Books Genre Lifespan of a Reader Speculative Fiction, Scifi, Fantasy Young Adult (YA) Literature

Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book One: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

Through the kindness, good grace, and absolute faith bestowed upon me by Mr. Jason Calderon (my intern/assistant last week, who by the way, rode an ordinary bus with me, for the first time in his life last Tuesday and actually thought of it as a friggin field trip – for our UPCAT review), I now have the Bartimaeus Trilogy in my hands. Yes, all three hardbound books. So delectable.

I started reading Book One Wednesday night and finished all 462 pages by Friday evening. The speed with which I was able to lap up the entire book, is not only a testament to my speed reading abilities but rather should be enough to indicate how captivating the book actually is. It has all the ingredients for a fantastical, phantasmagoric tale with djinnis, afrits, marids, imps, foliots thrown in helter-skelter amidst modern-day England where the Prime Minister, Head of State, happens to be a magician – and ordinary, lowly non-magicians such as us are named as (no, not Mudbloods) Commoners.

What sets this book apart from, say, the Harry Potter series with all its enchantments, sorceries and incantations would be the fact that the narrative is spoken through the eyes of Bartimaeus, a middle ranking genie who has lived for centuries and have served the likes of Ptolemy, Alexander the Great and other such notables. Bartimaeus weaves a fantastical tale riddled with historical facts (added on to the narrative as footnotes), flippant remarks (that are meant to ridicule and disparage the reader but simply ends up being notoriously funny), and actual magical definitions of say, what differentiates an amulet from a talisman. The footnotes are hilarious making Bartimaeus endearing, rather than fearsome (given that he curses in ancient Egyptian rather than in modern-day Bloody British). Perfect for P5 or P6 (secondary level teachers too would benefit from this) teachers who are discussing world history, ancient civilizations – mingled with language and literature – and how the latter could likewise prove to be an effective depiction of events that occurred once upon a time.

Nathaniel, the eleven year old boy who summoned Bartimaeus to be under his command, is your customary magician’s apprentice who happens to be too good, too smart, too talented at too young an age – so much so for his own good. You know the formula. Highly gifted, impatient, and overly ambitious. Unlike in Harry Potter where wizards and sorcerers have Hogwarts where they learn the arts and crafts of magic, in this book, those who are chosen to be magicians are wrenched from their birth parents at age five, made to forget their birth name and apprenticed to a magician who serves the Prime Minister. The rationale behind this horrendous practice is to avoid magical battles stemming from bloodlines, thus, magician couples aren’t allowed their own offspring. The master is to raise his apprentice as his own son. It is unclear though what criteria they employ in identifying children/toddlers who are supposedly destined to become apprentices and eventually magicians and who their birth parents are and how they came to exist in the first place. Perhaps Books Two and Three would enlighten me in that regard. I am curious to find out who Nathaniel’s birth parents are given his outstanding talents and skills.

What made this story appealing for me, apart from Bartimaeus’ quick witticims that are truly laugh-out-loud experiences (Caela kept giving me weird glances as I was gorging through the book), is the fact that Nathaniel is your classic accidental hero with highly dubious motives. His desire to learn more than what his Master has taught him or has even anticipated given his young age, is driven by the vise of revenge. He was put to shame (actually put in his place) by Simon Lovelace, a formidable (and I assume quite the good-looking) magician who happened to visit his master one life-changing afternoon. Unable to put young Nathaniel to shame with all his questionings (which Nathaniel was able to respond to with alacrity and surefootedness), he ridiculed the boy and made fun of him in front of an assembly – making Nathaniel lose respect for his master for not being able to defend him and turning him into an aged young man whose sole purpose in life is to bring Simon Lovelace down.

As a reader, I am uncertain whether I should applaud Nathaniel’s strivings given that it is driven by less-than-stellar reasons. It doesnt help that he doesnt seem attractive at all. He is described to be a pasty-looking youth with black hair and old eyes. All too human and frail, however brilliant. It just so happened that his chosen nemesis, Simon Lovelace, happens to be a traitor who wishes their Prime Minister dead and who was actually plotting to overthrow the entire Government by wielding an otherworldly creature aptly named Ramuthra, who is capable of altering all seven planes (we are said to be operating on seven dimensions the first one being the only one familiar to us plain humans) with its mere presence, through the protection of the all-too-powerful Amulet of Samarkand – which Nathaniel has stolen through the guile and quick thinking of his djinni, Bartimaeus. Hence, Nathaniel’s seemingly petty desire to put Lovelace to shame by stealing what he thought to be a mere trinket, quickly spirals into a whirlwind of secret government schemes, accidental fires (which unfortunately killed Nathaniel’s master and his wife, the only person Nathaniel ever truly cared about), and the mention of the Resistance movement led by a young girl (I am sure she would figure more in Books Two and Three).

Despite Bartimaeus’ desire to merely save his own hide and cunning desire to be free from Nathaniel’s control (he is, after all, a demon), he has actually developed a grudging respect for the young boy who despite his monumental talent, is simply an aggrieved, lonely young man who merely wishes to prove his worth and be recognized for it. Nathaniel’s stupid (although admittedly very noble) admission of his faults and readiness to accept its consequences is probably what made Bartimaeus save his young master at all costs (regardless of his calling Nathaniel an idiot to his face for doing just that). This is probably the fine line, the deciding point wherein Nathaniel crossed over to the good and just side – when his integrity and selflessness overrided his impatience and ambition.

The book also stresses the power of one’s name and the magicians’ zealously guarding it at all costs (especially their birth name) since this knowledge allows one power over the other. Nathaniel, being monumentally stupid (probably at the same height that he is monumentally talented), has made the djinni Bartimaeus (not demon, mind you, since he despises being called such) aware of not just his official name (John Mandrake) but also his supposedly super-secret birth name Nathaniel. How he would use this knowledge to Nathaniel’s detriment would perhaps best be noted in Books Two and Three.

Book One is a Must-Read. It is fast-paced and a veritable page-turner. I am currently reading Book Two and would write the review as soon as I am done with it. I hope it proves to be a worthy sequel to what I now believe to be the next best thing to a cool lemonade on a sweltering hot summer day.

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