Called “a darkly tantalizing tale” by Publishers Review, The Amulet of Samarkand more than lives up to the hype — enough, even, to warrant a movie release (even if it is caught in Development Hell).
Published in 2003 and written by Jonathan Stroud, The Amulet of Samarkand is startlingly morally grey for a child or young adult novel. I love it a lot for that even if, as I bought it when I was nine or so, I couldn’t appreciate it at first (or even get through the novel, to be honest).
The plot follows the 12-year-old magician Nathaniel in his struggle for revenge against a notable and powerful older magician by the name of Lovelace after the man completely humiliates him upon their first meeting. The series is set in a modern-day London, with a notable twist: magicians are the ruling caste, and magic as a force is common to the untrained eye. In reality, magic practitioners summon demons — of varying power-levels and skill-sets — to do their bidding, unseen to the naked (read: commoner and human) eye.
The life of a magician is particularly horrifying on several different levels: Steeped in paranoia and politics, London’s most powerful are always looking over their shoulders to make sure there isn’t a knife in their backs. At the same time, the lower, non-magical classes live in oppression and are given no voice or political power over their situation, as most government positions are taken by magicians. Everyone else just has to deal with the imbalance.
Two of the best things Amulet has going for it are the narrator — the dijinni/demon Bartimaeus — and the way it manages to mix genres so skillfully. Bartimaeus was out of place to me in 2003, but re-reading it now, it’s like his Deadpan Snarker* attitude is speaking right to me. Our narrator is always ready with a quip or an insult or a cutting observation via lampshade-hanging for his prideful little master, Nathaniel (who, to be fair, tries his black little heart out, but can never really match up with other magicians) which makes for a hilarious read. Bartimaeus also has a very… interesting mind. He uses mostly humorous footnotes to elaborate on his tales in a way that really helps flesh out his world, which I find awesome and inventive, but others might just find tiresome.
Stroud’s genre-mixing is something else. Thrown into the plot pot is one part coming-of-age-story; one part social commentary on the ruling or wealthy class; one part questioning what is human and the ramifications of literally enslaving sentient, powerful creatures to do your bidding; one part action/adventure; and one part political thriller, all of which comes together to create a fantastic climax at the end of the novel. It’s a lot to take in and appreciate fully.
The moral greyness of the tale really comes into play in the next two novels; since the protagonist, Nathaniel, is more or less a fantastically power-hungry teen and a textbook example of a Hero Antagonist with a sympathetic Start Of Darkness and a set of clear and eminently relatable goals, it gets harder and harder to figure out who is really the “good guy.” I can’t describe how fantastic it is to find yourself rooting for this prideful little toe-rag page after page.
Amulet is a skilled, complex tale that takes 462 pages to even start — as this is the first in a trilogy (well, a cycle, if you count the later-published prequel novel), and each of the following novels are equal to or longer than the first. It’s definitely worth a read if you love character-driven plots with a boatload of sarcasm and enough complexity to hold — and keep! — your attention. The characters really make it into the work of art it should be considered.
Stay tuned for my upcoming review of The Golem’s Eye, the next book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy!
*I’d like to thank TVTropes for helping me with my diction and vocabulary in this review; I really feel it helped sum things up. And it’s not like I didn’t spend hours on that site anyway — might as well put it to use! What are you still reading this for? Get back to my review!