Friday, February 04, 2005

Jonathan Stroud: The Amulet of Samarkand

Strictly speaking, The Amulet of Samarkand is a children's book. Ten years and up is said to be the age range aimed at, and my local library has it tagged as a Young Adult book. However, it looked interesting to me (perhaps because I am about to enter my second childhood) so I read it.

And you know what? It isn't at all bad. In fact it's very good. One thing we can say for certain is that Stroud is a pro. He knows how to bolt together a novel, which is more than can be said for some much-praised names.

Amulet is the first book in a trilogy about a 5,000-year-old djinni, or demon, called Bartimaeus. As this one fact suggests, the book is all about magicians, magic, summoning up powers from another place, et cetera. It is set in a sort of parallel-universe London. Oh, and the magicians in this world are far from admirable. The one who calls Bartimaeus up from the depths (or wherever) is a young -- very young -- magician's apprentice called Nathaniel.

The outcome of this story is never much in doubt, but I found it gripping because of Stroud's masterly technique. Before becoming a full-time writer he worked as an editor in a firm which publishes children's books, and he clearly didn't waste his time there. He learnt more than most about narrative technique, and he discovered what interests young readers. (And old ones too.)

Amulet is a wee bit long for my taste, but then everything is these days. And if you're looking for a good read, and you don't mind people on buses giving you funny looks, then you could, believe me, do a lot worse. I recommend it. But you do need, of course, to be receptive to a bit of fantasy.

There is a special web site devoted to the Bartimaeus trilogy, but it is so heavily graphic and takes so long to load that I'm afraid I gave up on it. Much more rewarding is the interview with Stroud which was organised by Write Away. This features some unusually intelligent and perceptive questions, plus interesting answers.

The second book in the series is already out: The Golem's Eye. Stroud also wrote three earlier novels for young readers, but judging by the comments on Amazon these are not quite as successful as the Bartimaeus books. Which is hardly surprising. As I keep saying, it does take writers a few books to get into their stride. If only publishers would give them the chance.

1 comment:

Jenny Davidson said...

Nice blog! Got the link from the Guardian.

I liked "The Amulet of Samarkand" a lot, but found the sequel extremely disappointing. All the things that made the first distinctive, including impressive technique and good editing, seem absent in the second--it's got a loose and baggy multi-plot thing going on and the voice never comes clear in the way the first one does. However I will reserve judgment till I see how the trilogy concludes.

I love books that fall into this category but it's always a toss-up whether they're any good--Philip Kerr's "Children of the Lamp" was another disappointment, I'm a big fan of his other novels & didn't find this one lived up to them.

Garth Nix is very good, I think; have you looked at his Sabriel trilogy? And Michael Chabon's "Summerland" is superb.