Friday, April 11, 2008

Jonathan Stroud

The Amulet of Samarkand
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Age: 14+

This fantasy novel is the first book in a projected “Bartimaeus Trilogy.” It takes place in an alternate world in which the British government is run by magicians. Commoners (non-magical people) are shunted into the background while all of the power, and most of the wealth, is in the hands of the few who have the power to summon demons to do their will.

Obviously, this fantasy views magic as very much an occult activity. Candles and pentacles and incantations abound, forcing various orders of demons (imps, foliots, djinn, afrits, marids, and others even more nasty and powerful) to take material shape in our world. They would much rather stay in the chaotic Other Place, and as a magician states very clearly, early in this book, they are “very wicked and will harm you if you let them.” Demons, for their part, consider magicians to be wicked enough themselves, cruelly enslaving creatures, treating commoners like dirt, and clawing their way to power. A magician, says a demon somewhere in this book, is motivated either by greed or ambition or paranoia. They seem to have no scruples, considering the only bad magician to be an incompetent one (reminds me of the Quirrell doctrine about good and evil). [EDIT: For non-Harry Potter fans, that doctrine is (by memory): "There is no good and evil. There is only power, and those too weak to seek it."]

Though other cultures have overthrown their magical overlords, the England of this story is still only in the early stages of a rebellion by the commoners. On the fringes of society discontent is brewing. A few young people with a strange resistance to magic seem to be building power for a major strike against the government. It is also threatened by the decadent sorcerers of Prague, the great enemy of the English magical establishment. At this delicate moment, a young wizard named Simon Lovelace covets power, and has a fiendish plan for how to get it. It involves a very powerful amulet (that is, an object that protects its bearer from magical harm). And it involves a big government conference at the country estate of Lovelace’s rich, commoner girlfriend. It’s a plan that cannot fail...

Until Lovelace makes a fatal mistake. He underestimates the twelve-year-old apprentice of a mediocre magical bureaucrat. A clever boy named Nathaniel, who has devoured his master’s library as an antidote to being neglected by his weak, over-cautious master. An ambitious boy whose pride will not bear the beating and public humiliation he takes from Lovelace. Consumed by hatred, Nathaniel risks everything to summon an ancient djinni named Bartimaeus, and commands him to steal the very object Lovelace needs for his upcoming coup... the amulet of Samarkand.

The story is told alternately from the points of view of Nathaniel and Bartimaeus—the one driven by his crusade for justice and revenge, the other compelled against his will to do what his young master commands. Their uneasy alliance grows into grudging respect as they fight to overcome enormous odds to save the government, to bring Lovelace to justice, and (as an optional bonus) to get through it alive. But there are bigger and badder demons than Bartimaeus at large, as well as other people with disturbing and unexplained powers, and somehow Lovelace always seems to be one step ahead.

So I won’t argue with anyone who is offended by magic of the demon-summoning, occult variety. That is indeed, without ambiguity, the kind of magic dealt with in this book. Though I myself object to that brand of magic, I was slowly won over by the book as it went along. For one thing, it takes place in a fantasy world where much is possible that is not so in ours. For a second thing, it does not glamorize demons or the magicians who summon them; both are frankly depicted as a nasty lot, and the commoners rising up against them really have the right idea. The only thing that keeps you sympathizing with Nathaniel is the slender hope that his conscience and his courage (unusual among magicians) will not be eroded by the ambition and greed (not at all unusual among magicians) that are allready pulling at him. Even considering how much of the story is told from the wry viewpoint of Bartimaeus, the unwilling demon slave, that hope remains alive at the story’s end. For a third thing, Bartimaeus himself seems to be a unusually humane demon, which softens the impact of reading half the story through the filter of a wicked being’s viewpoint.

Finally, what this book really excels at is showing how dangerous it would be to traffic with demons, especially for those who do the trafficking. It is definitely something best left up to fictional characters, and villainous ones at that. I think, or at least hope, that the further books in this trilogy will show Nathaniel looking for a better way to get things done, and maybe becoming more understanding of the plight of the commoners and their beef against magicians. You won’t have to wait long to find out. Book 2 of this trilogy, The Golem’s Eye, was recently released, and in spite of my early reservations while reading this book, I am eager to read the sequel.

