I am increasingly intrigued by, and attracted to, the range of graphic novels now available on the market, so when a new one comes along – OK, when a publisher sends me a copy and asks me to review it – how can I resist? Fortunately, in this case, what I can say is welcome to the colourful world of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus and The Amulet of Samarkand. Unaware of the original Bartimaeus trilogy of Jonathan Stroud, and approaching the text with an in-built wariness towards yet another story about a smart kid with magical powers, I was quite prepared to dislike this book, but by the end of its 144 pages (compared with the original novel’s 500) I was kind of hoping there might be more.
This is a novel aimed at young readers, but one which will be enjoyed especially by those sophisticated enough to appreciate the humour which binds the young Nathaniel (apprentice magician, more able than he is given credit for by a bullying master), Bartimaeus (the 5000-year-old djinni whom he conjures up to assist in reclaiming the said amulet) and the reader, in what is really a conspiracy against the pesky adults who tend to control things and generally make a mess of it. In this case, in a clever reversal of the traditional magical fantasy tale, the demon is the ‘good guy’ and the baddies are the tightly-knit, elitist group of ruthless magicians who run the country from Westminster (sound familiar?)
Set in what is described on page one as ‘London. Now’, the backdrop to the story is actually a dystopian future London which looks a bit like the the London of the middle of last century. And when I say looks like, I mean is stunningly drawn and coloured to look like. This book is first and foremost an absolute visual delight. I particularly liked the depiction of rural England, where Nathaniel and Bartimaeus take a trip to a government conference at Heddleham Hall, organised by the arch-criminal and Junior Minister for Trade, Simon Lovelace. In the words of the ancient spirit with the 21st Century sense of humour, ‘It felt good to be free of the city and surrounded by the natural contours of the trees and crops. I perked up a bit.’ Earlier, he had spoken of escaping London’s congested streets, feeling ‘groggy with motion sickness and the terrible stench of technology.’
It isn’t hard to tell where the author’s sympathies lie. When Nathaniel and Bartimaeus find themselves in a deserted building in the centre of London, having narrowly escaped another attempt on their lives by the villainous Lovelace, the latter muses, ‘What was this place, do you think? A library? Don’t suppose the commoners are encouraged to read much anymore, are they? That’s usually the way it goes.’ So there you have it. It isn’t really about the theft of a precious bracelet at all. It’s about the theft of our intellectual freedom. Read books, be clever, or this is the kind of pickle you will find yourself in. And so say all of us!
Language purists may well pick up on the fact that the novel contains American spellings (such as ‘theater’ and ‘fulfill’), which is strange for a book by an English author, but it was developed and published by Stroud’s American publishers Hyperion in the first instance, before reaching the UK market. A minor irritation for this reader, but I suspect not even that for enthusiasts.
The Amulet of Samarkand is adapted from the original novel by Jonathan Stroud with the help of Andrew Donkin, himself the author of more than sixty books for children and adults. It is beautifully drawn by Lee Sullivan (Transformers, Judge Dredd, Doctor Who) and the amazing colouration is by Nicolas Chapuis (Elephantmen, The Wheel of Time). It is also available from Amazon for less than a fiver, which is a far bigger crime than the theft of a precious brooch.
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One of my Higher pupils did the novel for his RPR (showing my age there!) on my recommendation. He passed with flying colours. The whole trilogy is excellent. Bartimeus is a superb ‘anti-hero’.
I remember the RPR (Review of Personal Reading)! I regret to say I was unaware of the novels until now – as someone once said (almost, kind of), the more you learn the more you realise the extent of your ignorance. I’m sure that there are readers who would be tempted to read the original novel after finding this version, but of course it is an equally valid text in itself. The artwork is quite stunning.
We have used the trad text of ‘Amulet’ in the last 2 years at school and I’m very excited about this fabulous graphic version. It was something of a coup to introduce graphic novels to our department last year (a class set each of ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’), which have been hugely successful – one S3 boy so loved ‘Great Expectations’ (“It’s the first book I’ve read all the way through and liked”) that he got his mum to buy him a copy on-line and, while she was at it, he persuaded her to get another 5 graphic novels! Now that is what I call success! So, I’m very keen to get a class set of this text – especially at such a fantastically reasonable price.
Thanks for a great review – and posting up thumbnails of the inside pages of the book is especially helpful in selling the idea of it to colleagues.
Thanks for the comments. There are two great aspects to that story. One is that a young man who may have gone through life believing that he wasn’t a reader now knows otherwise, and the other is that you have recognised as a teacher the validity of graphic novels as texts in themselves.