The Amulet of Samarkand
by Jonathan Stroud
This fantasy novel is the first book in a projected Bartimaeus Trilogy. It takes place in an alternate world in which the British government is run by magicians. Commoners (non-magical people) are shunted into the background while all of the power, and most of the wealth, is in the hands of the few who have the power to summon demons to do their will.
Obviously, this fantasy views magic as very much an occult activity. Candles and pentacles and incantations abound, forcing various orders of demons (imps, foliots, djinn, afrits, marids, and others even more nasty and powerful) to take material shape in our world. They would much rather stay in the chaotic Other Place, and as a magician states very clearly, early in this book, they are very wicked and will harm you if you let them. Demons, for their part, consider magicians to be wicked enough themselves, cruelly enslaving creatures, treating commoners like dirt, and clawing their way to power. A magician, says a demon somewhere in this book, is motivated either by greed or ambition or paranoia. They seem to have no scruples, considering the only bad magician to be an incompetent one (reminds me of the Quirrell doctrine about good and evil).
Though other cultures have overthrown their magical overlords, the England of this story is still only in the early stages of a rebellion by the commoners. On the fringes of society discontent is brewing. A few young people with a strange resistance to magic seem to be building power for a major strike against the government. It is also threatened by the decadent sorcerers of Prague, the great enemy of the English magical establishment. At this delicate moment, a young wizard named Simon Lovelace covets power, and has a fiendish plan for how to get it. It involves a very powerful amulet (that is, an object that protects its bearer from magical harm). And it involves a big government conference at the country estate of Lovelaces rich, commoner girlfriend. Its a plan that cannot fail...
Until Lovelace makes a fatal mistake. He underestimates the twelve-year-old apprentice of a mediocre magical bureaucrat. A clever boy named Nathaniel, who has devoured his masters library as an antidote to being neglected by his weak, over-cautious master. An ambitious boy whose pride will not bear the beating and public humiliation he takes from Lovelace. Consumed by hatred, Nathaniel risks everything to summon an ancient djinni named Bartimaeus, and commands him to steal the very object Lovelace needs for his upcoming coup...the amulet of Samarkand.
The story is told alternately from the points of view of Nathaniel and Bartimaeusthe one driven by his crusade for justice and revenge, the other compelled against his will to do what his young master commands. Their uneasy alliance grows into grudging respect as they fight to overcome enormous odds to save the government, to bring Lovelace to justice, and (as an optional bonus) to get through it alive. But there are bigger and badder demons than Bartimaeus at large, as well as other people with disturbing and unexplained powers, and somehow Lovelace always seems to be one step ahead.
So I wont argue with anyone who is offended by magic of the demon-summoning, occult variety. That is indeed, without ambiguity, the kind of magic dealt with in this book. Though I myself object to that brand of magic, I was slowly won over by the book as it went along. For one thing, it takes place in a fantasy world where much is possible that is not so in ours. For a second thing, it does not glamorize demons or the magicians who summon them; both are frankly depicted as a nasty lot, and the commoners rising up against them really have the right idea. The only thing that keeps you sympathizing with Nathaniel is the slender hope that his conscience and his courage (unusual among magicians) will not be eroded by the ambition and greed (not at all unusual among magicians) that are allready pulling at him. Even considering how much of the story is told from the wry viewpoint of Bartimaeus, the unwilling demon slave, that hope remains alive at the storys end. For a third thing, Bartimaeus himself seems to be a unusually humane demon, which softens the impact of reading half the story through the filter of a wicked beings viewpoint.
Finally, what this book really excels at is showing how dangerous it would be to traffic with demons, especially for those who do the trafficking. It is definitely something best left up to fictional characters, and villainous ones at that. I think, or at least hope, that the further books in this trilogy will show Nathaniel looking for a better way to get things done, and maybe becoming more understanding of the plight of the commoners and their beef against magicians. You wont have to wait long to find out. Book 2 of this trilogy, The Golems Eye, was recently released, and in spite of my early reservations while reading this book, I am eager to read the sequel.
Recommended Age: 14+
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