The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud
9/10, terrific contemporary magical fantasy adventure with great narrative voice
Imagine J.K. Rowling and Susanna Clarke (“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell“) collaborating on a fantasy, and you might come up with Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy. As rich and politically savvy as Clarke’s epic novel, with a healthy dose of Rowling’s whimsy (mostly provided by the voice of Bartimaeus the djinn), “The Amulet of Samarkand” sucks you in from page one and doesn’t let go.
Imagine you are a djinn, a powerful magical creature who lives in a mostly formless state in the Other Realm. It’s not a bad existence, except for those dang human magicians, who have figured out a way to yank you from your home into their realm and not only force you into a corporal form (though some, like Bartimaeus, can change their form), but also force you to do stuff for them. This could be stuff as simple as “spy on that guy” or as complicated as, say, “steal this powerful magical talisman from one of the most powerful and ambitious magicians in the realm.” Which is a particularly humiliating task when assigned by a twelve-year-old magician’s apprentice, with no small dose of ambition himself.
Bartimaeus has been around for a while, and his sarcasm and cynicism are among the primary joys of this book. He explains the magical world in often-hilarious footnotes as he goes along through his adventures (at one point, he describes a building as a “typical Victorian mansion, you know the type” with a footnote in which is contained the more verbose description with the disclaimer, “I was just trying to move the story along.”). The other magical creatures he meets in his travels are sometimes known to him, sometimes not, and if they are, chances are he’s done something in the past to irritate them, either in ancient Egypt or during the Crusades or in Prague, whose city walls he helped build.
We get hints of a larger political scene here–a previous war with the Czechs, a current war with Italy, and a Resistance that is fighting against the government of the magicians at home in Britain. But the bulk of this story concerns the twelve-year-old Nathaniel coming of age, and his servant (for the time being) Bartimaeus’s struggle to complete his tasks and win his freedom, annoying his master as much as possible in the interim. Their interplay is terrific, a more articulate Ushio and Tora, and the magical world is painted with lovely, authentic touches. Even though the story is set in the same pseudo-modern era as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (approximately early 80’s: cars, TV, but no cell phones or internet), the government of the magicians has a peculiarly Renaissance-fantasy feel that really appeals. Nonetheless, there is a sense of real danger, and people (and spirits) die along the way.
I’ve already started the second book. If you like magical fantasy, you should already be ordering the first.