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The Amulet of Samarkand

Style: Average → Good

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Fairly Positive

In Brief: Witty and well-paced fantasy adventure. Humorous summoning of Djinni as servants. A childish act of revenge resulting in tragic deaths. Bravery & determination to combat an evil scheme.

Cover of The Amulet of Samarkand

Author: Jonathan Stroud

Series: The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Publisher: Corgi

Published in: 2003

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: Contemporary

Genres:  AdventureFantasyHumorous


Characters:

  • Nathaniel is a 12-year-old apprentice magician, resourceful and smart. Although far cleverer than his under-achieving master believes, his attempt to take petty revenge on a sneering senior magician backfires badly and he is left dealing with his guilt and trying to undo the damage he’s done.
  • Bartimaeus is a middle-ranking Djinn, summoned by Nathaniel, capable and witty, and possessed of more of a conscience than he pretends.

Synopsis:

When Nathaniel summons the Djinn Bartimaeus to steal the eponymous amulet from magician Rupert Lovelace as an act of petty revenge, his plan gets out of control and ends in tragedy for the people he lives with. Nathaniel is hard-working and more naturally gifted than his underachieving master, Underwood. He falls foul of a rising politician, Simon Lovelace, who is disconcerted by Nathaniel’s ready knowledge and who treats the 10-year-old badly out of jealousy. Two years later Nathaniel has learnt enough on his own to summon a Djinn whom he orders to steal a famous amulet from Lovelace and to hide it in the unwitting Underwood’s store. Lovelace, who’s had the amulet stolen from a government officer, tracks it down to the Underwoods’ house.

To protect his master and his wife, Nathaniel owns up to the theft but Underwood, a minor ministry official, has realised that the amulet is the one stolen from the government. Lovelace takes the amulet back and summons a powerful Djinn to destroy the house and its inhabitants. Nathaniel is rescued by Bartimaeus, but the Underwoods are killed and their house destroyed. Nathaniel is determined to undo the damage he’s done and to assuage the guilt he feels for the Underwoods’ death. He uses Bartimaeus to help uncover Lovelace’s plot to overthrow the government and risks his own life to prevent the magician’s plan from succeeding, returning the stolen amulet to the Prime Minister.

Notes:

Let it be said up front that the entire plot of this series rests on the idea of summoning so-called demons using pentacles and other conventional trappings of black magic. However, let it also be said that it is in no sense about witchcraft or magic (or Wicca or Magyk). Firstly, for all the devil-worship paraphernalia, the “demons” are classes of Djinni from an Other Place who are summoned and bound to our own world in this way. They are the literary successors of Scheherezade and the Arabian Nights, not of Dennis Wheatley or Celia Rees. Secondly, the whole business is presented with a healthy dash of humour. These aren’t impressionable young females being drawn into dark arts and questionable practices: these are bored government functionaries trying to get some work done with the minimum effort, helped and hindered by powerful slaves who gleefully take any opportunity to misinterpret their orders and to escape their masters’ binding.

The setting is nominally contemporary: this first book contains references to laptops, smoke alarms and the hundred years since Gladstone’s death. However a lot of work done by technology in ours is done by the Djinni in this parallel world, with the resulting impression of a low-tech early-twentieth-century milieu. This impression is strengthened by the class divide between the ruling magicians and the commoners, by the fact that the great empires of the world are still mostly European, and by the magicians’ practice of taking individual apprentices. This last has the result that ambitious and hard-working youngsters such as Nathaniel can rise in power and influence quite quickly.

The story and its readability turn on the characters of Nathaniel – smart, determined, more than a little arrogant, but still only twelve – and Bartimaeus – ancient, crafty, wittily self-confident, and more inclined than he lets on to trust Nathaniel. The narrative switches between Bartimaeus in the first person and Nathaniel in the third, so you hear all of the djinn’s cynical and world-weary asides (as footnotes) while you learn about Nathaniel and his world as he himself learns. The balance is about right, and Bartimaeus has just the right mixture of bored slave and ingenious operator with an unexpected streak of affection. The obvious point of comparison is young genius Artemis Fowl and his partnership with Police Fairy Holly Short but Artemis was never a very convincing twelve-year-old while Nathaniel is a little more real, his vulnerability more likely. At least in this, the first book of the series.

