The publishing world is always on a constant prowl for the "next" Harry Potter series. Who is it that will steal the crown from Britain's reigning fantasy king? One of the newest contenders comes in the form of Jonathan Stroud's detailed "Bartimaeus Trilogy". The first book in this series "The Amulet of Samarkand" (other books have not, as of this review, been published in America yet) begins what many hope will become the new "it" series. Cleverly combining facets of European and Asian lore, the book is a fascinating character study into the nature of good and bad. Filled with far more complex imaginings than your average fantasy let's-throw-in-some-brief-historical-facts book, this tale is penned beautifully and is a worthy series within its own right.
We begin with a bang of a beginning. Most authors, no matter if they are writing for adults or children, like to start slowly and build their tale with a heaping helping of exposition. Not Stroud. In this book we begin with an exciting summoning of the djinni Bartimaeus by a twelve year-old boy. The boy, Nathaniel, wishes to avenge himself against a powerful wizard. As the plot follows Bartimaeus's quest to retrieve the Amulet of Samarkand (as the boy has instructed him to do) we are simultaneously brought up to speed on Nathaniel's life and world. This is London, but a sort of alternative reality London. In this world, wizards rule over the commoners (non-magic types) in government positions and teach children as apprentices. Nathaniel is such an apprentice, bound to an incompetent master. When he is shamed in front of a group of wizards by one Simon Lovelace (a man far more powerful than his own master) Nathaniel seeks nothing but revenge.
So there you have it. This is a tale about a boy and his smart alecky djinni. As the book takes pains to explain, demons (like the djinni) are regularly summoned by wizards to do their dirty work. Humans are, by and large, incapable of magic and simply summon spirits of one sort or another to do magic for them. Bartimaeus isn't thrilled by this proposition, but he is unwillingly bound to a boy that burns with hate and a bit of the old "eye for an eye". The djinni's displeasure is regularly voiced by clever footnotes placed strategically at the bottom of several pages. Often Bartimaeus's commentary is the great spice of the book. Nathaniel is a less than humorous individual, though he is capable of deadpan humor. The book is, itself, an interesting fantasy. Like the Artemis Fowl books, it has presented the reader with an unsympathetic hero. In this case, you're dealing with a proud and intelligent but ultimately foolish boy. Nathaniel is nothing so much as another version of Ged from Ursula LeGuin's "The Wizard of Earthsea". The difference here, however, is that Nathaniel doesn't grow as much as you might suspect throughout the course of the story. And here's where it all gets very very interesting. The essential nature of what is good and what is bad is all topsy-turvy. Bartimaeus is the rare character I've read in a fantasy story that is truly of an alien nature. If he does good things for others, it's usually out of some self-preserving intention or accompanied with a sly jab. Usually, Bartimaeus is willing to kill anyone and anything about him, including his own master. Don't expect these characters to follow the old buddy movie routine and grow closer over the course of the tale. These two have a lot of healthy distrust growing between them, and it's a pleasure to watch. But how easy is it to read about two people that are, for all intents and purposes, fatally flawed? Quite, as it happens.
I'm always amused at the amount of anti-"magic in Harry Potter" outrage there is in the world. Let us consider this book, for example. In this story you have characters regularly drawing pentacles on the ground to summon up demons from another realm. If there's a more objectionable idea lodged in a children's book to a heavily religious right-wing Christian conservative, I'd love to hear it. I will say right here and now that I, personally, don't find anything objectionable in this story. Bartimaeus himself makes it very clear that he despises this system wherein demons are forced as slaves to work for humans. On meeting up with an Uncle Tom type of demon, his venom is clearly displayed. Moreover, the series seems to be taking a rather anti-magician stance, though this is elaborated on less in the plot of this first book than it will in future books in the series, I imagine.
The book is nothing so much as a cross between Artemis Fowl (more likable) and Harry Potter (more detailed) with a dash of Wizard of Earthsea for color. Stroud's writing is fantastic. He has obviously detailed every inch of this new world out to the nth degree, and you never get the sense that the book has gone on too long (a flaw I found in "Inkheart") or that he doesn't know how to end it. I will state for the record that this is an incredibly enjoyable read. Bartimeus even allows himself a small jab at the Harry Potter series (see page 85 for his quip about wizards being bussed to boarding school) which is utterly in keeping with his character. And though this book wasn't overflowing with strong female characters, they exist. I suspect we'll be seeing far more of them in the future books in the series than we have thus far. Call it a hunch.
Currently this book stands at 462 pages. A hefty read, but nothing a fascinated kid won't be able to handle. I recently wrote in my review of "Mortal Engines" (highly recommend it, by the way) that that book was the true successor to Harry Potter. I may have to extend that compliment to the "Bartimaeus Trilogy". Droll and fast-paced without ever growing tiresome or annoying, this is one of the best dern books to be placed in the hands of fantasy-loving kids in a while. Give it to the young 'uns to ponder over sometime. It's well worth a gander.