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Book Review: The Amulet of Samarkand

(I'm not sure why they drew Bartimaeus looking like that on the cover when he never looks like that in the book.)

I picked this book up after seeing several reviewers of The Outlaws Scarlet and Brown comment that they felt Mr. Stroud’s previous works were better, notably the Bartimaeus Trilogy. I enjoyed The Outlaws and Mr. Stroud’s style so I looked forward to reading what several of his readers recommended is one of his best. In short, The Amulet of Samarkand turned out to be another entertaining read but I didn’t find it to be any better or worse that The Outlaws. Just less action.

I picked up the book and read it without reading any reviews. I only scanned the blurb, so I knew little more that it was about an apprentice and a dijinni, that was about it. My expectations were for an humorous, magic adventure in Stroud’s style but with possibly better character development than the Outlaws.

The good: Bartimaeus the dijinni was definitely good for some laughs. I got a kick out of his POV chapters, getting a full onslaught of the view of a cranky, magical being thousands of years old and not too keen on being summoned by a seemingly weak and insignificant magician’s apprentice. Unlike the dragons in The Fourth Wing, which were ancient magical beings that did nothing more than the will of their riders and freely gave the riders their power, Bartimaeus had his own agenda. In this world magicians, including Nathaniel, the young apprentice, are somewhat similar to the riders of Fourth Wing in that they have no power in themselves. They must summon dijinni, imps and other magical beings to do magical fetes on their behalves. Not all magical beings were all willing participants, summoning a creature too powerful to control was common, fatal mistake in this world.

Bartimaeus could fit in that category of too dangerous for a naive young apprentice to summon. He certainly considered ways to end his annoying little summoner’s life multiple times. But for the most part he reminded me of Marcellus, the giant Pacific octopus in Remarkably Bright Creatures, except with magic powers. Tone, wit, observations about these strange beings called humans, all very similar.

The story itself is basically Nathaniel and Bartimaeus getting into and out of trouble, a few twists and turns and at a decent pace. Plans often went off the rails, which helped build tension as situations got worse and characters more desperate leading up to a final mission for Nathaniel and Bartimaeus to resolve.

The not so good: The only expectations I had were entertaining and character development. The story checked the first box... the second box, not so much. Nathaniel has good motivation driving his actions but he doesn’t seem to grow or change over the course of the story. For contrast, consider Cameron from Remarkably Bright Creatures. He starts out losing his job (again), getting thrown out by his girlfriend, forced to live with his best friend while trying sort out his next move. Even if you haven’t read that book, just from that description alone you can imagine how you’ll get to see Cameron grow and change over the course of the story.

Neither Nathaniel nor Bartimaeus develop beyond their starting point. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just I kept expecting Nathaniel to begin to get some realizations or new ideas about human nature and society, but he never does. In fact, he’s such a flat and one track character that near the end I began to think maybe Mr. Stroud did this on purpose to develop Nathaniel in subsequent novels.

To be clear, Nathaniel’s situation changes dramatically. He begins sold off as an apprentice, disheartened but smart, impulsive and getting in over his head, drinking the koolaid of the social class structure. He moves from one situation to the next, but his view of himself never really changes, nor does his world view. For example, Mr. Stroud sets up multiple opportunities for Nathaniel to evolve his views on that social class structure and each time pointedly stresses that Nathaniel’s view hasn’t changed. Regarding his self-view, Nathaniel gains self-confidence fairly early on and maintains a high opinion of himself and his abilities for the duration of the story.

Without character development to move me I was left with plot, and at a certain point I pretty much knew what was going to happen and where it all would end, it was just a matter of reading to see the how -- which spells, which powers, etc. would come into play. Strangely, without character development to get me more emotionally invested in the story I was more moved by the simple departure of Ole Golly in Harriet the Spy than I was by the death of the exact same type of character in The Amulet of Samarkand.

The disappointing: Other than the flat characters, the only other disappointments that stands out to me are the antagonist and a few “why didn’t he just...” moments. These moments are hard to avoid in stories that deal with extremely powerful characters. When the plot forces characters to not exert their full power to achieve their goal because... reasons (i.e., if they did it would ruin the plot), I get taken out of the story. I basically shift from immersion to analysis.

The antagonist was to aloof to be concerned about. He’d just as soon pat Nathaniel on the head rather than do anything menacing to him. It makes sense in the story -- after all, Nathaniel is such a novice that the antagonist doesn’t see him as any sort of threat in the slightest. But even aside from the one-sided rivalry, the antagonist came across to me as Nathaniel 2.0, just another magician dabbling with powers in over their head. This is not Voldemort.

Conclusion: Not a bad book at all, no better or worse than The Outlaws. Good humor, the magic system was understandable with very few holes. As a children’s book very clean, any kid could read this. It did not draw me in enough to read subsequent books in the series, but it was an entertaining stand-alone read in itself. I enjoyed the action in The Outlaws a little more, so three stars.

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