Monday, July 16, 2012

The Amulet of Samarkand

Here's the next installment of my young adult series. This time we're skipping back a little bit to a book that friends have been trying to get me to read for roughly five years. I finally got around to it, and this one absolutely does not disappoint.

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 4 stars
Length: Comfortably expansive (480 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: September 29, 2003 from Doubleday Books
Premise: The eleven-year-old Nathaniel is a magician's apprentice, learning to summon the demons that are the source of all magicians' powers. When he is publicly humiliated by an adult magician, he teaches himself magic far beyond his years in order to seek revenge. Bartimaeus, the djinn he summons, is not what he expects-- he had wanted a predictably obedient servant, not someone intelligent enough to second-guess his plans and mock him at every opportunity. When Bartimaeus gains a measure of power over Nathaniel in turn, the two have to work as uneasy allies if they are both to survive.
Warnings: muted child abuse (things like offscreen whipping, humiliation, isolation)
Recommendation: If you're looking for something clever and unusual, absolutely give this one a try. Nathaniel is physically eleven but far older in  cynicism, and Bartimaeus's odd sense of humor really makes the book; it's a lot more interesting from an adult perspective than many books with protagonists who are technically older but stumble through their adventures with no plan. 

 What makes this one so hilarious and complex: 

Bartimaeus roars onto the scene in a cloud of brimstone smoke, ready to intimidate Nathaniel and kill him if there is a single gap in the summoning pentagram. Since he can't find one, he's more interested in picking just the right glowing eyes and booming voice for the occasion-- he has to make a frightening impression for the boy's first summoning. His arrogance is interesting, allowing him to treat being a djinni under the command of Solomon as just something that happened while being gleeful over his victories against underwhelming opponents. Bartimaeus is in love with his own cleverness, always seeing himself as the most intelligent entity in the room even if he's just made a terrible mistake or flown right into a trap. He is intelligent, and undoubtedly more so than some of his opponents, but he tends to ignore the role of luck in his many escapes from tight situations. Curiously, he doesn't seem interested in his own power level; less powerful creatures like imps are obstacles to be kicked aside and pumped for information, and he enjoys making some of them grovel, but he sees himself as perfect rather than aspiring to the greater power level of an afrit. He takes defeats based on strength in stride, not seeing any problem as long as he can assure himself that he had the best plan or the smoothest approach to a problem.

Human problems bore him, though he does derive some entertainment from making them jump and fear him, so it's surprising to see him question his summoner about the order to steal the Amulet of Samarkand. He asks not out of laziness, but because he feels momentarily wistful that someone so young is already focused on theft and revenge instead of racing cars. Such flares of compassion are rare, especially once Bartimaeus has risked life and limb to retrieve the Amulet and been charged with more tasks, but he later takes the opportunity to save a child's life. He does try to justify it as "only fair" since she'd just given him the idea for an escape attempt, but some fairness and respect for innocence in his nature separates him from many of the other spirits he encounters. It tends to hide under his talk about getting revenge on magicians, or the way he's callous when Nathaniel faces the death of a loved one, but he does have his own brand of warped honor. One intriguing touch is the way he takes the form of a human boy he once loved, later revealed to be Ptolemy, a notorious magician; the magician-spirit relationship is not inevitably fraught with distrust.

Bartimaeus doesn't take Nathaniel seriously at first since he's so young, and thus falls into the trap that many people in the boy's life have. He was alone and sobbing when his parents sold him away to be a magician's apprentice, and the years since then have been even less kind to him. Underwood, his master, thought that he wasn't properly intimidated by demons and left him to be tormented and hurt by tiny imps until he felt that they had inspired enough fear and hatred to make his apprentice properly cautious. Simon Lovelace didn't take his knowledge seriously even when other magicians were impressed that someone so young knew so much already, and when Nathaniel tried to get creative and challenge him, he had his djinn hold the boy upside-down and spank him in front of everyone. Even after the demonstration of knowledge, Underwood saw only the rebellious streak, ignoring the capabilities that made his apprentice so precise...and the driving impatience that would make him dangerous to himself. His childhood is done with a light touch that creates sympathy without demanding it, showing learning and kindness balanced with the cruelty and condescension to create something far more nuanced than the normal Cinderella or Harry Potter model of a virtuous but oppressed child.

Nathaniel's flaws are like a blurred mirror of Bartimaeus's own problems: where Bartimaeus is cocksure of his own strength and success, Nathaniel is determined to prove himself even at the risk of putting himself and others in danger. Instead of scouting and planning and acting almost over-cautiously as Bartimaeus might, he wants to charge right in and apply magic to every problem. They make good counterbalances, and the deadlock formed when Bartimaeus is trapped on this plane under Nathaniel's power but also knowing his master's birth name reinforces the ways that they are awful to each other but also a successful pair. It would be easy to sympathize for one over the other, to pick one clever underdog, but while we can truly feel Nathaniel's suffering and loneliness, we also hear discussions between djinn of how they're treated like slaves and suffer pain for every moment that they spend trapped in physical forms on this plane. They've also both done bad things: Bartimaeus has killed people, and good people have died because of Nathaniel's arrogance. Neither one of them is truly right, especially when they start making larger and larger mistakes, and that ambiguity helps elevate the book into something unique.

