on October 19, 2003
Let's face it, fantasy is a well-worn genre, bloated with Tolkein ripoffs, tired generic plots and characters. There seems to be no end to the stuff...and no shortage of readers who'll swallow it. And to this we can add a new type of fantasy that is fast reaching critical mass for younger readers...the Harry Potter clone. Check the young readers section of your local bookstore and you'll find literally dozens of books about young boy and girl wizards. As the saying goes, everyone wants to be the first to do something second.
There is nothing new in fantasy, only old wine in new bottles. So when a new fantasy comes along that actually feels new its a red letter day in my book.
That rant is by way of saying that this wonderful book avoids the pitfalls of many fantasy writers simply by virtue of the writing. A few years back David (and Leigh) Eddings burst onto the fantasy scene with their original Belgariad books. Plot-wise they were simply Tolkein retreads without the epic mthology. But what made them so readable, and so popular, was the original and entertaining voice with which they told their tales.
So it is with Jonathan Stroud. This is a fun, wry, funny, well-charactered piece about a modern London where magicians rule the land and magic comes in the form of controlling various levels of demons (or djinn). Set amidst the political intrigue is a story of a young apprentice magician's quest for revenge via the use of the some-time narrator djinn Bartimeus. He is the main reason to read the book. His amusing, ironic take on events is worth the price of admission alone. The world itself is well drawn and realised, as are all the characters.
Yes there are shades of Harry Potter (a young apprentice wizard in a world of magic where commoners are virtually cattle) and various other genre books (Randall Garratt's Lord Darcy series spring to mind) but it's all done with such verve and charm that it quite rightly transcends its influences and becomes a classic in its own right.
Buy it. Read it. You won't be disappointed. I look forward to the next chapters of this trilogy.
on February 9, 2004
12-year-old Nathaniel lives in a fantastical London in which the ruling class are all magicians; as is the tradition, his parents sold him as an apprentice magician when he was only 6. He lives in the attic of his master's house, unloved by everyone except Mrs. Underwood, his master's wife. Seeking revenge for past humiliations, he instructs his djinn (genie) Bartimeus to steal a magic amulet from Simon Lovelace, the most powerful magician in London. Thus begins a Mission-Impossible type adventure to prevent Lovelace from recovering the amulet and using it in a grand, take-over-the-world type of evil scheme.
If you have been resisting Bartimeus because it sounds like a Harry Potter wannabe, don't-read it now. Although the parallels are obvious--a world of magicians, an orphan apprentice battling a supreme evil--the author is not out to mimic Potter but to offer a different and more pessimistic vision of what a magical world would be like. In Harry Potter's world, magicial ability is a sort of genetic artifact; there are good, evil, and silly magicians - just as in the `human' world; and themes of the importance of family and friends predominate.
Bartimeus' vision is much, much darker. Nathaniel lives in a world where magicians are a dominating ruling class, who thirst for wealth and power, and who will stop at nothing to get it. But all their power stems not from innate ability but from the ability to control the spirits (genies, imps, and the like) that populate the natural world. Here, the wizards are always on the edge of disaster created by losing control over these spirits. One word wrong in an incantation means disaster! There are no beneficent Dumbledore-like wizards here; all - and this includes Nathaniel - are driven by personal gain, revenge, and anger.
For all its darkness, author Jonathan Stroud has crafted an extremely well-paced and exciting book. Get past the first 40 pages or so and you won't be able to put it down until you find out just what evil Lovelace is up to and whether Nathaniel will be able to stop him. The ending is deliciously ambiguous - not all the villains are captured; a mysterious Resistance seems to be forming among the non-magical humans; Nathaniel may succumb to his own lust for power; and the sarcastic and clever djinn Bartimeus seems likely to reappear in future volumes. As Bartimeus is the first volume of the "Amulet of Samarkand" trilogy, surely there is more excitement to come.
Not, however, for people who thought that Harry Potter was dark or scary - if Harry disturbed you, this one will keep you checking under the bed at night and sleeping with the lights on.
As I've said in previous reviews, if you're going to set your book in England and have as a main character a young boy learning the art of wizardry, you've guaranteed yourself a comparison to Harry Potter. With The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud can proudly say, "bring him on--wands at 15 paces!".
With so much pallid fantasy out there, Amulet is a breath of fresh air, told in a witty, original voice within a well-constructed plot and structure focused on two complex characters. Amulet is set in an alternate England ruled by magicians whose powers come from their ability to conjure demons. The society is beset within (by a resistance movement of "commoners" as well as by the murderous in-fighting among the ruling class magicians) and without (at war with Prague). Nathaniel is a young magician's apprentice who, after being publicly humiliated, seeks revenge via the demon Bartimaeus and a powerful talisman--the book's namepiece. By the time the book closes, it will involve murder and mayhem, betrayal, the attempted overthrow of the government, ancient (and I mean ancient) grievances, several tense chase scenes, various escape attempts, political commentary, the searing intensity of unassuagable guilt, and more.
