Book #31: The Amulet of Samarkand (2003)

tumblr_m72iv1Gjnn1ra5wk1o1_400author: Jonathan Stroud
language: English
length: 492 pages
finished reading on: 10 May 2013

My friend gave me this to read a couple of months ago, so I got to it after finishing The Scar (but at the same time as listening to Railsea). It’s a fantasy story about a young boy who becomes a magician, and summons a demon to do his bidding, but all sorts of things start to go wrong after that. The subject matter is going to draw inevitable comparisons to Harry Potter, so I will do just that. I might describe it as what Harry Potter would be like if wizards weren’t in hiding and were out in the open and actually in control of the government. The book is very careful never to use the word “wizard”, in lieu of “magician”, perhaps to attempt to stifle such comparisons, but it’s obviously there. It’s also a lot more morally ambiguous than Harry Potter, which was very black-and-white. And there’s no Magic School.

I think the first thing I did when I opened it and read the first few pages was groan at the amount of footnotes. I realised quite quickly, and forgave the author somewhat, when I realised that this was to show that the chapter is being narrated in the first person by one of the main characters, Bartimaeus, who gives his name to a trilogy. Bartimaeus, as a character, isn’t a very good narrator and is constantly self-aggrandizing, so the excessive footnotes are just one way that the author shows this. They are interesting, to some extent, and they show the level of detail that Stroud has put into his fictional world. In contrast, the chapters about the other main character, Nathaniel, are told in a much more neutral third person, and are much easier to read. Stroud treads a fine line with his Bartimaeus chapters when he writes badly, between whether it is he or his character that is writing badly.

In this world, when young children demonstrate magical ability, they’re sent at the age of five to live permanently with a magician for an apprenticeship. They’re supposed to forget their birth name, as this is how you can be controlled magically. Of course, this doesn’t actually happen to our character and the kindly wife of the magician asks him his name early on to make him feel at home. At this point you can probably tell it’s going to end up in the wrong hands quite easily. Later they take a pseudonym at the age of 12, and our character ends up with the name “John Mandrake”.

Most of the plot is accidental, and stems from Nathaniel getting his own back for feeling wronged by another character, but he somehow manages in the process to thwart a major conspiracy involving the magical Amulet of the title, which absorbs any magical attack. The plot gets complicated but never confusing, and there are not too many characters to keep track of.

The blurb for the story describes it as set in “modern London”, and to some extent that is true, but the rest of the world is far from similar to our own. The previous superpower in this world was Prague, and Czech is a major international language which is required in order to read magical textbooks. America is still but a colony. No mention is made of the royal family, as the ruling class seems to be made up of magicians (the range of jobs open to them seems to be only something ministerial in parliament). Yet other things seem to have happened in parallel to the real world – things like cars and phones exist, for example. How things really fit together in this world is never fully established. I think we’re just supposed to run with it.

In this world demons are the source of magicians’ power (unlike Harry Potter, again), and there are a variety of types mentioned in terms of strength – djinni (because it looks better than “genie”?), imps, foliots, afrits. I don’t know how many of those words were made up, to be honest, because I haven’t heard some of them before. The demons in general are hard to control because they will follow your orders to the letter but will try and twist the wording to match their own desires. The main character Bartimaeus is thus presented as sarcastic and unwilling to actually follow orders, and eventually has to be tricked into doing things for the boy. Successful magicians are likewise presented as conniving and wily with words, and not to be trusted.

One of the book’s strengths is that it doesn’t present its main characters as heroes – indeed, they’re not really painted very positively. As I mentioned, Bartimaeus is self-aggrandizing but actually cowardly and sarcastic, while Nathaniel is petty and vengeful (at the age of only 12), but seems to believe in some form of Greater Good and swears allegiance to the head of government.

There are also strong hints about a sequel, with some plot strands left hanging, like the presence of a “Resistance” and a villain character who disappears at the end of the book. And because I enjoyed this book quite thoroughly, I just had to download the next book immediately, instead of waiting to borrow it. More people should read this.

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3 Responses to Book #31: The Amulet of Samarkand (2003)

  1. This book is actually part of a trilogy. I really enjoyed all of these books. Like you, I’m not a fan of footnotes and I refuse to read them. They take me out of the story and really interrupt the flow. Kim Newman had footnotes in his book Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles and I found it annoying.

    That aside, these books are really fun.

    • Finlay says:

      right, as i mentioned at one point in my rambling, i pretty much immediately downloaded the next one for kindle because i couldn’t wait to borrow it from my friend or have it delivered. now i’m listening to the third one as an audiobook, which has the distinct advantage of having no footnotes – i’m not 100% sure whether the guy reading it is just leaving them out or working them into the narrative seamlessly. (they’re even more of a pain on the kindle because it’s not the latest model and has no touchscreen, and i had to click each one as a link)

      it’s also my biggest pet peeve with terry pratchett, although i actually like his books.

      • Oh sorry, I saw in your last paragraph that you mentioned strong hints about a sequel and I totally missed the download part. Interesting about the audio book. I’m not really a fan of audiobooks but if they leave out the annoying footnotes, that might be worth trying. :)

        I hadn’t even thought about how footnotes would be handled in other formats.

        Interesting things to think about. Great post!

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