Take Aladdin's genie, forget the lamp, and give him a shape-shifting ability and loads of biting wit, and you get Bartimaeus, the five-thousand-year-old djinni whose presence in The Amulet of Samarkand adds a light mood to an otherwise dark story.
The first in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand tells of the story of eleven-year-old Nathaniel, apprentice to a mediocre magician, who summons the legendary Bartimaeus in a fit of vengefulness after being publicly shamed by one of his mater's peers. The culprit, Simon Lovelace, is a fierce young magician among the ranks of high government and prime ministers. Nathaniel sends Bartimaeus out to steal the Amulet of Samarkand, a potent weapon in Lovelace's possession, and soon finds that Bartimaeus is not one to be ordered around – and more importantly, that Lovelace and the Amulet are far more powerful and evil than even Bartimaeus is prepared to face.
At first, the premise was too much like Harry Potter for my liking – even their ages are a match – but it's a good thing I gave it a go, as it turned out to be one of the most engaging fantasies I've read in a while. Unlike Harry, Nathaniel doesn't do everything right; in fact, he fails so miserably that he ends up causing the death of his own master. The magical creatures are also more real in the sense that they weren't invented – they exist in real old legends and folklore. And unlike the Potter stories, the humor here actually works. Bartimaeus simply steals the spotlight with his sharp-tongued humor, best exhibited in the many footnotes where he serves up a generous dose of amusing side thoughts.
The Amulet of Samarkand touches many planes at once – it is a story of political power, a clash of great minds, and the links between the past and present. But what makes the book so appealing is probably the fact that you can choose to read it in such a deep manner, taking in its political and historical references, or just feel your way around the story and look forward to Bartimaeus's next wisecrack. However you choose to read it, you'll certainly have a hard time trying to find anything as lively or entertaining, at least among its contemporaries. And don't skip the footnotes – you'll be missing half the fun.