If you are looking for a traditional fantasy tale in which good magicians fight evil demons with the help of the odd incompetent apprentice, then I suggest you look elsewhere.
If, however, you want an original, witty thriller set in a believable fantasy world, populated with credible and rounded characters who experience fast-moving, gripping adventures, then The Amulet of Samarkand is definitely the story for you.
Jonathan Stroud’s first instalment of the Bartimaeus Trilogy is set in a city parallel to modern day London and ruled by a tyrannical oligarchy of greedy and conniving magicians, whose only real talent is the ability to summon and enslave spirits - the true source of their powers.
The city’s famous landmarks, such as the Tower of London, Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square anchors the story in a realistic, authentic background, balancing the fantasy elements.
Bartimaeus is a witty, irreverent, quick-thinking 5,000 year-old “djinni” (genie), whose jaded behaviour, sarcastic remarks and boastful personality make him absolutely irresistible. His view of events is narrated in the first person and results in compelling, humorous and effervescent storytelling.
The other main character, Nathaniel, is not as easy to like. Talented and ambitious, the 12 year-old apprentice magician initially comes across as proud, self-centred, vindictive and petulant. However, as the story unfolds and his past is revealed, it gets easier to empathise with this young boy. Sold to the government at the age of 5, apprenticed to an uncaring, absent magician, the reader can relate to Nathaniel’s need for love and acceptance, his eagerness to prove himself and his loneliness and awkwardness in social situations. When he starts taking responsibility for his actions, even Bartimaeus’s initial dislike of the young magician turns to grudging respect.
The book’s theme is power, or rather the abuse of power by devious and rapacious politicians. Dominated by their all-consuming quest for power, these magicians live a lonely life, based on self-interest and paranoid, duplicitous relationships.
The bleak, dark reality of their search for power, resulting in conspiracy and murder, is lightened by Bartimaeus’s charming, sparkling narration. On the other hand, when Nathaniel acts on anger, trying to prove his own power, the consequences of his actions are devastating.
Stylistically, the story is beautifully narrated; eloquent descriptions, lively dialogues and rich language make the book highly entertaining and suitable for both children and adults. The author uses footnotes to expand Bartimaeus’s thoughts; though often funny, at times they can distract a bit from the narrative flow.
Although The Amulet of Samarkand is part of a trilogy, it reads as a self-contained story. It is an impressive, amusing and interesting tale that stands apart from other recent fantasy books.
Carl Wilkinson, The Observer - "A complex, fast-paced and witty fantasy that Hollywood lapped up with relish"
Diana Wynne Jones, Guardian Review - "...the truly original touch is the way Stroud alternates Nathaniel's story with the djinni's own knowing and irascible first-person narrative."
Nicholas Tucker, The Independent - "Drama, humour and hypnotically engaging storytelling."
Amanda Craig, The Times - "Not since Gulliver's Travels has a children's writer managed to combine a thrilling tale of magic and adventure with such deliciously pointed comedy...The ending is perfect in ambiguity. Stroud's sinister world is imagined in baroque and energetic detail..."
Harvey Weinstein, Co-Chairman Miramax Films - "The hippest djinni you'll ever read...it takes you to another world."