The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
Digital Audiobook narrated by Simon Vance
Published by Hyperion/Miramax on September 30, 2003
Series: The Bartimaeus Trilogy #1
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Magic, Young Adult
Length: 462 pages or 13 hours, 30 minutes
Goodreads • Amazon • Barnes & Noble • Book Depository • IndieBound
Nathaniel is a boy magician-in-training, sold to the government by his birth parents at the age of five and sent to live as an apprentice to a master. Powerful magicians rule Britain, and its empire, and Nathaniel is told his is the "ultimate sacrifice" for a "noble destiny."
If leaving his parents and erasing his past life isn't tough enough, Nathaniel's master, Arthur Underwood, is a cold, condescending, and cruel middle-ranking magician in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The boy's only saving grace is the master's wife, Martha Underwood, who shows him genuine affection that he rewards with fierce devotion. Nathaniel gets along tolerably well over the years in the Underwood household until the summer before his eleventh birthday. Everything changes when he is publicly humiliated by the ruthless magician Simon Lovelace and betrayed by his cowardly master who does not defend him.
Nathaniel vows revenge. In a Faustian fever, he devours magical texts and hones his magic skills, all the while trying to appear subservient to his master. When he musters the strength to summon the 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus to avenge Lovelace by stealing the powerful Amulet of Samarkand, the boy magician plunges into a situation more dangerous and deadly than anything he could ever imagine.
I’ve read and listened to The Amulet of Samarkand many times since I was first introduced as a high schooler, and so help me, I still love Bartimaeus.
This series has a world-feel all it’s own. It feels like a bit later than Victorian England, but there’s no element of steampunk. There was a similar aesthetic to Ink and Bone but where that version of the world had fallen apart, this one is tightly held together, like a fine tapestry foretelling doom. The stiffness of the humans (magician or not) is the contrast needed to make Bartimaeus himself so funny. Where even young Nathaniel is very precise and decided, the djinn itself is goofy and sarcastic is it is entirely what I’m looking for here.
Jonathan Stroud’s voice is a YA version of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Addams. He’s dry, certainly, but he’s also sharp and witty. I think this style of humor is one that people either love or hate. Fortunately for me, I love it. There are always runway comments that take me by surprise or make me chuckle. If one were to read this book in its printed form, most the best parts are in the footnotes, which are entirely Bartimaeus’ commentary on the adventure. For us audiobook listeners, the commentary has been inserted into the narrative, and it flows smoothly. Still funny.
I always find it difficult to review books I love and have read many times. Like the Harry Potter series or Artemis Fowl, there’s no longer an element of surprise to the storyline because I’ve read it so many times. Objectively, I will say that the characters are a bit flat, particularly those without a POV. Nathaniel’s master, Arthur Underwood, is as two-dimensional as they come. Simon Lovelace should have layers upon layers, but his motives are trimmed to their barest simplicity. Even Nathaniel is dry, although there is a peek to his potential future in some of the things he says or thinks. In this first book, even Bartimaeus is not as well-rounded as learning his history will make him in better stories (particularly the companion novel, The Ring of Solomon). If someone isn’t into Stroud’s humor and can’t connect with the characters, this book may be a bit of a dud.
Still I loved it. I love the complexities of the magicians’ daily lives and their summoning requirements, and I live for the subtle, historical references that Bartimaeus drops all the times. I particularly love his relationship with the other djinn, Farqual and Jabor. The humor is cheeky and at times out protagonist (definitely Bartimaeus, in my opinion) is a bit immature… but The Amulet of Samakand is a lot of fun to read.
Younger fans of Terry Pratchett’s will get a particular kick out of this one, and it’s squeaky clean. There’s a lot more coming in the series and the plots get more intense after the first book, so if you’re willing to stick with the ride, it’s a great story. For me, this is no challenge at all. This is a nostalgic read for me, and any book that makes me laugh is a win.
What characters do you love from your childhood? I find characters from favorite books are often like old friends!