Bartimaeus 1: The Amulet of Samarkand
by Jonathan Stroud (Corgi, 2003)
Reviewed by Nimish Dubey
When 12-year-old Nathaniel, a magician’s apprentice, summons the 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus and charges him to steal the Amulet of Samarkand, he takes on more than he has bargained for. What results is a whirl through the author’s version of modern-day London—a world controlled by megalomaniac magicians—with plenty of laughs along the way.
Jonathan Stroud’s fantasy world is fantastic and at the same time oddly beliveable. Commoners are looked down upon and bow to the law of magicians, who hold important positions in society. Their word is the law. However, not allowed to have their own offspring, they ‘adopt’ children and train them in magic. Nathaniel is one such child, apprentice to a modest magician, a member of the British Government.
While his master does train him, he does so a such a slow pace that Nathaniel’s quick brain finds the going unbearably dull. He ends up surreptitiously studying the books in his master’s library, and slowly gains skills that would have been considered beyond his ability. And when the powerful magician Simon Lovelace humiliates him in public, the boy decides its time for revenge. Thus, he summons Bartimaeus, which is when the fun starts.
But if Nathaniel is the focus of the book, why is the series named after his djinni? Well, the reason is rather simple—because Bartimaeus is arguably one of the most entertaining magical creatures seen in fiction for a while. He thinks the world of himself and is not afraid to let everyone know exactly that, especially as the parts concerning him are resplendent with first-person cheek!
It is hard not to giggle when Bartimaeus is telling the story. He peppers his tale with a number of—usually irrelevant and definitely irreverent—footnotes, not missing a single opportunity to let the reader know of his illustrious past, which involved hob-nobbing with Ptolemy and helping build a number of ancient monuments.
Most magical empires employ some magicians specially to rustle up whole cohorst of imps at short notice. Only the greatest empires have the strength in depth to create armies of higher entities. The most formidable such army ever seen was put together by Pharaoh Tuthmosis III in 1478 B.C. It included a legion of afrits and a motley group of higher djinn, of which surely the most notable was… no, modesty prevents me continuing. (p. 270)
There are many who think Stroud’s book is an attempt to cash in on the Harry Potter phenomenon. And there are certain similarities—a young boy with exceptional powers, and of course, lots of magic and magicians (wizards, in Potter-speak). But that is about it. Unlike the Potter books, especially the earlier ones, which are obviously children’s books, the Amulet of Samarkand is meant for much older audiences. It is almost depressing at times, especially when describing the travails of Nathaniel. Unlike Harry, Nathaniel is a terrified and insecure child whose parents have sold him to a magician. No one really loves him. He has no parents and no friends. He frankly seems a bit more believable than Potter.
Bartimaeus is the exact opposite—a veteran in magic who knows just how good he is and an absolute extrovert who does not mind chatting up his enemies even while planning their downfall.
Stroud’s ability to produce prose that sparkles makes the book a worthwhile read. The descriptions of places might be a tad tedious (unless it is Bartimaeus doing the describing) but all in all, this is a good tale told well. Stroud’s style might seem a trifle old-fashioned, even Dickensian—he lacks the fluency and pace of Rowling—but his flashes of wit more than compensate, especially when the plot goes a bit thin towards the end.
If you are looking for a Harry Potter clone, you may not really like The Amulet of Samarkand. If you are looking for a good story, you are sure to love it.
Other books in the series: