The Amulet of Samarkand: Highly recommended children’s fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Jonathan Stroud Bartimaeus The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, Ptolemy's GateThe Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

As I’ve said in previous reviews, if you’re going to set your book in England and have as a main character a young boy learning the art of wizardry, you’ve guaranteed yourself a comparison to HARRY POTTER. With The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud can proudly say, “bring him on — wands at 15 paces!” With so much pallid fantasy out there, Amulet is a breath of fresh air, told in a witty, original voice within a well-constructed plot and structure focused on two complex characters.

The Amulet of Samarkand is set in an alternate England ruled by magicians whose powers come from their ability to conjure demons. The society is beset within (by a resistance movement of “commoners” as well as by the murderous in-fighting among the ruling class magicians) and without (at war with Prague). Nathaniel is a young magician’s apprentice who, after being publicly humiliated, seeks revenge via the demon Bartimaeus and a powerful talisman — the book’s namepiece. By the time the book closes, it will involve murder and mayhem, betrayal, the attempted overthrow of the government, ancient (and I mean ancient) grievances, several tense chase scenes, various escape attempts, political commentary, the searing intensity of unassuagable guilt, and more. Despite all that is crammed in here, the plot moves along briskly for the most part (this despite its complexity and the use of footnotes).

Nathaniel is a complex character, giving us easily as many reasons to dislike him as to sympathize with him. He is no paragon of heroism or innocence. The other and much more likeable main character (or perhaps more accurately the true main character) is the demon Nathaniel summons and the trilogy’s title character. Unlike Nathaniel, whose section is told in 3rd person, Bartimaeus gets to tell his section of the book himself, lending us a more intimate view and thus allowing us to empathize more directly with him. Even better, his is a wry, cynical voice, bitingly funny. He also has the advantage of centuries of experience to call upon for more material with which to sharpen his wit. His sections are simply a pleasure to read. He too is more complex than is typical in these works. For instance, a scene where he somewhat blithely is willing to kill three young teens with little remorse reminds us he is no tame funny pet for either Nathaniel or the reader.

While Nathaniel’s main antagonist, an evil wizard whose plots really aren’t that out of character for magicians in general it turns out, is perhaps one of the weaker characters — a bit bland in both villainy and dialogue, the various demon antagonists of Bartimaeus are all wonderful creations, especially his two long-running nemeses whom he comes across several times. The structure moves back and forth skillfully between Bartimaeus’s first person narration and the third-person description of what is happening with Nathaniel, pulling away from one to the other at just the right moments to create the greatest suspense. It is all deftly handled with no confusion whatsoever. The story itself is well-paced and complex enough to keep the reader guessing. It ends independently but with enough loose ends to point to an obvious sequel, which I eagerly await. Very highly recommended. And having now completed all three books, I can say that the whole Bartimaeus series is one of the best to come out in the past decade, with a slight fall off in book two then a simply fantastic conclusion in book three.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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