Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Of Djinn and Magicians

Languishing on my TBR list for years was The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. I just finished it a few days ago, and it was pretty enjoyable, although I'm undecided about reading the rest of the trilogy.

One unusual thing about this book is that it doesn't have a strong protagonist. The story is told from both the perspective of young apprentice magician Nathaniel and the djinni Bartimaeus that he summons. Bartimaeus seems to hold most of the personality, although that may partially be a function of his parts being told in the first person: he is witty, funny and tricky, at once disdainful of his audience and enjoying its rapt attention. Nathaniel is childish in all the negative senses of the word: he dislikes being told what to do, he feels that no one can see his potential, he is quick to anger and holds grudges.

He summons Bartimaeus to get revenge on a magician who had insulted him during a gathering at his master's house. His plan is to steal a piece of contraband from the man, then embarass him by exposing him. But all goes wrong when Bartimaeus learns his real name, giving the djinn power over the boy. Nathaniel is quick to react by slapping a post-dated indefinite confinement charm on him, thus binding the pair together. Like a couple in a bad marriage, neither one can walk away because each has something the other needs. Nathaniel's fears -- of his master finding out what he is up to, of Bartimaeus betraying him, of the whole plot blowing up in his face in one manner or another -- and Bartimaeus's resentment of his forced servitude are what drives the plot.

The one real criticism I have of this book is that I thought the plot dragged a bit. Beyond that, I'm not sure why it failed to capture my imagination. It certainly is different from many books involving magic: for one, the magicians operate in the open and are accepted by society, for another, there's the lack of an obvious sympathetic figure. There's nothing noble about Nathaniel at all, and Bartimaeus is intriguing, but too misanthropic to really warm up to. You certainly wouldn't want one of your own. All in all, though, it was a decent and enjoyable read, very funny in some parts, and intriguing for the bits of Bartimaeus's life and backstory that filter through. I probably will read the rest of the trilogy at some point, but I'm in no rush to do so.

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