The Amulet Of Samarkand (Bartimaeus #1) (Jonathan Stroud)

This novel is set in a modern-day London that is ruled by Magicians. It is written from the perspective of a djinni (demon) and an undervalued magician’s apprentice. It’s tempting to compare the book to the Harry Potter series. Young boy. Magic. Sneaking around. Breaking the rules. Stern teachers. But the similarities really end there. What’s obvious is that Stroud can write about a complex world (and one I want to know more about) and making it interesting and funny. I’m used to slow beginnings in fantasy but this one started with a bang.

In Stroud’s world, magicians have no power of their own – their power lies in the knowledge of how to summon (and enslave) spirits, like the djinni Bartimaeus, to do their will. Naturally, such spirits don’t do it willingly and they detest their masters.These magicians are the proud, arrogant, entitled upperclass that pretty much oppress the commoners who work the city’s factories and low-life jobs. They are bred for government, are not allowed to themselves breed, and thus take on apprentices instead to further the magical profession. One of the book’s protagonists, Nathaniel, is one such apprentice, to the ineffectual Mr. Underwood.

And the book’s 2nd protagonist is Nathaniel’s djinni of choice: the book’s namesake, the delightfully sarcastic, witty, and mischievous Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus has lived for millennia, and is well experienced in dealing with magicians and other demons. His witty, sardonic commentary on the tasks he is ordered to perform add a wonderfully humorous tone to the entire book. He allows us access the world of magic more easily. If the story wasn’t told from his point of view, it would demand a lot more explanations. If it was told from a magician point of view, then all those explanations would seem tedious because they’re understood. And had it been told from a commoner point of view, there wouldn’t have been any story in this place for commoners have no idea what is going on in the world of magicians.

With Bartimaeus’ storytelling, all the details and explanations are naturally woven into the story. This is counterbalanced by Nathaniel’s naiive, self-righteous beliefs. There are a lot of fantastic things about this book. Bartimaeus’ hilarious footnotes. The witty style of writing. The changes of style that accompany the change in POV from chapter to chapter. Characters that aren’t just flat out good or bad, but rather a more mixed bag. “Real” people, in other words, motivated by ambition, or revenge, or greed. The book takes us into an odd world. Like the setting. The magicians drive cars and used laptops and it got me to thinking: is this set in present day London or did Stroud go steampunk in this one? Due to the lack of steam-engines and other steam-based technologies, I reckon the setting is present day London.

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