The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
Reading Challenge: A book and its prequel (part one)
Does anyone else remember when the Artemis Fowl books came out and were being touted as kind of a dark Harry Potter? I do. I read the first one, was less than impressed (sorry) and left it there. But I wasn’t really looking for a dark version of anything. As I’ve mentioned previously, I tend not to be into the dark and depressing versions of stories. If I were looking to slap an “evil universe Harry Potter” label on a book, though, I would be putting it on this one.
This is a dark children’s book, although I wonder if some of it’s only obvious when you read it as an adult. The Amulet of Samarkand takes place in a world where magicians are an upper caste in society (non-magicians are a distinct underclass, and forget being called “muggles,” these guys are referred to as “commoners”) and get all their power by enslaving otherworldly spirits. The magicians are generally kind of awful people, everyone grasping and jostling for power and prestige. The ostensible hero of the story, Nathaniel, is distinctly lacking in hero qualities: he’s sulky, proud, ambitious, makes mistakes, and is almost always motivated by revenge. The adults around him are mostly worse: even Mrs. Underwood, who shows him some basic kindness and of whom Nathaniel is actually fairly fond, seems to be sort of a dull lady who’s willing to patch up the kid from her husband’s abuses but doesn’t do anything to stop them or acknowledge that they’re wrong. There’s just an epic lack of sympathetic characters. I mean, we’re talking Henry James scale here.
Why read this book, then, if these magicians are so awful and the world is so grim? The answer, naturally, is in the title of the series. It’s not called the Nathaniel trilogy, people. Bartimaeus is the djinni summoned by Nathaniel to help with his ill-considered plans and the narrator of roughly half the book. He’s cynical, sarcastic, full of himself, and hilarious. His chapters feature the best footnotes I’ve ever seen outside of Pratchett. His narrative is slightly unreliable but always entertaining, he himself has a lot of charm, and after spending enough time with this world you really won’t blame him for being so cynical. He’s extremely good company. The biggest weakness of the book, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s not all narrated by him, although I understand the necessity of including Nathaniel’s (third-person) point of view. If you read this book, read it for Bartimaeus, and he’s worth reading it for.
The main reason I read it, of course, was because it has a prequel, and I wasn’t sure how to get that item on the reading list otherwise. Bartimaeus would understand my motivation.
Suggested pairing: How about a nice shandy? That hint of lemonade for the hint of children’s book about this, with appropriate levels of bitter for the darkness of the world. This time of year I’m all about the Harpoon Big Squeeze grapefruit shandy, but Curious Traveler is good, too.