Review: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

Genre: Urban Fantasy  Age Level: Young Adult Series: The Bartimaeus Trilogy #1
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Age Level: Young Adult
Series: The Bartimaeus Trilogy #1

Nathaniel is a boy magician-in-training, sold to the government by his birth parents at the age of five and sent to live as an apprentice to a master. Powerful magicians rule Britain, and its empire, and Nathaniel is told his is the “ultimate sacrifice” for a “noble destiny.”

If leaving his parents and erasing his past life isn’t tough enough, Nathaniel’s master, Arthur Underwood, is a cold, condescending, and cruel middle-ranking magician in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The boy’s only saving grace is the master’s wife, Martha Underwood, who shows him genuine affection that he rewards with fierce devotion. Nathaniel gets along tolerably well over the years in the Underwood household until the summer before his eleventh birthday. Everything changes when he is publicly humiliated by the ruthless magician Simon Lovelace and betrayed by his cowardly master who does not defend him.

Nathaniel vows revenge. In a Faustian fever, he devours magical texts and hones his magic skills, all the while trying to appear subservient to his master. When he musters the strength to summon the 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus to avenge Lovelace by stealing the powerful Amulet of Samarkand, the boy magician plunges into a situation more dangerous and deadly than anything he could ever imagine.


The Amulet of Samarkand definitely lived up to, and is worthy of the praise it received. It is an imaginative, witty and thoroughly entertaining novel set in a universe where the veil between our world and the world of the demons can be breached.

In most fantasy novels that contain magic, the magic exists in an unexplained external source such as a locket, or an area of land, or the second more common option: inside the characters themselves. However, in Bartimaeus’s world, the magic lies within the demons, and the human magicians merely use spells to summon demons to do their bidding. The demons become the slaves of the humans, unable to return to their home world until dismissed. As a reader, you sympathize with the demons who are forced to submit themselves to their human masters. It is but one of the many moral grey areas  areas in the novel. There’s also the fact that the magicians form the government, ruling the ‘commoners’ without their consent. And the way the apprentices are treated… There’s a lot of serious topics that are brought up in the novel that could be discussed at great length.

Nathaniel is a promising young magician; he’s cunning and smart, with an aptitude for learning. Yet, he is also in possession of too much ambition and pride for his own good. He rarely becomes attached to someone, more often he views people with contempt or hatred. However, beneath all the facades and bravery, Nathaniel does have a sensitive side and strong morals. On the one hand, you support his goals and want him to get revenge on Lovelace, on the other, you can’t help but wonder if he’s not somewhat of a villain himself.  I’m very interested to see how he develops over the rest of the trilogy as at the moment, I’m not a hundred percent sure I like him. Not that it’s a bad thing – it is not a requirement that main characters be likable, rather that they be flawed and interesting.

Bartimaeus is quite a character. Sarcastic and self centered, he’s also a bit of a moral puzzle. He’s presented as a big, tough bad guy, but from the start you can’t help but wonder whether there’s something more beneath all that. He really does appear to be much more bark than bite and this is cemented as the story progresses. Yet, he’s still a djinni, he’s still capable of terrible acts of violence and power. The djinni are fascinating creatures who can shape-shift, perform spells and see on seven planes (humans can only see on one). He has been around for millennia, and constantly references past events and people. This makes the world feel more real as it has been around before this individual story takes place and will continue to exist long after.The chapters that he narrates are filled with funny footnotes in which Bartimaeus inserts additional comments on just about everything. I got exited every time I turned the page and discovered more footnotes awaiting me.

The pacing of the novel starts off slow. The stage is set with careful precision and a keen eye for detail. Each element of the world and the plot is carefully laid out. Gradually, the story begins to build, becoming more and more complex until reaching a thrilling conclusion. The novel is filled with mysteries and secret plots, and there is always the sense of larger things going on in the background beyond those addressed in this book.  It is impossible to wrap your head around everything at once; only at the end does everything fit together and become clear.

It is young adult, simply due to the sheer complexity and breadth of the tale, but it definitely has appeal to readers of all ages. Recommended to fans of fantasy!

Have you read this book? What did you think? I’d love to hear from you!

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