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Review of the Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 11:23 AM EDT

I learned of the Bartimaeus trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud, from a list of ten fantasy series to get you over Harry Potter Withdrawal. The author of the list claims Stroud’s series is actually better plotted than Rowling’s, so this week I picked up The Amulet of Samarkand from the local library. It is certainly well written and nicely paced. The title character is memorable, the fictional world is intriguing, and the plot is engaging. There are also a few interesting themes, including the ambiguous relation between freedom and slavery, and the power of names. That’s the good; unfortunately, the bad and the ugly are much more important. (minor spoiler warning)

Where Harry Potter centers on an oppressed but noble orphan who is motivated primarily by love for his new friends, Bartimaeus focuses on a mid-level demon (djinni) and his current “master” Nathaniel, a 12 year old who is motivated primarily by revenge and selfish ambition. Where Rowling’s universe features a morally-neutral form of magic that some use for good and others for evil, in Stroud’s world all magic involves the manipulation of demonic forces by magicians who are, almost without exception, corrupt and self-serving.

In The Amulet of Samarkand we learn that Nathaniel’s parents sold him to the government at the age of five, at which time he became apprentice to a cruel and petty magician named Arthur Underwood. One of Nathaniel’s earliest memories is being sent to Underwood’s study, where a hundred imps terrorized him for twenty minutes before anyone came to get him. The point of the lesson, which Nathaniel well-learned, was that the every magician’s power depends on demonic forces that one must learn to strictly control because “they will hurt you if they can.” In fact, the only people in his life who seem to have any love for Nathaniel at all are Mrs. Underwood and his drawing teacher Ms. Lutyens (a “commoner,” with no magic). The affection he feels for those two is no doubt Nathaniel’s best quality, but it is hardly his defining characteristic, and it does none of them the least bit of good.

By the age of 11, Nathaniel has a magical knowledge well beyond his years (wholly unrecognized by Mr. Underwood), and he is finally allowed to make an appearance at a small party at their home. At the party another magician named Simon Lovelace tries to embarrass Mr. Underwood by quizzing Nathaniel’s magical knowledge with questions no normal 11 year old would be expected to know. When Nathaniel manages to answer all of them correctly, Lovelace is so angry that he mocks and then publicly humiliates him. The only person to come to Nathaniel’s aid is Ms. Lutyens, who is then dismissed by the Underwoods.

After this, Nathaniel vows revenge and privately studies enough magic to summon Bartimaeus, then force him to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace and hide it in Underwood’s study. It is unclear what Nathaniel hopes to accomplish by rash act, but he quickly discovers that he has meddled in affairs far beyond his control. The Amulet, it turns out, is key to a plot to overthrow the government, and Lovelace will stop at nothing to retrieve it, leading to various exciting adventures that I will not relate.

The best that can be said about the book is that its picture of magic as a dangerous attempt to control the demonic ought to make it highly unappealing. In Stroud’s alternate universe, Britain is a world empire currently at war with Italy and the Czech Empire (France and Germany having already been conquered). It is ruled by a corrupt and oppressive magical government which presides over a despised underclass of “commoners,” who know about magic but are not allowed to learn it. For their part, the magicians are generally driven by “ambition, greed, or paranoia,” and their lives are often violent and short (pg. 301). As Barthimaeus puts it:

Magicians are essentially parasitic. In societies where they are dominant, they live well off the strivings of others. In those times and places when they lose power and have to earn their own bread, they are generally reduced to a sorry state, performing small conjurations for jeering ale-house crowds in return for a few brass coins. (pg. 354)

Ms. Lutyens and Mrs. Underwood are the only consistently noble characters in the entire book, but the main thing Nathaniel seems to learn from them is guilt, when he proves unable to protect them. Like all other magicians, it is power and control that Nathaniel wants (even if not wholly for selfish reasons), and far from learning to overcome this moral deficit, the moment when he finally manages to achieve it stands as the climax of the book. Only once does Nathaniel do anything genuinely honest and self-sacrificial, and the gesture is entirely wasted.

I call this generally dreary picture a “good” thing because, unlike the magic in Harry Potter (which would be quite impossible to duplicate in real life) the magic in Bartimaeus strongly resembles real-world sorcery. Stroud goes to some length in describing the means of contacting and controlling demons through the use of pentacles and incantations, all used to try and trap demons and force them to do a magician’s bidding. Whether these descriptions at all resemble real-world Occult practices is more than I know, but the attempt to initiate contact with various spirits certainly has real-world precedent that I would not want to encourage children to emulate.

Unlike other fantasy I might recommend, The Amulet of Samarkand gives no indication at all that there are any benevolent supernatural forces at work, no reflections on the nature of good and evil, no suggestion that love and compassion are more powerful than death and the lust for power. There are some offhanded references to Solomon’s ring (apocryphal), and the sound of church bells destroying a certain class of low-level demon, but the only people who appear to be immune to demonic power are a shadowy group of political rebels who seem quite as willing to commit murder as anyone else.

Thus the fact that the book is often tragic and repeatedly warns of the dangers of engaging in magic is really a good thing. We are given ample evidence that the line between master and slave, power and weakness, life and death, is quite narrow for the magician, and we are assured that a great many of them have been destroyed by the very powers they seek to invoke, or by other magicians wielding them. If this were the take-home message, I might be able to give the book a cautious recommendation, but that is not how the story ends.

Far from suffering lasting harm by his foolish and arrogant attempt to control the demonic, Nathaniel succeeds in his goals and, thanks to Bartimaeus, achieves almost everything he wants. He does struggle with guilt over (some of the) deaths that result from his actions, but this doesn’t seem to lead to any dramatic improvement in his character. In fact, the Nathaniel at the end of the book is even less likable than the Nathaniel at the beginning. Without giving anything else away, I will simply say that a book that ends with a demon suggesting Nathaniel might want to guard his conscience—to which the boy replies, “you needn’t bother about me”—is hardly going to be a stirring morality tale.

The main appeal of the books is Bartimaeus himself. It is through his snarky first-person dialogue that we read much of the story (the remainder is told from Nathaniel’s perspective, but in the third person), and he is certainly an entertaining antihero. He is clever and irreverently and, even if only out of self-interest, he does indeed protect and help Nathaniel on his quest. It’s hard not to like the spunky djinni, especially in comparison to his complaining and often helpless “master,” but that is just the problem: we are, after all, being asked to laugh at the witty jabs and cheer at the narrow escapes of an unrepentant demon while he helps a petulant child get revenge.

I don’t know if the picture improves in the final two books–I haven’t decided whether I’m willing to try them–but I’m certain I won’t be letting my kids anywhere near this series.