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The Amulet of Samarkand

by Jonathan Stroud

(Corgi, £5.99, 259 pages, paperback; October 2004; ISBN: 0552550299.)

Review by Caleb Woodbridge

In CS Lewis's book Prince Caspian, the children, having been magically summoned cover scanto the land of Narnia, comment that people don't really think about where the djinn comes from when such creatures are summoned. Indeed they don't, not usually at any rate, but this book is rather unusually narrated by Bartimaeus, one such djinn. He is summoned up by the young apprentice wizard Nathaniel, and isn't too happy to discover that Nathaniel wants him to steal the powerful Amulet of Samarkand, but having been bound to his new master's will he has little choice in the matter.

What then follows is in terms of the plot a standard game of "chase the magic object" so beloved of fantasy writers, though excitingly told as Nathaniel and Bartimaeus are caught up in the notoriously subtle and dangerous intrigues of wizards. The setting is a like-yet-unalike reality where Britain is ruled by a group of powerful and unpleasant wizards who oppress the non-magical population, accompanied by another fairly routine subplot of rebels plotting against the evil regime. All this is enjoyable hokum, but it is the spiky relationship between Bartimaeus and Nathaniel that really makes this story shine.

Bartimaeus is cynical, egotistical and wise-cracking, and an absolute joy to read. Part of the fun are the footnotes frequently employed by Bartimaeus, apparently his concession to beings like us who unlike him cannot think simultaneously on multiple levels! His acid tongue is directed at everything from human nature to the "ridiculous idea of bundling wizards off to boarding school", a cheeky poke at the adventures of a certain other boy wizard! The power politics between him and Nathaniel are also highly entertaining--Bartimaeus will be all too happy to misintepret Nathaniel's wishes if at all possible, but Nathaniel has some clever tricks up his proverbial sleeves.

It makes a pleasant change to have a children's fantasy that is both unashamedly humourous and entertaining, while at the same time being darker and edgier than other similar fare on the market. Despite the amoral and ambiguous characters, it maintains a firm sense of goodness and humour as a balance to the often quite dark storyline. I'm unsure whether the distinctive style will bear repeated use while remaining enjoyable, but hopefully Stroud will be able to inject enough variety in the sequels to make this an entertaining and distinctive trilogy.

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