EDIT: And yet, I haven't read it. It's on my "getting around to it" shelf, along with the final book of the trilogy, Ptolemy's Gate.

Buried Fire
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Age: 14+

Once again proving that he has a gift for creating a sense of dread, the author of the Bartimaeus Trilogy spins a sinister tale of an ancient evil, awakening from a long slumber near a modern-day, English village.

Michael McIntyre is 13 years old, an orphan, living with his realtor sister Sarah and his teenage brother Stephen. One day, while snoozing in a meadow high on a mount called the Wirrim, he is enveloped in one of the thoughts that periodically rise from a sleeping dragon buried under the Wirrim. Soon afterward, Michael begins to develop strange gifts that at first frighten him. Then, egged on by several older people in the community who have the same powers, Michael quickly becomes captivated by the power of the evil dragon that grows to possess his soul.

Meanwhile, the ambitious vicar of the village church, the Reverend Tom Aubrey, has discovered an ancient Celtic cross buried in the churchyard. With the cross removed from its resting place, and broken into two pieces, the dragon and its disciples see an opportunity to free the worm—and themselves—from a horrible, living death. Michael’s vast new powers are vital to their plans, and his soul is slowly being transformed to the shape of the dragon’s thoughts. But none of them have reckoned on the love of Michael’s older sister, on the courage of a brother who rejected the dragon’s gifts, and least of all, on the heroism hidden within the often annoying Vicar Tom.

Like The Leap, this story builds to an overwhelming climax, then draws swiftly—almost too swiftly, even—to its shattering conclusion. I don’t mean to say it doesn’t end well. You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

The Leap
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Age: 14+

Having only read three books by Mr. Stroud so far, I feel bold enough to make note of some common threads in his work. One is the captivating way he combines elements of ancient lore with a modern setting, to create tantalizingly weird fantasies that absolutely reek with menace. Another is the way you find yourself chewing your nails in suspense—a funny kind of suspense, too: where you aren’t worried about the hero dying or the good guys losing, but you’re kept up all night by the thought that the main character might end up evil.

Or, in this case, that she might be losing her mind.

The thing that sets The Leap apart from Buried Fire and The Amulet of Samarkand is that fact that, even after you’ve read the last sentence, you can’t be entirely sure whether it’s a fantasy novel or a psychological thriller. Is young Charlie in danger from beings that dwell in another world, beings who delight in luring unwary humans to their doom? Or is she simply suffering from a psychotic episode resulting from her best friend’s death, which she refuses to accept, and her own nearly fatal attempt to save his life?

It starts in the hospital, with Charlie (a.k.a. Charlotte) reliving the supposed drowning of her pal Max. From memories of green-haired, green-skinned women beckoning from the weedy bottom of the millpool, Charlie progresses to disturbing dreams in which she finds herself pursuing Max across a vast, deserted countryside. Soon, her dreams are all that she lives for, while her mother and brother worry themselves sick about the mess that is Charlie’s waking life. And then, on the advice of a person in her dream world, Charlie begins searching for Max in the waking world too—echoes of his presence.

By the end, either the two worlds come close enough together for one to pass directly between them, or Charlie simply forgets how to distinguish the real world from the world of fantasy. Which do you think it is? The book won’t make it easy to decide. What it does make clear, though, is the growing danger Charlie is in, from the death-dealing, deceiving dwellers in her world of dreams. Whether or not her brother Jamie is right, and Charlie is mad, you will surely be breathlessly caught up in his race to stop her from pursuing the elusive Max to her own destruction.

EDIT: Other titles by Jonathan Stroud include young adult novels The Last Siege, Heroes of the Valley, and picture books such as The Little Red Car, Alfie's Big Adventure, The Lost Treasure of Captain Blood, and The Viking Saga of Harri Bristlebeard.

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