The Amulet of Samarkand
By Jonathan Stroud
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner
There are two basic types of fictional magic making, spell casting and conjuring. Spell casting can take different forms. As typified by the Harry Potter books it involves the idea that magic is worked by a person of intrinsic ability who channels her power through a wand and causes specific effects by saying a particular spell. Why the saying of certain words, backed by channeled magical power, causes specific effects, isn’t quite clear, but it seems to work. Other instances of spell casting are more concretely explained, as in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthseatrilogy in which wizards spend years learning the language of dragon’s in that spell casting involves speaking in dragon, difficult to do for humans, but effective.
Conjuring is an old, and rather different idea. It’s essential premise is that magic involves the summoning of entities of varying power from another plane of existence. These entities, if properly summoned, can be commanded to perform distinct tasks, of varying duration and complexity, depending on the summons and the power of the entity. If improperly summoned the entities, not relishing being commanded, will turn on and destroy the summoner. As E.R. Eddison’s King Gorice puts it, "I, that am skilled in grammerie, do bear a mightier engine...than brawny sinews or the sword that smiteth asunder. Yet is mine engine perilous to him that useth it." The idea of sorcerers having familiars, a common theme in fantastic literature, also relates to conjuring.
Thus we come to Jonathan Stroud’s masterful new fantasy, The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in a series entitled the Bartimaeus trilogy. The world of the Bartimaeus is run by magicians, who form a strict aristocracy. The story is set in London, the magical capital of Europe. All government ministers and officials, all parliament members are magicians. Everyone else is a commoner, who either serves, or lives in the shadows of, the magicians. William Gladstone, though still the eminent prime minister with whom we are familiar, was a powerful magician who defeated his magical rival, Benjamin Disraeli, in an historic duel.
Though commoners do not know this, all of a magician’s power comes via conjuring. The demons conjured belong to a strict hierarchy, from powerful marids, descending to afrits, djinns, foliots, and finally lowly imps. Each adult magician is required to take on an apprentice, who comes to live with his master, leaving all other ties behind, ultimately even his birth name.
The story follows two principle characters, a young apprentice Nathaniel, and an ancient Djinn, Bartimaeus. Nathaniel is a talented precocious apprentice, however his master, a vain, materialistic government official, has no notion of either Nathaniel’s ability or temperament. When Nathaniel is humiliated by a powerful young Magician, Simon Lovelace, he reads ahead of himself in his master’s library, bent on vengeance. Though summoning a powerful demon is highly dangerous, and a task well beyond his years, Nathaniel selects a Djinn from the age of Ptolemy, Bartimaeus, and commands him to steal the Amulet of Samarkand which is, illicitly, in Lovelace’s possession.
The narration of the story shifts between a first person account by Bartimaeus, and a third person account of Nathaniel. Bartimaues is a marvelously colorful narrator, and Nathaniel a highly interesting, complex character. Fun and satisfying throughout, the story has excellent depth, and intrigue. Indeed, in a season marked by a remarkable number of superb works of young adult fantasy, The Amulet of Samarkand stands out as being completely exceptional.