When the mid-level djinni Bartimaeus is called into service by a 12-year-old apprentice magician, he can’t help but be shocked. A magician this young has no business calling even an imp on his own, much less a 5,000-year-old djinni who has served the likes of Ptolemy and Solomon. But the young magician, Nathaniel, seems to know what he’s doing, and he gives his order in such a way that Bartimaeus has no choice but to obey. The order? To steal the Amulet of Samarkand from the magician Simon Lovelace and hide it in the study of Nathaniel’s master.
The request is simple enough, but the consequences are not. Lovelace is a skilled magician with secrets of his own, and before long Nathaniel and Bartimaeus are caught in a complex web of spells and deceptions. They have no choice but to operate as partners of a sort. Nathaniel needs Bartimaeus’s power, and Bartimaeus needs Nathaniel to stay free of eternal imprisonment.
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud is the first in a trilogy (soon to become a quadrilogy). It’s a sort of YA Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but with djinn instead of faeries, and with part of the story told from the faery’s (djinni’s) point of view.
The series is set in an alternate version of London where magicians are in charge and where history is rather different from our own, but still familiar. One of history’s greatest magicians was Gladstone, former Prime Minister, whose magical prowess helped him rise above all the other magicians in Parliament.
We learn about this world largely from Bartimaeus himself. His first-person narration comprises about half of The Amulet of Samarkand. He speaks with snark-filled disdain of the tiresome magicians who summon him to do ridiculous tasks. He also shares bits of inside information about magical beings and about the history of this alternate version of our own world. In the print book, much of this information is in footnotes (a device I happen to adore), but in the audio, they’re just presented as part of the narration. (I had no idea there were footnotes until I happened to pick up a copy in a bookstore, and on looking at the notes, I realized that the information is incorporated into the audiobook, but it’s done seamlessly.)
Bartimaeus’s chapters alternate with chapters about Nathaniel, whose story is told by a third-person narrator. Nathaniel is a brilliant kid but he is a kid—and an immature one who needs guidance from a sensible, caring adult. He can say spells, and he loves the power, but he does not know what he’s getting into most of the time. I really want to know what sort of person he’ll develop into because, honestly, he could go either way.
In the audiobook, Simon Jones reads both sections, but it’s always clear whether a given chapter is a Bartimaeus section or a Nathaniel section. Stroud gives each of his narrators a distinct voice and storytelling style, and both are equally compelling, although Bartimaeus is certainly more fun to listen to.
Just as in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, neither principal character is completely admirable, but you can’t help but root for them, especially when you meet the almost entirely loathsome people around them. One of the cleverest aspects of the way the story is constructed is how Stroud gets these two to become allies so that the reader can want them both to succeed, even if they are, in some respects, enemies. The story barrels along at a nice pace and is filled with clever set pieces, my favorite being the Mournful Orb used in interrogations of magical beings at the Tower of London. So, so creepy, and the source of some cringe-inducing tension for me, the listener.
Even though it’s part of a trilogy, the main storyline is resolved when the novel closes, but there’s a larger storyline in the background. It’s like the Harry Potter books in that way. The big, overarching story is still unfolding, but the adventure that drove the plot of this book ended when the book ended. But the overarching story has lots of potential, and I’m eager to see what happens in the next book, The Golem’s Eye.