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The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Strout (book review and recommendation)

I already reviewed the sequel to this novel on my other blog (here) and I even mentioned The Amulet of Samarkand on my blog a while back (and I published my review on goodreads here), but today it  is time to publish my more complete review of this novel here as well. Getting straight to the point. I absolutely loved The Amulet of Samarkand. This was actually my first novel by Johnathan Strout and I loved it! I must say that the fact this novel is considered a children's book surprised me because it is quite dark and gloomy in its atmosphere. It is more YA than book for kids. Power struggles and Machiavellian government are described in detail. Hence I would say that it is more appropriate for adolescents, young adults and adults. I know I said the same for the The Golden Compass / Norther Lights but such is my impression.

 There are no explicit descriptions of violence, but there is much violence and death. Better not to give it to some sensitive ten-year-old. Apart from that, I would really recommend it to everyone. It could be seen as an interesting interpretation of present day politics, couldn’t it? There are, for example, very clever references to terrorism as one of the mechanisms with which the government keeps its subject in fear. There is a lot of subtlety to be found in this novel. Despite this general feeling that The Amulet doesn’t take itself too seriously, there are a lot of serious topics in this one- if you want to read it that way. If not, you can just enjoy it for fun. Either way, it is a win-win situation.

All in all, this novel written by Jonathan Stroud was such a pleasant surprise. Don't you just love when that happens? You pick up a book from some author you have never heard off but before you know it, you're totally immersed in it and enjoying fully the reading experience. Yes, that's the best feeling in the world or just about. That was pretty much my experience with my first Jonathan Stroud novel, which also happens to be the first novel in Bartimaeus trilogy. Explaining what I like about this novel shouldn’t be difficult.

We’ll start with the plot. It is well developed and interesting enough on itself, but what makes it really shine is the narrative structure. The story is told from two perspective. One is a third person perspective which focuses on young Nathaniel, a magician apprentice. A very lonely boy, for magicians do not have children, they simply take apprentices (children of commoners and the parents seem not to have much saying in this).Nathaniel’s master cares nothing for him. Not surprisingly, this very intelligent boy can’t stand him but he likes his wife, whom he sees as a substitute mother of sort. 

That first part of the book was developed perfectly and I really felt for the boy- for most of the novel I quite worried about him even if I knew that it was highly unlikely for the protagonist to get killed.  The boy seemed so vulnerable, in one way he is really an orphan, so it was hard not to feel for him. I know that probably makes you think of Harry Potter, but the similarity ends there. They're quite different protagonists. So, the plot is mostly focused on Nathaniel. The way the plot developed was something I quite liked. When another magician Lovelace offends Nathaniel, his master doesn't stand up for him and Nathaniel is determined to take revenge. He does an unthinkable and summons a jinni on his own. It is an unheard of someone so young to attempt it, but Nathaniel does it. Whom does he try to sum up? That brings us to our second narrative.

The other narrative is told in first person and it is, not surprisingly, more personal. It is Bartimaeus who gets to tell his story in his own words and that was a great call on part of a writer. He is a thousand-year-old jinni (let’s not call him a demon, he doesn’t like being called that). Bartimaeus makes us access the world of magic more easily. If the story wasn’t told from his point of view, it would demand a lot more explanations. You see, if it was told from a magician point of view, then all those explanations would seem tedious because they’re understood- and had it been told from a commoner point of view, there wouldn’t have been any story in this place for commoners have no idea what is going on in the world of magicians. With Bartimaeus storytelling, all the details and explanations are naturally woven into the story. Bartimaeus is very critical of the world of magicians. In this world, magicians don’t have power of their own, they bound demons (spirits) do work their magic for them. Naturally, such spirits don’t do it willing and they detest their masters. Had the story been told only from the third narrative, it would not be as nearly as fun and enjoyable.

There isn’t a single positive magician in this story. Nathaniel, the boy is too young to give us real insight into the history of this world (or to understand it for that matter). It is Bartimaeus and his anecdotes that lighten our way into the background of the story itself. He may not be the most reliant of narrators (he likes to portray himself in a good light) but among the corrupt politicians/magicians he seems almost an angel. All that despite lacking any human sense of morality, but I suppose it is precisely that makes him very convincing as an unworldly creature. 

Bartimaeus uses a lot of footnotes in his narrative, supposedly because it is the only way to allow us lowly humans to grasp his complicated operatus mondi (he doesn’t think too highly of us, does he!). Despite all this, I have just fallen in love with him. What a character! What a personality! His sense of humour is exceptional and very constant during the whole novel. He does have a very unique and recognizable sense of humour and kudos to author, not just for creating it but also for maintaining it in the narrative. The novel would be worth reading if it was only for Bartimaeus irony and wit.

The world building is exquisite. Jonathan created a highly credible magician world/society.London is the base of the most powerful government in the world, one composed only of magicians. Basically, all magicians in it are preoccupied with power struggled. They’re terribly corrupted human beings. This hinted at in the beginning and it becomes more evident as the story progresses. All they care about is battle for power. One boy will get involved into fight. Nathaniel. 

I found Nathaniel's characters and nativity annoying at times, but considering his age that is nothing to be frown about. Is it any wonder that he wants to belong in this world? Such is the human nature. So, I his unquestioning of the state of things actually feels quite natural. I’m currently reading a sequel to this one and so far (page 100) so good. I’ll stop here because I don’t want to include any spoilers. If you want to see what happens next, you will have to read it yourself. To conclude, I do recommend this novel. It is a great read!

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