The Amulet of Samarkand
(The Bartimaeus trilogy, Book 1)
Fiction, YA Fantasy
DESCRIPTION: At five years old, London-born Nathaniel lost his parents and his birth name, recruited by the Government to be trained as a magician. It may seem a raw deal, but by giving him up his parents actually did him a great favor: England, like many nations, is run solely by magicians, so their son now has a chance to truly advance in society. And he'll earn a name back on his twelfth birthday, an official name that - unlike his birth name - can't be used against him by rival magicians or angered demons. A dutiful student to a lackluster mage, Nathaniel might have gone on to a happy, if modest, career... until a moment of utter humiliation drives him to go far, far beyond what his master has ever taught him in pursuit of revenge.
After five millenia, the djinni Bartimaeus has pretty much seen it all. Like most of his fellow spirits - only a crude human would dub his kind "demons" - he has spent more than his fair share of time in bondage to magicians. Once summoned and bound by his name, he's pretty much stuck performing whatever mindless, short-sighted, and counterproductive task he's ordered to do. No great shakes as a life goes, but he usually finds a way to get his revenge in the end, so it evens out. When he finds himself summoned by a stripling twelve-year-old, Bartimaeus figured it'd be an easy gig: probably just a prank on a friend, or something equally banal. Nothing he hasn't done countless times before on behalf of countless previous masters. But the boy orders him to steal a very powerful artifact - the Amulet of Samarkand - from a very powerful magician. Stupid at best, suicidal at worst, but bound djinni must do as they are ordered.
What started as an angry apprentice's act of vengeance soon consumes both boy and djinni, as they face rebellious commoners, rival spirits, and a maze of dark conspirators that could bring England's government to its knees... and, not incidentally, leave both Nathaniel and Bartimaeus very, very dead.
REVIEW: When most books promise "wit," I mentally brace myself. I've been promised wit and humor far more often than I've actually found it (in books or movies.) This time, however, I had to agree with the reviews. Stroud gives the djinni Bartimaeus a uniquely clever voice, with many amusing observations and footnotes that embellish, rather than obscure, the narrative. Nathaniel's upbringing molds him into the perfect magician, right down to the sense of entitlement and willingness to use any means to achieve his own ends; through the course of the story, he shows streaks of terrifying ruthlessness, with just enough of a conscience to keep him on the "good" side. (I expect he'll undergo more profound transformations in the next two books.) Of the two characters, I have to say that I preferred Bartimaeus's chapters, but both have much to contribute. Stroud's alternate modern-day London starts out looking pleasant and prosperous, but a darker side to the magician-ruled England emerges through asides and passing remarks, most of which go right over power-blinded Nathaniel's young head. The story itself moves along very nicely, full of action and intrigue and amusing dialog. I found this book highly enjoyable, a witty tale that actually contains wit. It came close to losing a half-star due to Nathaniel's obstinate refusal to see the problems right in front of his nose, plus a little weakness in the ending, but I enjoyed the rest of it enough to forgive it. Hopefully I can scrounge up the next two books in the trilogy soon. (They also have shiny covers. Shiny covers rarely hurt a book's chance of ending up in my reading pile.)