When checking out suggestions for which book to read next, I came across The Bartimaeus Trilogy, of which The Amulet of Samarkand is the first book. It sounded right up my alley, so I was surprised that I had never heard of it. Then I saw the publication date. It’s no wonder that I missed it, since in 2003 I was in the prime of my Harry Potter fervor.
Nathaniel is eleven when his story proper begins. He is slim and pale with dark hair. Sound familiar? Like Harry Potter, he doesn’t know his parents (who sold him as a magician’s apprentice when he was five), and he suffers neglect bordering on cruelty at the hands of his master. But because magic is a well-known aspect of his universe, he evinces none of the wide-eyed wonder that Harry does when he finds out he can do magic. Magic is not an innate ability; it is an intellectual pursuit whose secrets are jealously guarded from the bulk of society, or “commoners,” as magicians refer to them. Nathaniel is an intellectual, bitterly angry, vengeful, and scheming hero. At least for this first book, he has no heroic quest in mind. Instead, he steals the Amulet of Samarkand from the magician Simon Lovelace as an act of revenge after Lovelace humiliates him in public. If Severus Snape had Nathaniel as a student, he would have at least respected him. More likely, he would have taken him under his wing as an apprentice.
In Nathaniel’s world, magicians operate by summoning various demons and djinn from “The Other Place,” and forcing them to do their bidding. To execute his revenge scheme, Nathaniel summons the djinni Bartimaeus, whose snarky thoughts on the proceedings are told in first-person chapters that alternate with third-person chapters about Nathaniel. It seemed immediately apparent to me that all Bartimaeus’ chapters should be read in the voice of George Sanders:
If you don’t know who George Sanders is, you really owe it to yourself to look up a Youtube clip of him immediately.
The Bartimaeus chapters serve as a narrative device that simultaneously draws attention to Nathaniel’s better qualities and makes the book more accessible to adults, by allowing us to laugh up our sleeves at Nathaniel’s teenage angst even as we sympathize with him. And Nathaniel, despite his snobbery, impulsiveness, and lust for revenge, is somehow likable, and not just because we pity him for his childhood. He has a conscience, he’s intelligent, he’s ambitious, and he does have a streak of heroism that I assume will present itself in the next two books.
Like Nathaniel himself, The Amulet of Samarkand is both smarter and less wonder-ful than the Harry Potter books, with more than enough merit to withstand comparison to that series.