The Amulet of Samarkand

The Amulet of Samarkand (Book One of the Bartimaeus Trilogy)

The Amulet of Samarkand (Book One of the Bar­ti­maeus Trilogy)

The Amulet of Samarkand (Book One of the Bartimaeus Trilogy)

The Amulet of Samarkand (Book One of the Bar­ti­maeus Tril­ogy)
Cover and Art Illus­tra­tion by Melvyn Grant

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

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

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