“That did it. I'd gone through a lot in the past few days. Everyone I met seemed to want a piece of me: djinn, magicians, humans... it made no difference. I'd been summoned, manhandled, shot at, captured, constricted, bossed about, and generally taken for granted. And now, to cap it all, this bloke is joining in too, when all I'd been doing was quietly trying to kill him.”
-Bartimaeus of Ur, having a bad week.

This is a synopsis of the first book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy. Unmarked spoilers ahead.

Nathaniel is a young boy adopted by the magician Arthur Underwood and his wife as a very small child- as all magicians are- to be raised as a magician, as magicians never have their own children. Despite the fact that knowing his birth name is incredibly dangerous as it can be used against him for nefarious means, and that most young magicians are forced to forget their old names, Mrs. Martha Underwood takes pity on the little Nat and uses his name anyway, meaning still he remembers it when he's older.

Nathaniel is subsequently indoctrinated into the magicians way of thinking (commoners are chattel to be used, demons are monsters to be controlled, magicians are the best, etc.). He proves to be an incredibly smart kid (a fact completely lost on Mr. Underwood, who assumes him to be slow). Mr. Underwood is an incompetent magician, the minister of Internal Affairs, and dislikes having Nathaniel around, only taking him in because it's his duty as a magician to bring up another magician. Mrs. Underwood and his private teacher, Mrs. Lutyens, are the only people who genuinely care about him.

When Nat is ten, he is angered by and then angers a magician named Simon Lovelace in front of other magicians and has his ass handed to him by one of Lovelace's imps. The result is that Ms. Lutyens (who tried to help him) is fired, and Nat begins plotting revenge. Cut ahead two years, and Bartimaeus comes in. Nat, clever little squirt that he is, created a scrying mirror with a little imp trapped inside without his guardians noticing. Through it, he finds out that Lovelace has bought a valuable amulet (though Nathaniel doesn't know, exactly, what it is) from a suspicious mercenary in a thoroughly suspicious manner. He summons Bartimaeus and charges him with stealing the Amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace.

Bartimaeus of Ur is a five thousand year old, shape-shifting djinni of moderate power who, by default, hates just about all magicians save for one. It turns out that breaking into a magician's place is more complicated than he thought, though, as he runs into two particularly nasty djinn who have a several-thousand year old grudge against him, Faquarl and Jabor (Faquarl being the smart one and Jabor being the muscle).

Bartimaeus runs, but then gets attacked by a small group of children on the street. They try to take the amulet from him, but fail. Bartimaeus is then summoned by Nathaniel back to the Underwood home, and happens to be present and unseen when Mrs. Underwood calls Nathaniel by his birth name.

Because Bart knows Nat's birth name, he is now protected from any physical punishment the kid can dish out (by saying his name while in the pentacle, he can turn any attacks Nat tries back onto him). They reach an arrangement where Nat puts a spell on a can of rosemary (which, like silver and iron, hurts djinn) so that if Bartimaeus kills him or gets loose, he'll automatically get sucked into the tin and be stuck at the bottom of the Thames river. At the end of the month, though, when Nat's revenge on Lovelace is well and done, and if Nat is still alive and well, he'll set Bartimaeus free and they never have to deal with one another again.

Things go to pot quickly after.

There's an attack on Parliament by one of the Resistance, which puts pressure of Mr. Underwood. Nat orders Bartimaeus to spy on Lovelace some more because- well, he's got the Amulet, yes, but he still doesn't know it's importance. Bartimaeus goes to a store owned by a Mr. Sholto Pinn (magician) and, disguised as a messenger imp, learns that the Amulet is a powerful artifact that was stolen from the government. And because life hates him, Bartimaeus is caught and tossed into the tower of London, which has protections all around it that prevent him from escaping. But that's cool because Faquarl and Jabor actually help him out.

Back home, Nat is caught with his summoning stuff, and Underwood assumes that he hasn't actually done anything yet (because, again, Underwood wouldn't know a talented magician if one shoved an imp up his nose). Later, Nat is caught using the scrying glass on Underwood himself.

Before Underwood can break every bone in his body, Lovelace arrives, having tracked the amulet to the house. He initially thinks Underwood is responsible for the theft, but Underwood immediately sells Nat out. Lovelace has Jabor torch the house.

Everybody dies except Nat, and that's only because Bartimaeus really didn't want to spent the rest of eternity inside the rosemary tin.

While Bartimaeus is out, Nat gets mugged by a groups of kids: members of the resistance. They could tell he was carrying magic on him, and steal his scrying glass. A couple of the boys want to kill him outright, figuring that even if he isn't much to look at now, he's going to grow up and be a magician some day. A girl named Kitty tells them he ain't worth it and they run off. While this scene is inconsequential to the plot of this book, it sets up a strange and unhealthy obsession in Nat that will blossom in the next book.

Bart comes back. Instead of, as Bartimaeus suggests, getting the hell out of dodge, away from all the crazy bloodthirst magicians, Nat decides to stay and avenge the death of Mrs. Underwood.

They know Lovelace is going to a fancy shindig out in the nice, secluded countryside and that nearly the entirety of the government will be there. Nat and Bart sneak in, overhear some evil plans, kill Lovelace's mentor, and run to the conference room to warn everybody. . . that they shouldn't go into the conference room because it's a trap and once they go in, they're magically sealed in. Do'h.

