The Amulet of Samarkand, The Bartimaeus Series, Book 1, by Jonathan Stroud, 480 pp, RL 5

Between 2003 and 2005 Jonathan Stroud wrote the first three books featuring Bartimaeus, the sarcastic, snarky, infinitely resourceful 5,000 year old djinni, and Nathaniel, an apprentice magician who is twelve years old at the start of the story. The Bartimaeus Series, including a prequel, The Ring of Solomon, published in 2010, is complex, profound, though provoking and, above all else, filled with compelling characters and suspenseful action. The Amulet of Samarkand was published the same year as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in Rowling's series and the standard bearer by which all middle-grade fantasy is measured, it seems. While Stroud's books are also set in contemporary England and feature a badly treated young boy who practices magic, the similarities end there. The world that Stroud builds for his story is immediate, intense and stunningly real. As Diana Wynne Jones, the master of middle-grade magicians herself, says of The Amulet of Samarkand in her 2003 review for the Guardian, the story is set in an "alternate England - at least, I hope it's not ours - where the ruling classes are cold-hearted, self-centered magicians who derive their power from their ability to summon demons (djinn, afrits, imps) and coerce them into following their orders." Years of study and practice go into learning the spells and incantations that call forth these demons from the Other Place and bind them to a master who will use them for magical purposes, and there is no school for wizards.

Instead, select children are taken from their parents (who are in turn compensated financially) and placed in the home of a master. As Bartimaeus explains in one of the many entertaining and informative footnotes that appear in the chapters he narrates, "Magicians hold their knowledge close to their shriveled little hearts, coveting its power the way a miser covets gold, and they will only pass it on with caution." In this way, young magicians are taught in secrecy and stealth in the homes of their masters, rarely leaving the premises and going on to government jobs when they have completed their studies. When an apprentice comes of age, which happens at twelve, he or she chooses an official name, their birth name having been concealed with great care since their placement with a master because it is "intimately bound with their true nature and being" and thus a great source of weakness and strength.

One thing I especially love about the masterful writing and character development that Stroud exhibits here and in his newly begun series, Lockwood & Co., is the way he chooses to tell his stories from the outside in. The Amulet of Samarkand begins with twelve-year-old Nathaniel (birth name of our hero, discarded by his master but used affectionately by his wife, a mother figure to the boy) summoning the djinni Batrimaeus. Bartimaeus narrates the chapter, explaining that, while is must obey the summons, he intends on doing his best to scare the boy to the marrow of his bones, pushing the bounds of the spells that bind him. As the djinni is given his commands and starts off on his mission, the reader gradually learns more about the relationship between magicians and demons, the nature of magic and, most importantly and interestingly, why Nathaniel has summoned this powerful demon that he should, by rights, have neither the knowledge nor training to call forth, let alone command. As Bartimaeus informs, magicians are the most, "conniving, jealous, duplicitous group of people on earth, even including lawyers and academics" who "worship power and the wielding thereof, and seek every chance they can to undercut their rivals." The indifference and neglect that Nathaniel experiences at the hands of Underwood drives him to take his education into his own hands, but, it's the humiliation he experiences at the hands of another magician when he is eleven-years-old that plants the seed of revenge and the eventual summoning of the djinni.

What is most apparent and rich in the plot of The Amulet of Samarkand is the clearly evident fact that Nathaniel is a boy, a young, naive and, to a certain degree innocent boy, who is clearly outmatched at every turn as he finds himself stumbling deeper into a world of adult intrigue. I never fully felt this  as I read the Harry Potter series. Harry seemed like he was (magically) protected by Dumbledore and, to a degree, Hogwarts, through all seven books until the final duel with Voldemort could be played out. Stroud makes it clear from the start that there is no one looking out for Nathaniel, although he does have Bartimaeus, grudgingly, unhappily obediently, on his side, initially because he cleverly binds him in a spell that will mean his painful, drawn out demise if he does not follow through for Nathaniel. And Bartimaeus does manage to think, jibe and insult his way out of even the tightest spots, including an amazing chapter that takes place in Pinn's Accoutrements, a shop owned by the fantastic Sholto Pinn that sells magical artifacts to elite magicians, and in the Tower of London. When things seem to be at their bleakest for Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, in a moment that initially seems like one of self-preservation on his part but also subtly reveals a growing kindness toward the boy, tries to convince him to cut his losses and go into hiding. Nathaniel, driven by remorse over the loss of the one person who showed him kindness, refuses, sending the plot to an intense, deliciously drawn out climax that takes place at a country estate where all the top magicians in the ministry have gathered for a weekend conference.

In The Amulet of Samarkand, Stroud also lays the groundwork for a deeper storyline that will unfold in the next two books and make for one of the most satisfying, gratifying, powerful endings I have ever experienced in a fantasy novel for young readers. The political machinations of the British government as they fight wars in other lands to maintain power are countered by the unrest of the commoners who are rebelling against of the rule of the magicians. One of those commoners, Kitty, who makes brief appearances in The Amulet of Samarkand, becomes a major character in the next two books, eventually unravelling the true nature of the connections between magicians and spirits. What has stayed with me in the decade since I first read The Amulet of Samarkand is the layered and complex nature of the relationship between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus, who is essentially his slave, and Nathaniel's complicated awareness and uncomfortableness with this. The emotions and depth of connections that play out in this relationship (the innately good nature of Nathaniel, despite the fact that he seems to grow into a corrupt magician and politician and the surprisingly affectionate nature of Bartimaeus that is slowly revealed) make this series truly meaningful and memorable.

More books by Jonathan Stroud...

The Bartimaeus Series

Source: Purchased books and audio book

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