To further prove just how removed I am from literary hipness, let me admit that I enjoy reading fantasy books. To be fair, I am not obsessive about it or anything. It is not a steady part of my reading, but I do enjoy it nonetheless. It started in high school when I needed to read books for book reports. I found to my amazement that authors like J.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Issac Aizmov were on the list. I soaked up a great deal of these author’s work, soon doing so without the pressure of a book report being due. After hearing about this interest, a friend of the family recommended some of her favorites. This got me interested in Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Roger Zelazny & Robert Sheckly, and others. I especially enjoyed the more light hearted side of fantasy as it better avoids the cheese and pathos that epic fantasy can easily fall prey to. Ever since these early years I have enjoyed a good fantasy novel to break up the pace of more serious reading. I even dip into children’s and young adult fiction from time to time. Heck, I have read the entire Harry Potter series to date as well as the darker work of Phillip Pullman. I even read Lemmony Snicket (just one).
Which brings me to the point of this ramble, I recently picked up a young adult fantasy book entitled The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud (billing itself as The Bartimaeus Trilogy Part One). Strolling through the bookstore like an alcoholic through the brewery district, the book’s cover caught my eye. The plot seemed interesting and I was going on vacation soon . . . So I ended up buying it (one of the useful things about having a book blog is that you can always rationalize your purchases by telling yourself that it will make a good review). So in order to assuage my guilt for buying so many books when I haven’t read half the ones I own, here is my review.
The Amulet of Samarkand is about the . . . Amulet of Samarkand, but the story focuses on, and is told from the perspective of, two main characters. The first is Bartimaeus, hence the Bartimaeus Trilogy, a five-thousand-year-old djinni summoned to earth. Nathaniel, an eleven year-old magician apprentice, is the summoner. Nathaniel summons Bartimaeus to steal the, wait for it, Amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace. Lovelace, the book flap tells us, is a magician of un-rivaled ruthlessness and ambition. So when Nathaniel summons a entity of this power and successfully steals a prize possession of an important magician, things get interesting.
The setting is present day London, but not exactly the London of today. While much of the background is left murky, magicians run the British Empire using the power of the demons and spirits they summon and control. Young magicians are taken from their parents and placed in foster settings with government magicians so they can learn their craft and take their place in a magic orientated aristocracy or bureaucracy.
As I noted above, the story alternates between the perspective of Nathaniel and Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus tells the story in the first person and with a sort of amoral and smart aleck tone. Nathaniel’s story, on the other hand, is told in third person. He provides the emotional and psychological tension. Nathaniel has all the normal angst and insecurity of a tennager plus the added stress and emotion of being taken from his family and placed with strangers To top it all off his master is a rather cruel and yet incompetent mid-level magician. Nathaniel is more talented than master realizes and so chafes at the restraints and cold discipline. Nathaniel seeks solace in his foster mother and in his art tutor. His sensitivity and impatience, however, lead him to a humiliating run in with Simon Lovelace. This in turn leads to his summoning of Bartimaeus and the rest of the story.
As the story is where the fun is, I won’t spoil anymore details for you. But let me give you my take on the book as a whole. I must say that I enjoyed it for what it was, a light hearted fantasy story. There will inevitably be comparisons to Harry Potter, teenage boy ripped from his family to secretly learn magic etc., but this book is really quite different from the Potter series. For one Bartimaeus is a central character unlike any in Potter. Also, Nathaniel is similar to Potter in that he is struggling with his emotions and his talents, but he does so largely alone. Harry has Hogwarts, Nathaniel does not. In fact, Nathaniel’s dilemmas are a great deal more grey than Harry’s. Nathaniel is rather haughty despite his poor surroundings and his lack of patience is the source of most of his troubles. Sure Nathaniel is fighting against bad guys but he is not an ambiguously good person. His motives are mostly vengeful and based in pride or loss. He does mature as the story progresses but mostly in fits and starts. Oddly enough, J.K. Rowling’s series are more about character than this one even if Nathaniels character flaws are a big part of the story. Still there are enough similarieties to provoke comparison.
That said, the characters are interesting and entertaining. Bartimaeus provides key story details and background information (often through amusing and snide footnotes) while also supplying much of the action. Nathaniel is an interesting character because of the ambiguities mentioned above. He is a bit reckless and naive, yet obviously possesses talent. As a result he is unpredictable. You always know that he will end up being the hero somehow but you are not quite sure in what way – straight or tragic. His thought process and inner dialogue are the flip side to the action.
The plot is not overly complicated but there are enough twists and turns to keep you reading. Stroud begins with the summoning of Bartimaeus and the theft of the amulet and only slowly fills in the details that led up to that point. This gives the story some punch at beginning and allows the story to build in tension as events unfold. Stroud also avoids excessive background information that might cause the story to drag. The world of the story, for the most part, is filled in by dialogue, and regular and often snarky footnotes by Bartimaeus, instead of straightforward descriptive prose. The sub-plots and lesser characters are never heavy handed or over-the-top. All in all, it was an interesting and entertaining story.
As I was reading I was trying to figure out what exactly makes this a book for young adults. If it is the lack of hard core adult themes then count me in. In a world saturated with sex a book largely devoid of it is a relaxing relief. On the other hand, like Harry Potter, many of the themes relate to the adult world. In fact, the book has a dark side to it; one facused on loss and tragedy. If it is due to the fact that the main character is eleven, that seems arbitrary. Surely, adult fiction can be written that involves an eleven year old boy. It seems to me an interesting story is worthwhile no matter what age you are.
The world is often full of heaviness and sadness, not to mention fear and violence (here in Ohio someone is shooting at people on the expressway), so I find an entertaining tale relieves stress. There is certainly a time for serious literature and educational non-fiction, but there is also a place for fantasy and intrigue; a time to escape with your imagination. So, if like me you enjoy a light hearted romp once in a while, especially one with exotic characters and locale, pick up The Amulet of Samarkand and enjoy. Heck, if you want hipness and an obsession with sex you can always read Martin Amis.