Book Review: The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus, #1) by Johnathan Stroud 

By  Turn The Page

‘Bartimaeus is a wisecracking Djinni (pronounced “Jinnee” we’re reliably informed) unlike no other. Summoned from some otherworldly place to do the bidding of a pipsqueak trainee magician called Nathanial, he sets about his given task reluctantly but with aplomb. Nathanial is after revenge and that makes him dangerous. Previously humiliated by a powerful magician called Simon Lovelace in front of his impotent master, Nathanial has spent every waking hour for years cramming knowledge of the highest magic into his head so that he can exact his own special kind of vengeance.

Bartimaeus is charged to steal a precious and powerful object–the Amulet of Samarkand–from Lovelace’s residence, which the Djinni achieves but not without angering a few old mates on the same astral plane and having to spend the night annoyingly disguised as a bird. Bartimaeus, despite being bound to Nathaniel, discovers the boy’s real name–a tool he can use to his own advantage. But he is constantly outwitted. Then an overriding danger becomes apparent that threatens the whole fabric of society and they must work together to combat it.’

If I had to recommend only one book (or trilogy in this case) for you to only ever read, one of the very top contenders would have to be the Bartimaeus series.

Given the elements of the story, a young boy magician and the promise of an epic story spanning several books, it’s unsurprising that this, along with every other book of its genre, has been compared to Harry Potter. However, to suggest they are in any way the same would be doing Jonathan Stroud a disservice. There is little to no overlap between the two in terms of plot or characters. This series is one of those delightfully rare YA novels that is so well crafted and executed that it would be a crime for adults to ignore it.

Stroud manages to put a unique spin on a familiar concept. Set in a parallel London, where magicians are in government overruling the non-magical commoners, it is Demons (spirits from the Other Place) that actually possess magic. Magicians, taken from their families and apprenticed out at a young age, harness these powers by summoning and binding the Demons to do their bidding. Time spent in this world eats away at a Demon’s essence, too long from the Other Place and they will eventually die, a fact often dismissed by magicians; and so in turn, Demons will take any opportunity to trick, deceive (or eat) their masters. Needless the say, there is little love lost between the two, each one despising the other.

It is the characters that really stand out in this book and I simply couldn’t get enough of them. The narration switches back and forth between Nathaniel, a young apprentice, and Bartimaeus, a fourth-level djinn. The star of the show is, of course, Bartimaeus, an all-knowing Demon, with a wicked sense of humor, who enjoys causing as much trouble as he can. It’s addictive to watch him tease and rile Nathaniel at every turn. I particularly enjoyed Bartimaeus’ footnotes, which, far from detracting from the story, were often hilarious to read (his indignation towards an amorous female pigeon at one point had me in stitches) and gave some great insight into the background of a somewhat mysterious character.

Nathaniel is a complex, well-fleshed-out character, pretentious, bad-tempered, stubborn, and highly intelligent but often foolish and naïve because of his age. It would be easy to dismiss Nathaniel as someone you wouldn’t want to read about, nor care about what happens to him. But this isn’t the case. Nathaniel has a strong sense of right and wrong and cares deeply for the only two people in his life who have ever shown him any kindness. His arrogant perception of the world, his hero worship of magicians and their power, and his disdain for commoners are a consequence of his indoctrinated, neglected (and at times abusive) childhood. Desperate for respect and acknowledgment of his talents, it is very poignant to watch this child, who has within him the chance to be a great magician, slide slowly further toward the world of greed, power, and control. Sadly, Nathaniel is still too young to really understand where his actions are taking him. It will be exciting to watch how Nathaniel’s character progresses, or regresses, in future books and the effect it will have on his contemptuous relationship with Bartimaeus.

Stroud has created a rich, vibrant world of magic and demons. Some readers may find the beginning a little slow – everything is a little mysterious and at times a bit confusing, but I urge you to keep reading – by a few chapters in I was hooked and couldn’t put it down. I won’t write much more about the actual storyline here, I wouldn’t want to spoil you, except to say that it is a thrilling adventure – full of mystery and twists and whispers of resistance and a future battle that sets the foundations for a brilliant trilogy. Not to be missed.

Recommended Reading Age: All ages