Saturday, 18 November 2006

The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud, 2003

THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND Jonathan Stroud, Doubleday UK [Random House NZ] 2003, 480 pages, paperback, NZ$29.95. ISBN 0385-605994.

Bartimaeus Rules OK

Hmm. A twelve year old be-spectacled boy training to be a magician? Common factors are certainly present but this is a book to compare with the best of Diana Wynn Jones rather than J.K. Rowling. Aimed at older teenagers, The Amulet of Samarkand is a crossover fantasy novel which will appeal to all adults who like a well-told story with lively characters

Jonathan Stroud takes a very bleak view of magicians, developing Terry Pratchett’s theme of their mutual hostility to its logical conclusion: an alternative version of our world, where magicians form the arrogant ruling class and commoners resent them. “Magicians are the most conniving, jealous, duplicitous group of people on earth, even including lawyers and academics.” In Westminster all cabinet ministers are magicians and, although a conflict with the magicians of Prague has reached an uneasy cold-war truce, the anti-magician resistance movement carries out regular attacks in London.

Skilful magicians gain much of their influence by enslaving djinn and making use of their powers. Bartimaeus is a five thousand year old djinni with a proud record, “I am Bartimaeus! I am Sakhr al-Jinni, N’gorso the Mighty and the Serpent of Silver Plumes! I have rebuilt the walls of Uruk, Karnak and Prague. I have spoken with Solomon…” He is also a skilled shape-changer, immensely cynical, totally amoral and great fun to be with, if you don’t have to share a sealed Stricture with him. (Nathaniel, of course, has no choice.) The parallel with Faust is lightly underscored, but this novel is full of unexpected delights.

The construction is particularly satisfying. The standard third-person account of Nathaniel’s miserable early life as an apprentice, (which makes it clear why magicians are so heartless and unfeeling) is skilfully interwoven with Bartimaeus’s first-person account of how he was entrapped by talented young Nathaniel and forced to carry out his nervous commands. These two narratives move towards each other in time, uniting in an exciting climax, where the unlikely pair perform truly heroic (and sometimes very funny) deeds.
Humour might seem unexpected in such a grim story, but Bartimaeus enjoys telling his human readers how clever he is and he can’t resist showing off with his little asides and footnotes. After that introductory speech, Bartimaeus adds “Impressive stuff, eh?” When he materialises in Nathaniel’s pentacle as a bubbling column of sulphurous smoke with two yellow staring eyes, he explains, “Hey, it was his first time. I wanted to scare him. And I did too.”

Torn away from his family at five, and raised by an unfeeling magician, Nathaniel has every reason to be bitter but he also has something close to a conscience and his naivety is appealing. In these A.H.P. days (after Harry Potter) it is difficult for fantasy writers to be unaffected by the spectacled one, but Stroud has his own way of coping. Nathaniel wears horn-rimmed glasses in order to see imps, while Bartimaeus notes acerbically that although incompetent magicians cultivate huge beards and long hair, “the really powerful magicians take pleasure in looking like accountants”. There is no room for Hogwarts in this alternate universe. Each magician trains a single apprentice, so Bartimaeus snorts at the idea of apprentices “being bussed off to boarding school together - hardly likely”.

Magicians are sexists. There are only a few female magicians but there is a magnificent young lady – think of Hermione when she hits her stride – who appears only briefly but is sure of a key role in the second volume. For the good news is that Bartimaeus will surely be summoned again. The Amulet of Samarkand is the first volume of a trilogy based on his adventures.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on October 18th 2003.

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