Despite all that is crammed in here, the plot moves along briskly for the most part (this despite its complexity and the use of footnotes). Nathaniel is a complex character, giving us easily as many reasons to dislike him as to sympathize with him. He is no paragon of heroism or innocence. The other and much more likable main character (or perhaps more accurately the true main character) is the demon Nathaniel summons and the trilogy's title character. Unlike Nathaniel, whose section is told in 3rd person, Bartimaeus gets to tell his section of the book himself, lending us a more intimate view and thus allowing us to empathize more directly with him. Even better, his is a wry, cynical voice, bitingly funny. He also has the advantage of centuries of experience to call upon for more material with which to sharpen his wit. His sections are simply a pleasure to read. He too is more complex than is typical in these works. For instance, a scene where he somewhat blithely is willing to kill three young teens with little remorse reminds us he is no tame funny pet for either Nathaniel or the reader.
While Nathaniel's main antagonist, an evil wizard whose plots really aren't that out of character for magicians in general it turns out, is perhaps one of the weaker characters--a bit bland in both villainy and dialogue, the various demon antagonists of Bartimaeus are all wonderful creations, especially his two long-running nemeses whom he comes across several times.
The structure moves back and forth skillfully between Bartimaeus's first person narration and the third-person description of what is happening with Nathaniel, pulling away from one to the other at just the right moments to create the greatest suspense. It is all deftly handled with no confusion whatsoever.
The story itself is well-paced and complex enough to keep the reader guessing. It ends independently but with enough loose ends to point to an obvious sequel, which I for one eagerly await. Very highly recommended.
on July 13, 2007
My husband bought me this book for my birthday, but I quickly began to doubt his good intentions as he snatched it up before I did and devoured it. Then he proceeded to constantly interupt my reading of another book by gaffawing at the constant commentary of Bartimaeus himself and everytime I asked him what was so funny he told me it wouldn't make sense unless I read the book and kept reading. He devoured book one in an evening, continued on through book two and three the next day, and I am sure if Matt were writing this rating, he would give it a five. For me, it was a three.
I'm a character driven reader and character was what this book lacked . . . not character in the sense that the people weren't fully formed or the book didn't hold interest. In that sense the book is full of character. The wise cracking Djinni in the title role can't keep his mouth shut for all the character, and his constant interjections (in the form of foot notes) are hilarious, and in many places more interesting than the text itself. No, it is missing character in two other important senses: A. a protagonist I could like and root for; B. a moral substance or cause for which we (the readers) can root for. Honestly, in this story of a neglected young boy who calls up a magical Djinni to avenge himself on a senior magician who humiliated him, I didn't find either.
The two leads are Nathaniel, the neglected boy, and Bartimaeus, the summoned Djinni. Nathaniel, for most of the book, is young, hurt, and pitiable but never motivated by what I consider a good cause. For the first half of the book he is merely out for revenge and glory, to prove that he can weild powers beyond his age and to ruin one who called this into doubt. When the second half of the book begins and it is revealed that more is at stake than just Nathaniel's pride, we are hardpressed to care because the author makes it clear that the government entities Nathaniel and Bartimaeus rush to protect really aren't worth protecting. It would be rather like learning that Hitler and Stalin were going to go at it and being told you could stop Hitler and let Stalin lead a long and happy life by risking your rear end in many uncomfortable ways. Sure, no one wants Hitler again, so you might do it, but it sure as heck wouldn't be for the love of Stalin. Bartimaeus on the other hand is more interesting, but he doesn't want to be there, is compelled to do things against his will, and really only gives a darn because Nathaniel has threatened him with life imprisonment in a tabacco tin (and life is long for an immortal) if he doesn't behave. For him, victory isn't victory either.
So what are we fighting for? Who knows. None of the characters seem to anyway.
So I kept reading just so I could absorb the footnotes which were hilarious, not really because I gave a darn what was going to happen to the prime minister or the evil villian or even much to good old Nathaniel.
But the action is fierce and the tone is hilarious. I just wish I knew what I was reading for other than that.
on September 30, 2003
I read this book as a pre-pub and haven't stopped talking about it since. If you are looking for a book that has some of the charm of the Harry Potter series and some of the wonder of the Pullman (His Dark Materials) series you could do no better than this book. It offers readers (young and old) a very refreshing bit of fantasy mixed with a liberal dose of humor. The first character you meet is a deliciously dramatic dijin named Bartimaeus. His "take" on events is delightful (and occasionally disgruntled) and offers a very nice contrast with the "human" voice. I highly recommend this book. I look forward to the future installments.
on November 29, 2003
Perhaps no novel will ever live up to Harry Potter but this one comes dangerously close. It's about a boy-Nathanial-who is a magician's apprentice. He's a very intelligent 5 year old boy who Arthur Underwood-a magician-takes reluctantly as his apprentice. Only Mrs. Underwood and his drawing teacher seem to like him.
Nathanial (in a few years) starts to learn the arts and precision of magic-which is just basically summoning and containing demons-and learns it all eagerly. All goes well until he meets Simon Lovelace who embarrases Nathanial beyond reason in front of many magicians. After that all he has is revenge on his mind.
He decides that his learning is going too slow for him to get his revenge and teaches himself magic through Mr. Underwood's books.
