Friday, 27 February 2009

Book review: "The amulet of Samarkand", by Jonathon Stroud

We got this book free when we bought JK Rowling's 'The Tales of Beedle the Bard'. The front cover shows a mischievous imp huddled in a cranny, an amulet clutched within it's hands. This, along with the font and the title, give a distinct impression that this is a fantasy book.

I must admit that, although I love science fiction, fantasy is not my favourite genre. Fantasy books can be too overwrought, and can introduce a world far too complex for the reader to easily grasp. This is one area where the Harry Potter series succeeds - the magical world that Harry inhabits is unveiled slowly, and you do not get a steep learning curve.

This book is the direct opposite. The book starts from the perspective of Bartimaeus, a djinn (a type of demon, although he would not like me to call him that). His magical properties are immediately unveiled as he is summoned by a magician. However, this is done delicately, and the reader is not faced with an impenetrable mass of terms or concepts.

There are two main characters in this book; Bartimaeus, a cheeky and sarcastic powerful djinn, and Nathaniel, a precocious trainee wizard. Nathaniel summons Bartimaeus in order to fulfil an act of revenge (to steal the amulet of Samarkand); the act leads to a roller-coaster set of events that runs out of everyone's control. The narrator swaps frequently between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus, but it proves easy to keep track of whose mind you are in.

The setting is in a contemporary London where magic abounds; although it may be an alternate reality, you never quite get to know (if it isn't, then the entire cabinet are magicians). London is used well, and is prevented as a dark, foreboding place.

It is very fast-paced, and the events unfold at breakneck speed. There is little time to breathe, yet the two main characters are very well developed. It is a delicate balancing act, and one that the author accomplishes well.

The book is quite a magical read, and that is not just down to the skilful writing of the main plot. For there are frequent footnotes interspersed within the text that give humorous and sarcastic asides from Bartimaeus. An example (when describing another demon):
"A variety with five eyes; two on the head, one on either flank, and one - well, let's just say it would be hard to creep up on him unawares while he was touching his toes."
These footnotes add magic to the book; they amount to much more than the sum total of their words. They actually bring out a whole new aspect to Bartimaeus' character. You could choose not to read them, but if you did that then you would miss some wonderful writing.

One disappointing point is that the characters meet children on several occasions who appear to have special properties - they can see Bartimaeus when concealed, and steal something from Nathaniel. It is suggested that they are part of a 'resistance' against the rule of the magicians. These events are not really put into context or explored further; I can only assume that they are in the later books of the trilogy.

All in all this is an excellent book; in my opnion it is better than Harry Potter, although it has a very different tone.

I give this book 5 out of 5.

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