The triad of main villains is a mixed bag, but Faquarl and Jabor, the djinn of Simon Lovelace, are great. Jabor is a large silent presence, capable of knocking out impressively large numbers of enemies, and his stoic glower intimidates Bartimaeus more than Faquarl's counter-chatter does. Bartimaeus has a Harry Dresden-esque urge to mouth off in the middle of confrontations, and Jabor's refusal to respond means that he has to plan twice as carefully to avoid getting hit by one of Jabor's powerful strikes. Faquarl is willing to negotiate, but he's always confident that he would win if it came to a full-on fight between them. The two have some interesting discussions about choice and servitude; djinn can try to be friends, but serving different masters pits them against each other, so it's hard to confrontations to be personal. Batrimaeus's enmity with the two djinn took thousands and years to evolve, and they still have a grudging respect for each other. That dynamic helps reinforce the central element of the worldbuilding: magicians have power and control, but the ordinary people and the djinns who ultimately supply that power do not.

The red pen: 

Simon Lovelace is the sort of villain who cannot really inspire any emotions but hatred. He threatens Underwood, humiliates Nathaniel for not knowing his place, and is willing to kill anyone who tries to stop him. There's a hint that he might care somewhat for a single woman, but he's also willing to sacrifice her life for his plan to succeed. Bartimaeus comments that one of the magician's encounters is unnecessary: "what play-actors these magicians are." The assessment is spot-on; Lovelace is powerful, but he's driven by arrogance and ambition in a way that doesn't leave room for any positive character traits. There's no hint of why he's driven to this, what he thinks he'll accomplish in power, or even how he came up with his particular scheme. He's one-note enough to make his defeat feel righteous, but that utter lack of nuance ends up hurting the story. His master's brief admiration of Nathaniel is another matter, but it's a shame to have such a dull villain propped up by interesting sidekicks who don't get enough time in the spotlight.

Some of the larger worldbuilding shares that shallowness. We know that magicians rule in Britain but not in other countries, and that those magicians are vital to things like the current war effort against Prague. The information feels as though it's been clumsily dropped in rather than woven, however, which is a shame. Nathaniel's Britain is an interesting blend of near-contemporary technology (perhaps 1980s-- there's no internet or cell phones, but many other advances are present) and older social customs that stratify society according to strict ranks and rules, keeping the commoners out of state business. The world seems like something that could have fallen into place if magicians had been shaping the course of human history, but the attempts to explain the politics and history tend to feel like clumsy chunks of exposition laced with name-dropping. 

That cluminess continues when Nathaniel's worst day ever, possibly second only to his humiliation, begins with some of his secrets being exposed and goes downhill from there. It could have been powerful, a way to examine his emotions when he's in captivity and banned from the action that he craves; that sort of scene shows up and works later on, when he's in shock, but his worst day feels like running in place while the narrative waits for Bartimaeus to turn up again. There are similar problems near the end, when the shifts between Bartimaeus's first-person snark and Nathaniel's third-person perspective get close together. The final sequence in suspenseful and needs to be shown through both sets of eyes, but some of the shifts are so close together that it seems like the Big Bad is doing a lot of destruction in slow motion to make sure that the scene isn't over too quickly. It's not distracting enough to spoil the ending, certainly, but that slight feeling of dragging can make the speed of the joint coup de grace induce a touch of whiplash.

Perhaps the largest problem is that of the Resistance subplot. Some people in England believe that magicians are corrupt and shouldn't hold power, and they do things like throw bombs and steal magical artifacts to help advance their efforts. Unfortunately, they pop up only at irregular intervals and aren't clearly explained. Bartimaeus believes that they're simply the next iteration of similar groups who have ousted magicians in other societies, but they also have inexplicable powers, like seeing through Bartimaeus's magical concealment shroud or knowing that people are carrying magical artifacts even if those artifacts aren't visible to the naked eye. Given that magicians only have power because they are taught the art by other magicians, running into people who have a completely new set of abilities just feels forced. Odds are that this was Stroud setting the groundwork for the sequels, but it doesn't work very well here. Since Underwood was focused on catching the Resistance, this could have been either explained more thoroughly or delayed; as it is, the subplot seems to be going in several directions. People who want to start a revolution and throw bombs work well here, but the odd powers just feel like they belong in another book, quite possibly the sequel, and got shoehorned in.

All in all, the mistakes here feel like debut novel wobbles, not terribly distracting problems. I haven't seen footnotes this clever and funny since Pratchett, and it's refreshing to have such unusual protagonists. Neither Nathaniel or Bartimaeus is entirely a good person; they're willing to let pride and ambition override whatever better natures they have, and we end up rooting for them partly because they're just better than the alternatives. They're not evil, but they're not pure and shining warriors of the light, and this book pulls it off a lot better than some of the faux-gritty fantasy I've read lately (Giant Thief, I'm looking at you). Regardless of your age, this one is worth a try.

Prospects: Stroud wrote two more books to make this a trilogy: The Golem's Eye and Ptolemy's Gate. In 2010 a novel called The Ring of Solomon that focuses on Bartimaeus in the time of Solomon, which sounds highly promising.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Part of the reason this one stands out is that there simply aren't many novels with humans and magical creatures working in concert that are told from the creature's perspective. The only one I can think of is Wishing Season, by Esther Freisner; it's the story of a genie who forgot to ban his master from wishing for more wishes and has to live with the consequences. It's written for adults but is a bit fluffier than this one, perhaps; good humor and the struggle of competing interests, but it doesn't have the same stakes.

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