Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Book Review: The Amulet of Samarkand and The Golem's Eye

I didn't bother to pick up The Amulet of Samarkand when it came out in bookstores in 2003, thinking it was merely riding on the success of fantasy books at the time (Harry Potter books) and didn't pay attention to it. When I read it now, what a lovely surprise! The story is intriguing and the characters, delightful.

The setting is London, which is run by the powerful magicians and where the commoners (non-magicians) do the dirty work (the manual labour). However, magicians are powerless without their magical objects and demons, whom they control and treat as slaves, under threat of torture if they don't obey.

Five-year-old Nathaniel is forcefully plucked away from his parents and made apprentice to a magician in the Internal Affairs department. He lives with this master and learns to become a magician. Far too early, at age 11, he manages to summon a powerful djinni called Bartimaeus, who is the life of these books with his cheeky and witty talk and attitude.

In The Golem's Eye, the story gets darker, chilling in some parts. Nathaniel is 14 and even more cock-sure of himself, being the youngest member of the government (thanks to his success in Book 1). Bartimaeus is summoned again to tackle new problems that weigh heavy on Nat.

What makes these stories so attractive is the dry, clever humour Stroud uses in the narrative, especially through Bartimaeus, who gives us 'insights' about how demons like it were used in the various historical events like the battle of Troy, the building of the Great Pyramids and so on that left me chuckling.

The characters are unlike the heroes we usually associate with books. Nat is selfish and ambitious, while also having the naivete and ignorance of his age. We root for him sometimes, but we also want him to get a solid beating. Bartimaeus is as slippery as he is obedient to his duties; although he is a slave, he exercises ingenuity and intelligence to do things that are unpredictable. Then there's Kitty Jones, a daring, stubborn girl of the Resistance (a group that wants to bring down the magicians)--she is the enemy as far as Nat is concerned, but we want her to succeed because she is right from her point of view.

So there is no clear 'hero' in the stories. Whoever is running, we're eager to follow and see what happens, and we care, we're interested!

The Golem's Eye is a tad wordy, in the beginning especially, but if you overlook that, the story gets juicy as you read on. It's aimed at the 9-12 age group but the stories are addictive and intelligent reads for adults, too.

The last book in this trilogy is Ptolemy's Gate. I'll review that when I read it.

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