He later summons the djinni Bartimaeus to aid him with his revenge. Bartimaeus adds the humor and brightens up this morbid story. His footnotes give you the insight you might need to understand some words-maybe not-and they are also very funny and are bound to make you roll on the floor with laughter...anyway...Bartinaeus is sent to retrieve the Amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace. Bartimaeus returns after much persuit with the amulet and recieves a command to put the amulet away. Everything goes downhill from there.
Where downhill does it go? I'll give you some hints...a demon/magician duel...spying...prison...and now that I have told you those, why don't you go read the book?
I bought this book, somewhat reluctantly, for my 8-year-old daughter who is waiting not so patiently for the next Harry Potter volume. At the time I ordered it I regarded it, with some condescension, as yet another Harry Potter clone. After it arrived I picked it up to skim the first few pages. Then a few more. Then, in a shameful abuse of parental power, I confiscated it from my daughter so I could read it first.
This is an excellent, absolutely entertaining book, fully worth the money for Bartimaeus's hilarious footnotes alone. I don't usually like books that switch points of view between characters, but in this case, the switching works and conveys the complexity of plot and character more effectively than if the author had stuck to one character consistently. As others have noted, this book is darker in tone than Harry Potter, and my sense is that it is a better book for adults and teenagers than it is for children. There are no good guys in this book, for example (at least in terms of major characters), only Really Bad Guys and our heroes, who are not without their own flaws.
But what wonderful flaws! I don't think I've encountered such an enjoyable character as Bartimaeus in a book in a very, very long time. It makes me wish the book were real and I could sit down and toss back a few beers with Bartimaeus, listening to his sharp but right-on-target assessment of human beings.
Bottom line: If you are disinclined to buy this book because you are convinced it is just another unoriginal Harry Potter rip-off, please reconsider. It would not surprise me in the slightest if in the future the Bartimaeus Trilogy is remembered and revered far longer than the Harry Potter books.
p.s. And somebody needs to tell Stroud to knock off this "trilogy" business. Surely there will be more than three Bartimaeus books, won't there? Please??
on November 4, 2003
Young wizard apprentice Nathaniel has been belittled and held down his entire life. The last straw is being humiliated by the older and much more powerful wizard, Simon Lovelace. He concocts a plan to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace after he overhears the pains Lovelace took to obtaining it. The lynchpin of his revenge plan, however, rests in summoning Bartimaeus, a middle-brow Djinn to steal the amulet.
Bartimaeus, while hardly pleased at being ordered around by a 12 year old is forced to obey and steals the amulet, setting off a much larger chain of events that Nathaniel could have never predicted.
There's plenty of humor in THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND, courtesy of the Djinn Bartimaeus himself. But this is clearly not a case of good vs. evil as it is w/the Harry Potter series. The reader is given much to suspect that despite the sympathy the reader can feel for Nathaniel and his rough childhood, there is much to suggest he is hardly what you would label as "good."
I'm eagerly awaiting the next installments to see which side of the fence Nathaniel falls on. The crux of this series lies in the love/hate relationship Nathaniel and Bartimaeus have and by god is it ever entertaining to read. Highly recommended for anyone who is not looking for a simple good vs. evil story.
on December 1, 2003
This is a great book. You know when you read a book and after the first five pages you KNOW it's going to be awesome? That's what happened for me here. A small boy conjures a demon to steal an amulet. Little does the boy know what the amulet is worth.
Set in "another" London, where magic is a way of life for some people (the Prime Minister is a magician), this book focuses on Nathanial (the boy) and Bartimaeus (the demon). Where Nathanial is dark, vengeful and serious, Bartimaeus is dark, vengeful and funny. He doesn't take things too seriously and, hey, why should he when he's been around for thousands of years and will probably be around for thousand more?
It's hard with fantasy novels to describe imaginary things so that they're believable and so that the reader follows along. I had to no trouble with this book. The imps, the magic, the transformations, all of it was extremely entertaining and well played out. Bartimaeus even injects many footnotes into his narration and I didn't find unevenness in that.
All I can say is that I'm so glad this is going to be a trilogy. I cannot wait for the next one. Bartimaeus is a very funny demon and Stroud weaves an engrossing tale.
on June 1, 2004
The main human character, Nathaniel, is not likable. Not one bit. And its about time to see that in a novel. He's been mistreated most, if not all, his entire life and someone like that wouldn't be likable. Even at the end he's not likable and I found that very refreshing. You don't change people in the space of one novel. It takes time. Time that hopefully Stroud will give him. Nathaniel has potential to go either way, bad or good, and that is quite fascinating. I want to know how Nathaniel is going to turn out and how he is going to get there. It's about time a character is allowed to realistically struggle between good and bad in a novel instead of forcing them to be good from the get go.
Bartimaeus was a brilliant character. His praises have been sung by the rest of the reviewers and I have nothing else to add in regards to him. He was just awesome. And the footnotes were great.
All in all it was a great novel and Nathaniel was perfect. I can't wait to see if he ever starts to question what he is being told to believe. Book two couldn't get here fast enough.