When The Amulet of Samarkand was first published in 2003, it was described as "the next Harry Potter". While it's true that Jonathan Stroud's book is about a young boy who's being trained in the art of magic, it is by no means a cheap Harry Potter copycat. The Amulet of Samarkand has enough originality and charm all of its own to make it stand out from the increasingly overcrowded children's fantasy genre.
This book, the first in a promised trilogy, is set in a parallel London, considered as the superpower of the magical world. As with the Harry Potter books, London's population is divided into two social classes: the commoners (those without magic) and the magicians (the majority of whom work for the government).
Nathaniel, the boy-hero of the book, belongs to the latter group. Apprenticed to a minor magician, Nathaniel inadvertently makes an enemy out of Simon Lovelace, a charming and ambitious politician. When Nathaniel is humiliated by Simon in a social gathering, he vows to get even. He summons Bartimaeus, a powerful but mischievous djinni, to steal one of Simon's recently acquired magical objects, the Amulet of Samarkand.
What was intended as little more than a childish prank soon develops into an intricate web of intrigue as Nathaniel finds himself caught up in a sinister plot to overthrow the government. With Bartimaeus' reluctant help, our hero sets out to expose Simon to save not only himself but also the Prime Minister and other important politicians.
The story unfolds at a steady pace, with believable characters in a plausible alternate world. Nathaniel, though not as likeable a character as Harry Potter, comes across as more real, complete with mood swings and the tendency to be careless and irresponsible all boys his age are famous for. Abandoned and sold by his parents, Nathaniel has a serious, even cynical, outlook on life. This is why there is such a a great chemistry between his character and Bartimaeus, who provides the comic relief in the book.
The narrative alternates between two viewpoints: a first-person narrative by Bartimaeus and a third-person narrative focussing on Nathaniel's viewpoint. This treatment works well in general although the frequent switch might confuse younger readers. Bartimaeus' first-person narrative is crammed with footnotes. While these are often witty and humourous, they can interfere with the flow of the narration.
The Amulet of Samarkand is a brilliant start to a promising trilogy. It will appeal not only to Harry Potter addicts, but also to those who appreciate a thrilling, good old fashioned yarn.