THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND, Jonathan Stroud, 462 pages, $9.99paperback
London as it turns out isn’t what we think it is. Government workers and the upper classes are really all magicians, while the struggling middle and lower classes are non-magical folk in need of close monitoring and strict laws. Within just a few pages, the reader readily understands that the behind the scenes of the ruling elite is a very ugly world indeed. In order to commence the study of magic, the parents of a young candidate must be willing to let go of their child freely and often do so gladly. Five year old Nathaniel’s parents are the usual sort: “Take the money and run” an official explains to the boy’s new master. Nathaniel finds himself unhappily under the tutelage of old Arthur Underwood, a magician who doesn’t like children. And worst of all for a young student, his master isn’t particularly talented. What he is however is disdainful and arrogant. He believes young Nathaniel to be as untalented as he is himself. We soon come to understand however just how talented Nathaniel is. Presented one day at the age of ten to a gathering of magicians, Nathaniel is confronted by the ego maniacal Simon Lovelace, who humiliates Nathaniel before everyone. Bent on revenge, Nathaniel studies magic more diligently than ever before. At last mastering a spell levels beyond his years, he summons an ancient demon from the underworld, a task beyond even his own master’s abilities. Arising from a great cloud of smoke and sulfurous smells is the book’s humorously caustic narrator, the five thousand year old demon Bartimaeus. He’s a blustering, prickly, bitingly witty servant bent on showing this young upstart who’s in charge. But the bluster blows away when Nathaniel orders him to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from the man who once humiliated him in front of so many people. Despite all his fears, Bartimaeus can’t refuse: He’s bound by his masters spells. But Nathaniel may be in over his head with this very tricky genie. The Amulet of Samarkand’s star character is one of the funniest creatures to narrate a tale. His blustering and cowardice, his duplicity candidly revealed in footnotes for us, and his tall sense of honor always in danger of self-serving compromise, never allow the reader to keep a straight face. A steady barrage of dangers guarantees that master and servant must frantically work the Rubric’s cube of their magical powers. These two are always one step ahead of death, or worse, eternal confinement in undersized bottles. This book was written for young audiences, but it has a sophistication and wit that far surpasses that audience’s ability to appreciate it. It is wonderful writing. Inexplicably, some bookstores shelve The Bartimaeus Trilogy in the children’s section, a placement that seems the result of some terrible misjudgment somewhere. Do you like your humor clever, dry and biting? Yes? Then the Amulet of Samarkand and the rest of the Bartimaeus Trilogy is for you. If you’d like to read a few pages, just click on the book cover below or click here to read our review of the second book in this trilogy, The Golem’s Eye.