In the realm of young adult fantasy publishing post-Rowling, many are called but few are chosen. Jonathan Stroud, another British author whose first U.S. publication this is, steps right to the head of the class with The Amulet of Samarkand, a deliciously dark fable that takes the premise of Harry Potter, turns it on its ear and gives it a good hard shake. It took Rowling at least five books before serious real-world cynicisms began to inform her themes. Stroud launches into a relentless attack upon the corruption of power almost from his first page. He couches it in a story both exciting and witty. In fact the only real comparison between Stroud and Rowling is that they don't think of their young readers as any less intellectual or more sensitive than adults.
The story is set in a parallel London ruled by magicians. Magicians in fact rule the whole world; a conniving and duplicitous lot, the world is in some strife thanks to them. (There are wars going on in Italy, and Prague is an enemy as well.) The one dirty little secret that magicians don't want the unwashed masses to know is that, on their own, they have no power at all, obtaining what little they do have through the various demons they summon and bind to them. So the real power truly is behind the throne, all the way from another plane, and it's a fragile and fearful alliance at best.
Nathaniel is a boy sold by his parents at the age of six into apprenticeship to a Whitehall magician named Arthur Underwood, a petty bureaucrat who compensates for his lack of professional influence and respect among his peers by ruling his home like a despot. Underwood begins tutoring in the boy in magic, but Nathaniel, being lonely and inquisitive, takes the initiative to advance his education well beyond his years (and without his master's knowledge).
When, at the age of ten, Nathaniel is humiliated by a rising and charismatic political intriguer named Simon Lovelace, in a fit of juvenile vengefulness he summons up a powerful 5,000-year-old djinn named Bartimaeus. The boy charges Bartimaeus to steal an artifact called the Amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace's possession. Little does Nathaniel realize what he has gotten himself into. It turns out that Lovelace himself stole the Amulet — having its original owner murdered into the bargain — and will stop at nothing to get it back. He has big plans for all of England that involve the Amulet. And if Lovelace learns that the thief was nothing but an upstart boy using incantations he shouldn't even know to bind a djinn even a veteran conjurer would think twice about, everything could hit the fan in a horrible way.
And if Nathaniel didn't have enough problems, he finds out that Bartimaeus has learned his real name; mages give themselves new names before they learn to conjure, so that demons cannot exercise vengeance against them after being freed from their bondage. Will it be possible for Nathaniel to avoid Lovelace's wrath, and persuade Bartimaeus to remain his ally against the man?
Stroud's story works on several levels. He sets the rules for how magic works in his world and sticks to them, and he develops two strong protagonists to anchor the narrative. At first it's hard to sympathize with Nathaniel, although his emotional coldness is believable as a consequence of having been sold by his family and having to grow up without friends or playmates. But as the story progresses, what begins as petulant childish rebellion asserts itself into a truly sympathetic bid for esteem by a kid who's never really done anything to deserve his lot in life. All of the mistakes Nathaniel makes to get himself into worse trouble are, of course, the price he pays for being in over his head.
Bartimaeus is a little easier to like, mainly because Stroud writes his chapters from his own first-person perspective. And having been around for five millennia, Bartimaeus is just the teensiest bit jaded and glib about the world of magicians and their petty power squabbles. If I have any serious criticism of this novel, it's that in Bartimaeus's chapters Stroud gets a little too Terry Pratchett for his own good. Or he tries, anyway. (You know how Pratchett sometimes has footnotes at the bottom of a page if he wants to toss in some droll aside? Stroud does that on, like, every frickin' page.) On the positive side, though, Bartimaeus's wit helps to keep the story from becoming far too bleak and dour in its opening chapters.
Ultimately, this is a novel about politics, and how it seems all such allegiances in the political sphere are in the final analysis based upon self-interest and anything but trust and friendship. It also addresses the fact that actions have consequences that cannot be undone, and how that is a lesson so few people, when motivated by self-interest, seem able to learn. There are still important facts of life Nathaniel hasn't absorbed when all is said and done, and Stroud's insistence that even a happy ending must be a messy one in many ways marks him as the kind of honest and uncompromising storyteller that both young and older adults need.