In an alternate version of England in which the government is composed of powerful magicians, a 5-year-old boy is sold off to become an apprentice. His birth name is Nathaniel, but that, too, must be stripped from him along with everything else from his former life. From now until the time he is twelve and chooses his new name, he will simply be called "Boy" by his master. Birth names hold power; his must be forgotten. Nathaniel's new master, Arthur Underwood, is not a kind man - but his wife is, and she takes Nathanial under her wing and treats him with kindness, even calling him by his birth name, and Nathanial comes to adore her and work hard for her approval.
We skip forward in time, away from the third-person narration about Nathaniel, to a moment in which a young boy of twelve or so is calling up a dangerous entity - a demon? a djinni? - it isn't clear. This part of the story is told from the entity's point of view. His name is Bartimaeus, and while Nathaniel's part of the story is certainly interesting, the book crackles with life when Bartimaeus speaks. He is not pleased at finding himself summoned - by a scrawny wet-behind-the-ears boy, no less, and is even less pleased by the task he is set: to steal the amulet of Samarkand from the very well-protected home of a powerful magician.
And so the story alternates between the third-person passages about Nathaniel and the first-person narration of Bartimaeus. Gradually the time gap between the storyline merges, and the plot is off and running, whisking the reader along with it. The theft of the amulet begins a chain of events that will dramatically change Nathanial's life - and his impatience, impulsive nature and high-handedness ensure that if anything can go wrong for him, it likely will. With Bartimaeus as his unlikely (and unwilling) servant, we are in for a bumpy ride.
Nathaniel is not always a terribly likable character, and he came close to losing my sympathy for him. He was self-centered, arrogant, hot-tempered and impatient. However, he is a believable character and, considering his upbringing, behaves exactly the way one might expect - and actually does harbor a few admirable qualities, all things considered. But Bartimaeus had me from the very beginning. His wry sense of humor, wit, charm and intelligence make for an engaging, often hilarious narrator, particularly when read aloud by Simon Jones, whose storytelling skills enhance the narrative considerably.
This book is on my list for the Mythopoeic Challenge (along with the rest of the trilogy), and it is easy to see why it is among the books on the Mythopoeic Award list. I look forward to reading about the further misadventures of Bartimaeus.
Books in the Bartimaeus Trilogy:
1. The Amulet of Samarkand
2. The Golem's Eye
3. Ptolemy's Gate
The Amulet of Samarkand (#1 in The Bartimaeus Trilogy) by Jonathan Stroud; narrated by Simon Jones (Listening Library, 2007)
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