The mechanics of the Djinni and their magician masters will be easily understood: the magicians use pentacles and incantations to summon a Djinn from its own dimension. The Djinni range from minor Imps to hugely powerful Marids, each one correspondingly harder to summon and to control. Once in our world, a Djinn can take almost any form but must obey its master until released (or until that master dies). The magicians have a certain power to inflict pain on the Djinn under their command, while the Djinn will take any opportunity to misinterpret its instructions or to break out of its captivity if there is a single gap in the pentacle or a misplaced word in the incantation. Once that happens, the Djinn will usually kill the summoning magician and return to its own dimension. A very few Djinni fall in with their masters as trusted servants. Fewer still actually form a friendship with the magician who summoned them. It seems that Bartimaeus has done this in the past, with the child pharaoh Ptolemy, which accounts for the form he most commonly adopts and his tendency to trust and to protect Nathaniel. (Albeit while needling him by highlighting his inadequacies).

Sold by his parents as an apprentice magician, Nathaniel is very receptive to a couple of mother-substitutes: Mrs Underwood, wife of his magician master; and Miss Lutyens, his gentle art teacher. The former is indeed like a mother to him, welcoming, forgiving, understanding, and when he inadvertently causes her violent death, it genuinely affects him. This crisis, and Nathaniel’s reaction to it, make the book far more credible. (Insofar as a story about government-controlled djinni can be credible). He’s fragile and shocked, but ready to take action from mixed motives of guilt and revenge. He’s egged on by Bartimaeus who delights in pointing out to him how corrupt societies built by magicians are and always have been, which only makes Nathaniel more determined to do the noble thing.

If you squint really hard, you can make out that Nathaniel ultimately profits from his wrongdoing. The amulet which he stole is indirectly the cause of the Underwoods’ death. But it is also the reason for his being in place to prevent Lovelace’s scheme from succeeding and therefore of his own subsequent rise to power. I think, though, that the character is better than that. Certainly the amulet’s theft is a 12-year-old’s petty act of revenge, made possible only by the power he commands as a magician. But his actions later, while not perfect, are driven by more noble motives: he takes the honourable, if ultimately futile, step of owning up to the theft to safeguard the Underwoods. The bravery and ingenuity he displays later in Lovelace’s house inadvertently result in the death of a magician who was trying to kill him, but his overall intent is to prevent a far-reaching scheme to overthrow the government. The fact that he himself comes out of it quite well is more of a tribute to his quick-thinking and presence of mind but is a mark also of the ambition he’s always had.

Overall, then, I’m not bothered by the magicians-and-djinni aspect of these stories. I like Bartimaeus’ ready banter but also the real, if understated, respect and affection which is starting to build between him and the young Nathaniel.

I looked around.

“All right, what's this?”

“I order you , Bartimaeus, to reveal whether you have diligently and wholly carried out your charge—”

“Of course I have - what do you think this is, costume jewellery?” I pointed with my gargoyle's claw at the Amulet dangling on my chest. It waved and winked in the shuddering light of the candles. “The Amulet of Samarkand. It was Simon Lovelace's. Now it is yours. Soon it will be SImon Lovelace's again. Take it and enjoy the consequences. I'm asking about this pentacle you've drawn here: what are these runes? This extra line?”

The kid puffed out his chest. “Adelbrand's Pentacle.” If I didn't know better I'd have sworn he smirked, an unseemly facial posture for one so young.

Adelbrand's Pentacle. That meant trouble. I made a big show of checking the lines of the star and circle, looking for minute breaks or wiggles in the chalk. Then I perused the runes and symbols themselves.

“Aha!” I roared. “You've spelled this wong! And you know what that means, don't you...?” I drew myself up like a cat ready to pounce.

The kid's face went an interesting mix of white and red, his lower lip wobbled, his eyes bulged from their sockets. He looked very much like he wanted to run for it, but he didn't, so my plan was foiled. Hastliy he scanned the letters on the floor.

“Recreant demon! The pentacle is sound - it binds you still!”

“Ok, so I lied.” I reduced in size. My stone wings folded back under my hump. “Do you want this amulet or not?”

Thursday 12th January 2012