This whole plot of Lovelace has been his crack at killing off everyone in charge and then talking over as the new prime minister. Beneath the carpet on the floor is a giant djinn-summoning pentagram, and with it, he summons Ramuthra, a djinn so astoundingly, brain-breakingly powerful that its mere existence in the physical world is enough to tear holes in the fabric of reality. The rift it opens utterly destroys anything that gets near it. The Amulet of Samarkand? It's deal is that it protects the wearer from absolutely anything. Lovelace- who is in the room with all the soon-to-be-dead magicians- was intending to ride the whole thing out and dismiss Ramuthra once everyone else was dead.

So while everyone else is panicking, Bartimaeus shape-shifts himself into Lovelace's old girlfriend and distracts him while Nathaniel steals the amulet. Lovelace gets sucked into the rift, Nathaniel dismisses Ramuthra, and while not everybody is dead, there are a few jobs that just opened up in the government sector.

Nat, knowing damn well how to milk the situation, goes to the current prime minister (a guy named Rupert Devereaux), limping despite not being hurt, and looking all noble, and gives him the amulet. Even Bartimaeus is impressed with that stunt.

Nat tells everyone a bowdlerized version of events, leaving out the parts that make him look bad, leaving out the parts that make Bartimaeus look heroic, and adding a lot more parts about how heroic Mrs. Underwood was. The crowd eats it up, and Nat is sent to live with Jessica Whitwell, a powerful magician and the Security Minister. Also the woman who locked up and tried to interrogate Bartimaeus earlier.

At the end of the book, Nathaniel and Bartimaeus part ways, Nathaniel swearing to never summon Bartimaeus again, and Bartimaeus swearing never to tell anyone- djinn or human- Nat's name.

Yeah, let's see how well that holds up.

I did not do this book justice. Bartimaeus is hilarious, Nat is funny, if only because Bartimaeus is constantly bouncing off him. While the world here isn't as fleshed out as it will become in the next book, it's still very well done.

The Amulet of Samarkand
Jonathan Stroud
Doubleday, 2003 / Hyperion Paperback, 2004

The Amulet of Samarkand is a popular children's/young adult fantasy novel, intended for ages 10 and up. It is the first of the Bartimaeus Trilogy. My review is just as positive as Zephronias', and really you should just go and read the book.

Spoiler Free!

The story is set in a world much like our own, but with the addition of magic. This is traditional wizard magic, accessed by large, duty tomes written in dead languages, and heavily dependent on magic words and pentagrams. While there are cars and telephones and all the usual technologies, the geopolitical map is much as it was 300+ years ago, with much of the American continent unexplored, and England still the major world power with colonies across the globe. In England, the government is run by those who wield the power, namely, magicians. In order to propagate this system, apprentices are carefully chosen at a young age and taken away from their birth families, to be trained by established practitioners.

To be fair, this does serve an important function; names have power, and a wise magician will erase every trace of his or her birth name before they ever attempt to summon a daemon. The apprentice system does indeed strip young magicians of their names, making it almost impossible to find an apprentice's birth name. Nathaniel, however, does not follow this rule. His master's wife, certain that five years old is too young to be both taken from one's parents and stripped of one's name, starts calling him by his birth name... and as no one else calls him anything other than 'boy', he becomes quite attached to it.

Nathaniel is a good student, better than his master knows, and is soon experimenting on his own with the magical arts. Against all common sense, he calls up a rather strong djinni by the name of Bartimaeus. He does it well, binding him properly and seeing through his tricks, and they enter into an uneasy deal. Bartimaeus is perhaps the primary character of this book (and the entire series), being an engaging, cynical, and comedic personality who tells his tale in the first person, while the other characters are held at the remove of third-person narrative. Together Nathaniel and Bartimaeus uncover magical plottings and, of course, get into all kinds of trouble.

This is an excellent story, somewhat akin to Diana Wynne Jones' books in setting and tone, but with the addition of the traditional 'grumpy demon' as a strong leading role. While the malevolent magical servant trope is common in fantasy (especially comic fantasy), I do not recall ever seeing it done so well and so thoroughly. All of the characters are interesting, but Bartimaeus is cynical, snarky, bombastic, and bragging, giving us a running commentary on everything, filling us in on magical history and lore.

Despite the obvious overuse of the orphan-sent-to-learn-magic-and-fight-evil storyline, The Amulet of Samarkand is well worth reading if you are into light fantasy. It is a light and fun story, but not light reading in the sense that we think of children's literature. It has well-developed characters and a well-developed world, leading to a well-developed adventure. Given the slightly stand-offish personality of Nathaniel and the shamelessly self-centered personality of Bartimaeus it is somewhat difficult to identify with the characters, making reading the story more of a spectator sport than an immersive tale; some reviewers have found this to be a major failing. Others have found fault with the admittedly overabundant footnotes -- which I don't really approve of myself. But overall, this book and the series as a whole are well-loved, and for good reason.

The Amulet of Samarkand has been named a 2004 ALA Notable Book, a 2004 Best Books for Young Adults Top Ten Pick, a Bank Street 2004 Best Book of the Year, a Booklist Top 10 Fantasy Book for Youth 2004, and it appeared on the New York Times bestseller list: Children's Books list intermittently in 2004/2005, among many other recommendations.

The second book in the series is The Golem's Eye.

ISBN 0-7868-1859-X

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