I picked up The Amulet of Samarkand last year, the first book in the Bartimaeus trilogy, on a total whim. No one recommended it, and I knew nothing about the book or its author. I simply needed a new audio book and the description looked interesting enough. Grabbing a book like this can be risky, but when it pays off, it’s great. Reading an excellent book with no preconceived notions is one of my things as a reader.
The premise: Nathaniel is an up and coming wizard in London. The twist in this magical world, however, is magicians get their power from enslaving demons from “the other place”. Bartimaeus is one such demon, or a djinni to be more specific, who Nathaniel summons early on in his magical career. This makes for an interesting story in and of itself, but what makes the Bartimaeus trilogy so great is Bartimaeus himself.
The books transition between being told from third-person omniscient for “Nathaniel” chapters and first-person for “Bartimaeus” chapters. Of course, if you ask Bartimaeus he might tell you that his sections are from an omniscient perspective as well, such is his charming over-confidence. He’s sarcastic, ironic, and just unreliable enough to make sure you’re always paying attention.
These transitions work well thanks to Stroud’s ability to bring Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and numerous other characters to life, each with their own unique voice. As the story progresses throughout the three books, Stroud puts a few twists on this formula, but they are such magical moments that I would feel horrible spoiling them here.
I should also note that Simon Jones, the narrator of the audio version, does a fantastic job of capturing the subtle differences in tone between the different chapter types, especially when it comes to depicting the wild vanity and allure of Bartimaeus versus the cold ambition of Nathaniel. I’d like to think that my own imagination would have envisioned the djinni with as much style and clarity as Jones’s narration, but it certainly wouldn’t have done a better job. While the second book in the trilogy is not quite as good as the first, the third is such a strong conclusion to the series that in the end it is worth it.
I’m sure this series is categorized as “young adult”, but I almost find that unfair. Stroud’s writing is as sophisticated and well-crafted as any “adult” book, and deserves recognition from readers of all ages. If you are looking for a new audio book, or even just a new fantasy series that presents a fresh twist on the genre, you really must read the Bartimaeus trilogy.
I saw recently that there is a fourth book in the series, a sort of prequel, but the whole trilogy finishes with such completeness, that I actually don’t know if I want to read this new book. What if it isn’t as good? What if it ruins the happy feeling you get when you finish such a wonderfully crafted work of fiction? For now, at least, I’m not going to read it. Maybe when the memory of this last book has faded slightly I will get to the prequel. But until then, I am content.