Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand: an infernally good read

The Amulet of SamarkandIf you’re familiar with Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, you might be wondering why we’ve chosen to take a look at the first novel, The Amulet of Samarkand, some eight years after it was published. Our only defence is “better late than never”. The trilogy and its prequel, The Ring of Solomon, slipped under our radar until recently, in part perhaps because it’s outwardly young adult fiction and it’s been awhile since any of us at SFW could claim to be a young adult. As it turns out, Stroud’s writing is at least as much a delight for adults as it is for its younger audience, which is often the case with the best YA fiction: there is a wit and easy sophistication to the writing which might be missed by a younger readership but which delighted this older reader. So this review is for those who have not yet had the pleasure of Jonathan Stroud’s beautifully written, frequently witty tale about a 5000 year old djinni, Bartimaeus, and his precocious but impetuous master, Nathaniel, a boy magician growing up in a vaguely familiar Britain.

If you’re reminded of another boy wizard, shelve that thought as the similarities between J.K. Rowling and Jonathan Stroud’s series are few and far between, although I have no doubt that Rowling’s readership would take pleasure in Stroud’s writing. More than the few similarities, it’s the contrasts between the two series which are most interesting. Stroud has constructed an alternate history of the world with enough events and people from our own to make it recognisable but one that is also fascinatingly alien: the existence of magic throughout the ages has had inevitable consequences for history, culture and society, all of which have evolved differently from our own. Although there is modern technology, cars for instance, science and technology have evolved alongside magic, perhaps even in its shadow, and with magic able to solve many of the problems we have solved with science and technology, there has been less technological advancement in Stroud’s alternate history. Which is one reason why it’s hard to pin-point the date of Stroud's story exactly: although technology might seem a little quaint and the city-scape less polished than in our own London, it’s possible that the setting of the novels is near-contemporary with our own place in time, it’s just that their technology appears older because there has been less drive to advance it as rapidly as our own.

A good example of magic’s displacement of science is in the field of surveillance: in Stroud’s London (as it is in our own), surveillance is highly sophisticated and omnipresent but rather than cameras and other mechanical means of surveillance, it’s imps and other spirits, unseen by the commoners, which do the observing.

The fact that surveillance has so noteworthy a role to play might hint at something of a darker truth to Stroud’s setting. Those who wield magic also wield political power. British society remains Class based but the sharpest division is between those with magic and those without. While the magical ruling elite think of themselves as benevolent, that is not the experience of the commoners (and one thread of the narrative in fact concerns a grass roots rebellion).

The Amulet 0f SamarkandIn contrast to Rowling’s fiction in which the wizarding world co-exists alongside our own (just hidden for the most part), Stroud has imagined a more cynical but believable scenario (one that is closer to Susanna Clarke’s alternate history in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), in which those with magical power have exploited it to rule. The apparatus of government remains broadly recognisable – there is a Prime Minister, Ministers, Government Departments - but all important posts in Britain are held by magicians.

In a round about way this gets us to the question and nature of magic in Stroud’s setting. Unlike Rowling’s wizards and witches who possess power – they are innately magical - Stroud’s magicians indirectly perform magic (although they are evidently born with the capability to do so). Through complex incantations, words and signs, magicians strive to control the true source of power: demons or spirits, from the least powerful Imps and Foliots to more potent Djinni like Bartimaeus and beyond to Afrits and terrifying Marids. By trapping demons within artefacts, magicians also create and wield powerful magical devices, flying carpets for instance, or the Amulet of Samarkand itself. Most, though not all, demons resent being summoned and compelled to obey humans and great care is required when summoning even the least powerful because the slightest error in the incantation will be discovered by the demon with terrible consequences for the careless magician.

The first novel in the series, The Amulet of Samarkand, introduces us to Bartimaeus, the ancient djinni, and Nathaniel, a young boy of considerable but unrecognised talent. Like all children who are marked out as magicians, Nathaniel is taken from his birth parents and apprenticed to a magician. There is no Hogwarts School of Magic in Stroud’s Britain: in the great tradition of the magician’s apprentice, magical education is private and one-on-one.

Taking the child from the birth parents serves several purposes. In part it's intended to protect the magician: as in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, there is power in knowing the true name of a thing or person - if another magician (or, heaven forbid, a demon!) learns your true name, that knowledge can be used against you. So, from the moment a child is taken from his parents, his true name is concealed and when he comes of age, he receives a new name. At least as important as protecting the child however is their education – not just in the ways of magic but also in preparation to rule. Magicians are bred to rule, and for the most part they are an arrogant, egotistical bunch with utter disdain for their non-magical fellows. This is a dangerously flawed method of education however because it breeds ruthless individuals driven by personal ambition and a will to power at the expense of the common good (including the common good of magicians it seems).

The narrative switches back and forth from Bartimaeus’s frequently hilarious first person voice (supplemented by some very wry footnotes) to third person as we observe Nathaniel’s growth into power: as a child he is caring, noble even and quite brilliant, but in common with his kind there is more than a hint of arrogance and superiority to his character, coupled with a worrying insecurity. What this will mean for his future remains to be seen.

Much to his surprise and annoyance, Bartimaeus is summoned by the precocious 11 year old and ordered to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace, a sinister magician and political player who publicly humiliated the boy. Little does Nathaniel realise what his wounded pride has got himself and the djinni into: the bigger picture is a vicious coup underway in which the Amulet plays a critical role. While Bartimaeus learns a grudging respect for the boy, the odds are stacked against the two of them and their destruction at the hands of Lovelace and his cronies seems all but assured.

The Amulet of Samarkand (2003) is the first of three novels, and is followed by The Golem's Eye (2004) and Ptolemy's Gate (2005). A prequel, The Ring of Solomon was published in 2010 and, a graphic novel of The Amulet of Samarkand, adapted by Jonathan Stroud and Andrew Donkin, with art by Lee Sullivan and colour by Nicolas Chapus, was also published in 2010. Rumours of a movie adaptation have been floating around for some time it seems, but nothing has eventuated yet.

Highly recommended.

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