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I don't review books I don't like!

*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations

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***The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Book One

The Amulet of Samarkand

by Jonathan Stroud

Reviewed February 3, 2004.
Miramax Books (Hyperion Books for Children), New York, 2003.  462 pages.
A 2004 Boston Globe Horn Book Fiction and Poetry Honor Book
Available at Sembach Library (JF STR).

I’m starting to like fantasy books set in an alternate universe, as long as they don’t attempt to explain why such a universe should exist.  (Such an explanation gets silly rapidly.)  Alternate universes solve the problem of needing an in-depth explanation of the world of the story.  In such books, the author only needs to explain what’s different in the book from the world as we know it.

The Amulet of Samarkand is set in an alternate London, the center of a world empire ruled by magic.  The magic from this world is all derived from magicians controlling spirit beings, such as djinni, imps, afrits, and other such demons.

The book is narrated by Bartimaeus, an ancient djinn of great power.  At the opening of the book, he is summoned by an eleven-year-old boy, Nathaniel.  Nathaniel isn’t working for anyone else, so he must be amazingly precocious.  He orders Bartimaeus to steal the Amulet of Samarkand.  Bartimaeus warns Nathaniel that he’s bringing all kinds of trouble on himself, but Nathaniel foolishly doesn’t believe him.

The story is marvelously imaginative, brilliantly crafted and excitingly suspenseful.  However, although it thoroughly captivated my mind, it never did capture my heart.  It reminded me of Artemis Fowl in that there were no thoroughly likeable characters.

We do start out liking Nathaniel, but mostly out of pity.  He has a terrible upbringing.  Unlike Harry Potter, he doesn’t rise above it.  This is completely understandable because, unlike Harry Potter, he never gets nicer people in his life.  If there’s anyone in his life who cares for him, he’s sure to lose them.  Even the summoning that begins the book is motivated by a desire for revenge.  It feels like warranted revenge, but it’s revenge all the same.

Nathaniel does have some good impulses, but when he acts on those, the consequences are the most disastrous of all.  We do like Nathaniel and hope that those good impulses will grow, but mostly he comes across as an ambitious and scheming, if downtrodden, kid in a world of ambitious, scheming, hateful magicians.

We also like Bartimaeus, the djinn narrator, who’s funny and insightful.  However, the catch is that Bartimaeus only serves any human because he’s forced to, and to save his own essence.  Bartimaeus is very cynical, and especially faults Nathaniel when he acts to help someone else.  The djinn points out all the wickedness of the ruling magicians, and by the end of the book we see how much truth there is in his assessments.

I decided to call this a young adult book rather than a children’s book, even though Nathaniel is eleven, because I find I don’t particularly want my 9-year-old son to read it.  I wouldn’t stop him if he chose it on his own, but I’m definitely not going to urge him to read it.  This is a clever, but cynical book.  I would rather that he read it when he’s a teenager and already discovering cynicism on his own.

Even though it didn’t warm my heart, The Amulet of Samarkand did capture my imagination with its cleverness, and I definitely will be watching for the next two books of the trilogy.  An enjoyable and inventive book.

Reviews of other books by Jonathan Stroud:
The Golem's Eye:  The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book Two
Ptolemy's Gate:  The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book Three
The Ring of Solomon
The Screaming Staircase
The Screaming Staircase audiobook
The Whispering Skull
The Whispering Skull audiobook
The Hollow Boy
The Hollow Boy audiobook
The Creeping Shadow
The Empty Grave

Copyright © 2004 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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