The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud

The Amulet of SamarkandDear Bartimaeus, You are wonderful, let’s go hang out together. Love, Alison.

I listened to this book back in the day and fell madly in love with it — I mean, how could you not fall in love with Simon Jones? It’s impossible! Ever since, this book has been one of those books that I find not many people know about, and when I do find a person who has read it and loved it we are clearly meant to be BFFs (well, at least in one case!). So obviously I was really excited when my in-person book club put it on the schedule for September, although I wasn’t going to have time to listen to it again and was a bit worried about reading the book without the help of the handsomely voiced Mr. Jones.

I needn’t have worried; the book is nearly as fantastic as read by the voices in my head and also THERE ARE FOOTNOTES. Why was I not informed of the footnotes earlier? Goodness me I love a footnote, and actually I felt like the constant asides made a heck of a lot more sense having a party at the bottom of the page as opposed to hanging out in parentheses as I had assumed. There’s just something about seeing that little superscript and knowing there’s something hilarious waiting for you just inches away…

Ahem. I digress. Without footnotes. How disappointing!

So anyway, the book is as hilarious as ever. Our intrepid narrator is the aforementioned Bartimaeus, who enters the book in a cloud of stereotypical demon trappings because wouldn’t you, if you were a demon, and proceeds to joke and trick and mostly luck his way out of all sorts of magical problems, most of which are caused by the third-person-narrated Nathaniel. Nathaniel is a very young magician in a world where magicians rule via threats, intimidation, and the enslavement of demon-types, and even though we first meet him doing that third thing and also he’s young and therefore dumb and annoying (I do not miss being dumb and annoying), he’s a decent kid and I was pulling for him the whole book.

The plot of the novel involves Nathaniel having Bartimaeus steal an unexpectedly potent magical thing from an expectedly potent magician, which of course turns out to be a very terrible idea and ends with lots of magical fights and a few deaths. But the reason I love this novel is its world-building. Stroud takes your average fantasy world with magic and spells and pentacles and whatnot and makes it disturbingly like our regular world with class struggles and power-hungry politicians and foolish children and also wisecracking djinnis. Well, I wish our world had wisecracking djinnis, anyway.

I also, as you may guess, love Bartimaeus, who is basically the greatest character ever characterized. He’s a demon who just wants to do his thing, no matter what he is actually required to do, and who will grumble amusingly until such time as he can figure out how to do his thing. He also has a healthy sense of his place in society (not too high on the demon scale, not too low) and uses it to great advantage, which is a pretty good life lesson, actually!

I’ve read the rest of the (increasingly inaccurately named) Bartimaeus Trilogy, and they were all pretty decent, but this remains my absolute favorite of the series and one of my favorite fantasy novels in general. If you haven’t read it, take a few hours and rectify that situation!

Recommendation: Read it, even if you don’t think you like fantasy, and especially if you like sarcasm and awesome fight scenes.

Rating: 9/10 (I have to admit that Simon Jones is what makes it a 10!)

an RIP read

The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud

Okay, so, we’ve already established that I heart Bartimaeus. I find him delightful and wonderful and lovely and all sorts of other good adjectives. But it turns out that I like him a heck of a lot more when compared to lesser beings rather than when he’s just being awesome all the time. It’s kind of like how you can’t wait for summer to come and be warm all the time, until summer gets there and you’re sweltering and envisioning snowball fights.

So, yeah. This is, I guess, the fourth Bartimaeus book, though it’s not directly related to the other three except for its protagonist. This one takes place in the time of Solomon, who is the boss of a magician who is the boss of Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus is all collecting ice and stuff until such point as he meets a wannabe assassin called Asmira, whom he rescues and convinces to convince his boss to free him. Well, the boss “frees” him into a bottle where he’s meant to stay trapped, but then Asmira summons him up all magician-like and then instead of letting him be free she coerces him to help her kill Solomon.

The plot is definitely excellent, with the intrigue and the subterfuge and the awesome. But while I enjoyed Bartimaeus and his trickery, I couldn’t have cared less about Asmira, who is quite possibly dumber than Nathaniel and not nearly as entertaining when bad things happen to her, because who cares?

On the plus side, I’m still also in heart with the narrator, Simon Jones, and his soothing voice got me through several hours of stickers and data entry. So… yeah. It’s a fun read, even if you haven’t read the other books, but I wouldn’t say it’s as good as the trilogy proper. So go read that instead.

Recommendation: For fans of fantastical swashbuckling, and of Bartimaeus.

Rating: 7/10
(A to Z Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge)

Ptolemy’s Gate, by Jonathan Stroud

Eep! Oh, hey again, Bartimaeus, back so soon? I suppose that’s what happens when your story is so good…

Soooooo in this book, we’ve popped forward in time a bit again. Nathaniel is as insufferable as ever, Bartimaeus is sick of suffering him, and Kitty is a burgeoning magician. Wait, what? Yeah.

