Monday, April 09, 2007
The Amulet of Samarkand
Stroud, Jonathan. The Amulet of Samarkand. The Bartimaeus Trilogy: Book One. Nathaniel has been "sold" to a minor magician as an apprentice in modern-day London. His master, Arthur Underwood has no sympathy for the boy's situation and has undertaken Nathaniel's training only because it is required. Mrs. Underwood does provide care and concern for the child, but doesn't appear to seriously question her husband's treatment of the boy.
As the result of a humiliating experience with the magician Simon Lovelace (and I assume the name is pronounced "love-less" as is the name of the poet Richard Lovelace), Nathaniel takes his training to a new level, pursuing knowledge on his own and far beyond the ability of his master, Underwood. Nathaniel is angry and seeking revenge. When he reaches the point of being able to summon his own demon, a reluctant and indigant Bartimaeus arrives on the scene.
Once again, I find myself pondering the changes in YA fantasy. Like Evil Genius, this book has an orphan boy raised by adoptive/foster parents who have little emotional involvement with their charge. Although Mrs. Underwood, Nathaniel's main caretaker, is kind-- his magician master is self-involved and callous in his relationship with the boy. Unlike most previous YA books with which I'm familiar, these orphans have no support system...they are really on their own without ever having had a loving family or friends to help them establish sympathy, empathy, or ideas of right and wrong. Orphans are common in fiction, but generally they have had kindness in their lives at some point in the past or have a friend or mentor in the present to help guide them.
While there is plenty of magic and an amusing approach to the wise-cracking Bartimaeus, what we have is an angry adolescent with no real connections to anyone else. Like Cadell in Evil Genius, Nathaniel has been isolated from others and has no friends. Even his relationship with Mrs. Underwood lacks real parental love and protection, although it does see him through some difficulties. His connection to one of his teachers is promising, but Ms Lutyens is fired after defending Nathaniel from Simon Lovelace's humiliating attack on the boy.
Bartimaeus is a reluctant servant, a djinn who must obey the person who calls him; he is an unwilling companion. He is much more developed than Nathaniel, who is a bit of a cardboard character, but the possibility of the two joining forces voluntarily in the second book in the trilogy is there. In The Amulet of Samarkand, however, Bartimaeus serves Nathaniel only to avoid being bound in a tin for centuries.
Like Evil Genius, the plot is full of action, but the characters have not had the opportunity to observe or form a moral base and have been prevented from forming close relationships. The power of the Harry Potter books stems from the sidekicks, the friendships, and the presence of powerful parental figures. Neither The Amulet of Samarkand nor Evil Genius provide these with any depth, leaving angry adolescent boys too much of an opportunity (especially with the power of genius or magic) to become angry postal workers. They don't; they are pulled back from the edge; but the pulling back doesn't seem to have enough explanation, which to me would be the most interesting concept. And the pulling back occurs only after some terrible consequences of their own anger and desire for revenge.
Will the next two books in the trilogy develop Nathaniel's character? Will Nathaniel and Bartimaeus become more than master and servant? I'd like to know. Can't you just tell how charming Bartimaeus is by the cover?
Fiction. YA Fantasy. 2003. 462 pages.