The Amulet of Samarkand is the first book in the Bartimaeous Trilogy. It's a children's/early teens book, but was really imaginative and a lot of fun. I just finished it and loved it. It's one of those books I would classify as the candy of reading. OK, maybe the fruit of reading. Candy isn't good for you, but reading always is, no matter how fun and quick a read.
The main character is Nathaniel, a young boy who was given up to the magicians at the age of 6 to become a magician's apprentice. Unfortunately for Nathaniel, his new master is at best a mediocre wizard and isn't really very keen on taking him on. Arthur Underwood would much prefer to live a quiet life and concentrate on climbing the ministry ladder than to bring up someone else's child and to teach him magic. Nathaniel, feeling cheated, neglected and alone, finally decides to take his education into his own hands, which ultimately leads him on a hectic and dangerous chase around London when his plans backfire on him.
The London Nathaniel lives in is not like the London we all know, or a Muggle London, if you will. It's something like a parallel world, like the England Lara of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Some things are the same, but not all. The first major difference is that magic is an integral part of life in Nathaniel's London, where the Magicians are the aristocracy of society. They hold most powerful positions in the ministry and the look down on commoners as, well, common. The reasoning is that magicians are powerful, they protect the people from foreign magicians and they are better educated than the commoners, therefore they are better. Nathaniel is learning to be just like them as he grows up in this world, only there are still notable differences in his attitude. He still has a sense of honour and decency that the older magicians seem to have lost completely. However, he has still lived in that world all his life and knows he must play by it's rules to save his own skin.
The books starts off with Nathaniel, age 12, summoning up a djinn, Bartimaeous, to help him with his plans of revenge against a magician who humiliated him. Bartimaeous provides a lot of comic relief in the book. He's sarcastic, scornful, haughty, and although he portrays himself as being rather on the evil side, he's soft-hearted all the same. He's not pleased at being summoned up to serve a magician, and least of all a magician of such tender years. However, Nathaniel proves himself to be more knowledgeable than anyone would have thought and the two become bound together for better or for worse, literally. The only thing they can do in the end is help each other, or perish trying. This leads them running across London and Southern England trying to halt an evil plot which Nathaniel's original plan unwittingly uncovered.
Like I said, I was tempted to call this book reading candy because it was so fun and exciting, however, on reflection, there really is a lot of food for thought in it. First of all there's the whole subject of social superiority, which is blatant and rampant in Nathaniel's world. Usually in books of this type, there would be one person of exceptional moral standing guiding the young hero down the right path, but here, there just is no such person. All magicians are for themselves. There is no greater good or right path except the Machiavellian one. So basically Nathaniel's development into a hopefully morally upstanding person is left up to himself and his innate sense of right and wrong. Also, as magicians look upon djinns, imps and all creatures from "the other world" as their own personal slaves to be summoned up and bound at will, there is point of slavery. Will Nathaniel grow up thinking this is fine as it is or will he ultimately try and change it? The first book leaves these questions open and it will be interesting to see how he turns out. Finally, Stroud didn't dumb down the vocabulary for children, which impressed me. All in all, I think kids could learn a lot from this book while having fun at the same time. I know I'd recommend it to anyone with kids between the ages of 11 up.
For it's outstanding merits all around, this one gets a clear 5 out of 5 rating.