POV.
Footnotes are employed throughout Bartimaeus’ chapters to hilarious and world-expanding effect. These are rarely seen in fictional stories and make me wonder from a writing perspective what other untapped literary devices are out there. Stroud does a terrific job with them–they’re really a pleasure to read and add a lot of enjoyment to the novel.
Young, Yet Mature
This story is just as entertaining for adults as it is for young adults; it features sophisticated storylines and a gray morality, while still maintaining a light-hearted tone.
Nathaniel’s situation doesn’t start out well as he is sold at childhood by his parents to the magicians, who seem to rule without conscious. Almost every character in the story, in fact, is morally gray. Then, after a public embarrassment at the hands of a high-ranking magician and the villain of the story, Simon Lovelace, Nathaniel’s attitude darkens further. He begins harboring malicious and vengeful plans to enact on Lovelace.
Thus, Nathaniel dabbles in dangerous magic to summon Bartimaeus. He tasks the djinni to steal the amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace after discovering it is important to the villain. Nathaniel shows little concern whether or not Bartimaeus lives or dies in the djinni’s attempt to complete the task forced upon him.
Many dark emotions ensue and escalate as the plot twists and turns and Nathaniel becomes caught between a government coup and his own hate.
All the Other Great Stuff
Of course, this novel features all the other standard aspects of great fiction: exciting plot twists, crisp and enjoyable writing, a balanced yet exciting pace, compelling characters, plenty of mystery and intrigue, thought-provoking situations, and a healthy-dose of heart.
A Trilogy and More
And if all this isn’t enough to entice you, the following two novels, The Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate, are just as engaging and exciting. They conclude the larger story established in the first book, although each novel has its own story and climax so you will not be left unsatisfied after each.
And, more recently, Jonathan Stroud has released a prequel, The Ring of Solomon, set thousands of years before the main story and featuring once again the comic brilliance of Bartimaeus.
With similar fantasy properties in novel and movie adaptations having become very popular over the past decade or so, I’m surprised more people don’t know about this unique and high-quality read. I hope you enjoy it (or enjoyed it if already read). It’s definitely worth checking out.
Article by Michael DeCesaris