The Amulet of Samarkand Just Wasn’t Magical Enough

The Amulet of Samarkand | Jonathan Stroud

★★★

Nathaniel Underwood is a magician’s apprentice. With the aid of ancient words, candles and pentacles, he can summon djinns and other magical creatures to do his bidding. He summons the wise-cracking djinn, Bartimaeus, to help him steal the eponymous Amulet of Samarkand. Humiliated by the older and more powerful magician Simon Lovelace, Nathaniel wants to exact revenge and the first step is stealing the amulet. What should be a swift revenge story reveals a much larger conspiracy involving the government itself.

I realised quite early on that this was just not going to be my kinda book, so I’ve taken that into account and I am not judging it too harshly in light of it. I’ll start with a big thing that put me off this book: the world and the magic system within it. There’s no real criticism I have with either, except they weren’t for me. When I’m reading sci-fi or fantasy, I want that world to be cool. I don’t necessarily want to live there instead of my own world (e.g. I love Chris Wooding’s books, but the worlds he builds aren’t necessarily the most attractive) but I feel like I need some sort of connection to it in a way that I never got with the alternate London of this book.

The world is in part Victorian and in part modern (there’s a chamber pot mentioned at one stage and a computer mentioned at another) which is the best way I can describe it – this felt sloppily done. The world never felt like it was painted in a clear light and we are given a very narrow perspective. I’m all for societies that evolve differently to ours because they have the aid of magic over science and technology (see: The Legend of Korra as an excellent example of this) but it has to be deliberate and intentional which never felt like the case with this book. The magic didn’t wow me either, and this I will put down solely to personal choice. Magicians summoning magical creatures who actually do the work and are enslaved? Not my cup of tea.

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The writing has two perspectives; there is third-person narration through our main character, Nathaniel’s chapters and first person narration through the djinn he summons, Bartimaeus’, chapters. The latter were far more interesting to read and he is a humorous character. There are footnotes throughout the Bartimaeus’ chapters which are explained by the fact that he can see and think on multiple planes of existence (there are seven in total). I think readers will have one of two reactions to them: they will read and enjoy every one or they will ignore them completely. I did the first and then the second, because although humorous and a clever way of adding to the world and building on the history of the djinn, it often distracted from the story.

Whilst Bartimaeus’ character is a fun one, I absolutely could not get on with Nathaniel. There seems to be a trend of young, male protagonists who are too arrogant for their own good that makes me roll my eyes across all seven planes. The fact is, to me, these characters are bratty, they read as proto-white male privilege that is just waiting to grow up. The whole plot is spurred on by an event where Nathaniel is humiliated by Simon Lovelace. He grows hateful and resentful of his master, but it just came across as a bit whiny because his humiliation is not equivalent of the kind of revenge he is after. The other issue is that Nathaniel’s chapters use third-person narration whereas Bartimaeus’ chapters use first person narration. You’re too far away from Nathaniel to really empathise with him and Bartimaeus is too far away from humans to be empathetic towards either. Also, there are also basically no female characters in this book. 

There would be some saving grace, if the plot was fantastically compelling. The writing was good, and I read it reasonably quickly, however it is quite a basic plot for a book that is 500 pages long. Nathaniel is humiliated by Simon Lovelace, his plan for revenge involves stealing the powerful Amulet of Samarkand via Bartimaeus. The Amulet turns out to be part of a larger and more sinister plot for a grab of power by Simon Lovelace and Nathaniel tries to prove that Lovelace is a traitor. Lovelace’s plan is pretty obvious and the final confrontation feels weak for the number of pages building up to it. This is the first book in a trilogy and, though there hints towards a larger overarching plot, it did not wow me into continuing.

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Have you read this book? What did you think?

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