I learned about The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud, from Melissa’s review at Book Nut. I think the thing that most sparked my interest was her mention that the people who recommended it to her had compared it favorably to Harry Potter. I greatly enjoyed Harry Potter and thought it was quite well-written and well-executed, so I figured I would try this book (which is the first of a trilogy). However, I was a bit disappointed. I did not enjoy it nearly as much as Harry Potter. The writing is decent, the style is clever, and the plot is well-executed, but the characters and the setting are not at all sympathetic.
Like in Harry Potter, the setting is a modern-day England inhabited by both magicians and non-magicians. However, the similarities end there. Stroud portrays a dark world where magicians are egoistic, power-hungry, and ambitious. The magic that they practice primarily involves making use of the powers of magical creatures such as demons and djinn. The magicians can summon such creatures, who are then bound to do whatever they are asked. The two main characters are a young apprentice and the djinni, Bartimaeus, whom he summons to help him take revenge on a magician who was dismissive of him. The way in which the boy takes revenge turns out to drag him in to a much larger and more evil plan that some of the magicians are brewing. I did not at all enjoy the setting, with its dark and negative outlook on people’s motives and behaviors, and both of the two main characters had unappealing traits. In addition, women played a minimal role in the story. These are the main reasons that I did not enjoy the book as much as I might have otherwise.
One aspect that I did like was the structure of the narration. It switches between the djinni, Bartimaeus, in the first person, and the boy, in the third person, with the sense that Bartimaeus is the overall narrator. Bartimaeus is a witty narrator and his sections are peppered with footnotes, a style I found quite engaging and entertaining. On the other hand, the sections from the perspective of the boy were not as witty and thus more tedious.
A couple people asked me questions about The Amulet of Samarkand on my Weekly Geeks post:
Book zombie asked, “Do you think that The Amulet of Samarkand is an original fantasy novel? Or do you think it was merely following in the YA fantasy craze brought about by the success of Harry Potter?” I do actually think that it is a fairly original novel. There are certainly some elements that were probably inspired by Harry Potter, but I thought it was pretty different overall. In particular, the narration structure, as I discussed above, is unique and clever.
Becky asked, “Did you enjoy the footnotes in Amulet of Samarkand, or did you find them annoying? What about the character of Bartimaeus?” I have already partly answered this above. I did not find the footnotes at all annoying; in fact, I think I would have been bored by the book without them. The character of Bartimaeus could be somewhat annoying at times, but overall he was pretty interesting.
Joy renee asked me some generic questions about technique, and since I haven’t analyzed a book in this way for awhile I’m going to try answering them:
How was Point-of-View handled? Was there a single POV character or did it alternate among two or more. Was it always clear whose eyes and mind were filtering?
I’ve already more or less answered this above. Bartimaeus was the primary narrator, in the first person, but at times the narration was from the point of view of the boy in the third person. It was always clear which was which, and fairly effective.
How was language used to set tone and mood?
Hmm, I don’t have the book in front of me (already returned to the library), but I didn’t really notice the language that much. I don’t think the writing was particularly spectacular. I think the tone and mood was set primarily through description of the locations and actions of the people.
Was the prose dense or spare? Were sentences generally simple or complex?
It’s not fresh anymore, but I think the prose was somewhere in between. It wasn’t particularly dense, but there were some more sophisticated words and descriptive sections. The sentences were mainly simple, although when Bartimaeus was narrating they could get rambly.
How was metaphor used? Were associations fresh or did they tend toward cliche? Did they add to your understanding of the theme?
I remember noticing some fresh associations, perhaps because the author was studiously avoiding cliches.
What was the central or organizing theme?
It was in some sense a coming-of-age story, with the primary theme being the boy’s discovery of what it means to be a magician. The more overarching theme was of a world in which it is each man for himself.
How does the title relate to the story? Was it fitting?
The title refers to a magical object which plays a central role in the story. So, it was fitting but not particularly inspired.
Well, that was harder than I thought to answer those questions, perhaps because it has been a few weeks since I finished the book. Or maybe this is a good reminder of why I didn’t major in English :-p