The Amulet of Samarkand (2003) is the first book in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy. (Find it on Bookshop.) This trilogy has the unique honor of having been banned in its entirety for the books’ presentations of the occult. They also feature magnificent cover art by Melvyn Grant (who also has a ridiculously clever website). For many readers, that would be enticement enough. I didn’t know about the book banning, but the cover art and blurb pushed it onto my ever-increasing “to read” list. A recommendation from a trusted YA librarian pushed it over the top.
Nathaniel, one of the novel’s main characters, lives in London. Like most large cities, many of London’s movers and shakers are to be found in government positions of influence. What most people don’t know is that these powerful men and women get up to more than politicking when behind closed doors. They all have power, certainly, but very little (none depending on who you ask) belongs to them. Not permanently at least. Working in obscurity, under strict rules of engagement (with stricter punishments should something go awry), demons are the real power behind London’s elite.
Nathaniel is six when he is torn away from his birth parents and sent to live with his new master, another magician.
As in many fantasy novels, the power of naming plays an important role here. Demons are summoned with the knowledge of their real names. If you know the demon’s real name, you can control them. Similarly, if a demon learns the true name of a magician (in this case their given name) the demon has the same level of control. No magician knows their true name in order to avoid just that kind of problem.
By the age of eleven, Nathaniel has adjusted to his life as an apprentice and eagerly anticipates two events: the day when he will pick his name as a magician, and the day he will become a great magician, like his idol William Gladstone, remembered by all. Nathaniel does choose his name in due time, but his dream of greatness, is put into serious question when Simon Lovelace, a prestigious magician, publicly humiliates Nathaniel.
Enraged, Nathaniel bides his time learning spells and waiting until the day he will be ready to exact revenge. Enter Bartimaeus, the novel’s other main character, and a djinni with a fondness for footnotes in his first-person narration. Initially summoned as an instrument of revenge, Nathaniel soon learns that Bartimaeus is not easily contained.
When Nathaniel’s brilliant revenge becomes murder, espionage and conspiracy djinni and boy strike an uneasy detente to see if both of them can survive the machinations Bartimaeus has set in motion under Nathaniel’s orders.
The Amulet of Samarkand alternates viewpoints, sometimes being told in witty first-person by Bartimaeus (filled with references to his 5000 year career as a brilliant djinni), other times following Nathaniel in a third-person voice. Combined, the narrations make for an original fantasy that is witty and sharp.
More interesting, especially as the trilogy continues, is the dynamic between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus. While the djinni is more entertaining of the two, Nathaniel is often more compelling. Watching him mature from an innocent boy to a calculating magician in his own right, Stroud creates tension as readers are forced to wonder will Nathaniel be a villain or a hero by the end of the story?
Possible Pairings: The Demon Catchers of Milan by Kat Beyer, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, Rise of the Darklings by Paul Crilley, Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, Death Note Tsugumi Ohba, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Fire Artist by Daisy Whitney