Story-wise… hold on, I’m going to have to look this up. Doo doo doo. Oh. Right. Okay, so there’s a war on in America, and Nathaniel is the new minister in charge of making up stuff that gets people to sign on to fight in the war. That’s a fun job. But of course, people aren’t happy and there’s civil unrest and whatnot. Also, more non-magic types are discovering a resistance to magic that lets them escape demons unharmed or see them even while they’re disguised. Not terribly useful for the magicians. Also, Nathaniel is alerted to the suspicious actions of some lower-level government types and goes to investigate. This last bit is the important one, but I quite enjoyed seeing how it all played out so I won’t say any more.

Now, if I had been reading this book in print, I have to say I might have given up on it. Most of it is wonderful and up to par with the rest of the series, for sure. But somewhere in the last third of the book, Stroud goes off on what seemed, listening to it, to be a long and tedious tangent about the “Other Place” where demons spend their time when not being enslaved. I was interested to know what it was like, sure, but after just a few sentences of description, I was like, okay, I get it, let’s move on? Please? There’s also a lot of metaphor and meaning imbued into this Other Place, and I would have at least put the book down and walked away after a few pages of that.

But luckily, I was listening to it at work, which meant I could just ignore the book for a bit and focus on the other tedium around me. 🙂 Then, when the action kicked back in, I was ready to go! Of course, when the end happened, I may have become a bit less productive… I won’t say it’s an especially good ending, but it was very satisfying. Unlike a few other series I could name…

Recommendation: This series is totally worth your time. Go read it now.

Rating: 8/10 (though the series is a 9 on the whole)

The Golem’s Eye, by Jonathan Stroud

Hullo again, Bartimaeus! You are my good friend. Let us hang out.

This book picks up a couple of years after the Amulet Incident, with our hero Nathaniel/John Mandrake using his saving-the-prime-minister karma to move himself up in government. Yes, that’s right, our idealistic young magician has grown up into an ambitious but uninspired slightly-less-young magician. I really dislike Nathaniel (pretty sure I’m supposed to, so that’s good!).

But! Lucky for me, he breaks his not-summoning-Bartimaeus-anymore promise and my favorite djinni is around to make sarcastic remarks in Nathaniel’s direction, which really makes the kid more tolerable. Also interesting, if expected, in this book is the introduction of Kitty Jones, who was in the previous book briefly as a petty magical-stuff thief and returns as a more practiced and awesome magical-stuff thief.

The first part of that last sentence is important; I absolutely loved the first book in this series because it went against every fantasy trope that I anticipated. This book, less so. Lots of fairly obvious things happen, and things that you know are going to be important later are totally important later.

But! I loved the story nonetheless. Kitty’s in a group called the Resistance that is made up of non-magicians and is out to undermine the magician ruling class. Nathaniel/Mandrake is charged with stopping the Resistance. Someone else is wreaking major havoc on London and blaming on the Resistance, but Nathaniel’s pretty sure it’s more sinister than that. And, of course, it is. Love it.

Recommendation: Oh, really, just read this series. Unless you don’t like magic or fantasy. No, even if! You might like this!

Rating: 9/10
(A to Z Challenge)

The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud

Dude. Why had I never heard of this series until my former supervisor mentioned it to me? Where has Bartimaeus been all my life???

I know what the problem is, actually — this book came out in 2003, which is pretty well smack-dab in the middle of Harry Potter Mania, and therefore I couldn’t possibly have heard of it, what with all of the HP fans living in my house at the time. (No joke, the ratio of people in my family to copies owned between us of one HP book from the series is less than one.)

The Amulet of Samarkand is also about magic, you see, except that it is not at all the same as the magic in the HP world. In this world, magicians are almost wholly a terrible people, swooping into big cities and subjugating those without magic powers and assuming a rather Slytherin air toward pretty much everything. But the irony here is that even though the magicians claim to have all of this magic power, what it really is is that they have the power to summon up demons (daemons? I don’t know, I listened to this book) that have the actual magical ability, and then the magicians just enslave them for however long they like to do their bidding. That’s a lovely thing, isn’t it?

So, the conceit is dark and awful and also awesome (in the strict sense of the word, because seriously, wow), and then Stroud goes and upends my fantasy-reading sensibilities by making everything that happens quite un-fantastic. There is no deus ex here; if it looks like things are going to go badly for the protagonist, they will. If it looks like they’re going to go reasonably well, they will. So many times while listening to this book I thought, “Oh, now the author will reveal some great and/or terrible secret that retcons everything,” because that is my training, but no, all of the crazy twists and turns I invented were totally ignored, because Stroud is a better writer than I.

Oh, what’s the story, you say? Well, basically Our Protagonist, Nathaniel, is a magician’s apprentice who aspires to greater heights but effs the eff up when he decides to summon a hilarious demon called Bartimaeus to go steal something for him. The stealing goes awry, and then it turns out that what was stolen is WAY more important than imagined, and then of course the stealee is not pleased.

It’s a pretty standard plot. But Stroud’s writing and Bartimaeus’s awesomeness and the consequences that could actually happen to an actual person are the most important bits. Oh, and the audiobook narrator is fantastic. Highly recommended.

Recommendation: Read this if you like fantasy but want a little more realism with your magic.

Rating: 10/10
(A to Z Challenge)