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Thursday, 13 August 2015

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

If you've been following my blog for at least the past few months, you'll know that I absolutely adored The Lies of Locke Lamora. It had action, a really good sense of suspense and main characters that it was impossible not to love. It got surprisingly grim, but never lost its sense of humour. So when my fiance raved about the second and third books, I knew that it would only take as long as his finishing them for the next installments of the series to be in my hands. As I suspected, I soon found Red Seas Under Red Skies encouraging me to finish my previous read. A warning before the review proper, there will be spoilers for The Lies of Locke Lamora from here on out, so if you didn't take my advice and read it, you might want to give this review a miss.


Red Seas Under Red Skies starts two years after the events of the previous book. Trying to rebuild their lives after the deaths of their fellow Gentleman Bastards, Locke and Jean have set up a new base of operations in the coastal city state of Tel Verrar, a city torn between the Priori, the official ruling merchant council, and the iron fist of the Archon, head of its army and navy. Considering the delicate nature of the political situation, the remaining Gentleman Bastards decide that the only target that is both prudent and big enough is the Sinspire: a gambling house of magnificent proportions that has a tendency to throw cheaters out of the tower's ninth storey windows. Their plans are rudely interrupted though, when they are brought to the Archon, who is determined to get them involved in a bit of piracy, whether they like it or not.
Holy cow, this one hurt to read. Not in a "this was badly written" way, as I honestly can't find anything about the book to criticise. No, this one hurt because I had kind of forgotten just how grim the first book was, only for this installment to sucker punch me even harder than last time. It's an easy thing to do, simply because the characters are written so goddamn well. Locke and Jean are as entertaining as before, but the thing that cements their favour with me is the absolutely beautifully written friendship that they share, often tested but never truly faltering in its loyalty. They're joined in the main cast by some really interesting allies and antagonists. Chief among the new protagonists are two fantastic lady pirates: Zamira Drakasha, the feared pirate captain of the good ship the Poison Orchid and a fiercely protective mother of two, and her first mate Ezri, the runaway daughter of a noble turned buccaneer whose literature-based flirtation with Jean is adorable beyond words. On the side of the antagonists are Requin, master of the Sinspire and owner of a tempting and supposedly unbreakable vault, and Stragos, the Archon determined to gain clear dominance over his rivals in the Priori through whatever means he deems necessary.
The plot is, again, superb. There's a bit of a jarring moment when the action starts transitioning from Tel Verrar to the Brass Seas, but it still works simply because it's just as jarring for Locke and Jean as it is for the reader. The separate plot-threads come together slowly, but when they all reach their conclusion it is immensely satisfying. I will give one warning for those still deliberating over whether to read Red Seas Under Red Skies: if you thought that the first installment got grim, then know now that this installment only makes it worse. You've had longer to get to know the characters and it makes watching them struggle all the more difficult. I nearly put the book down on at least three different points in the narrative, simply because I was getting so damn anxious about how things might go wrong. And that ending. Jesus Christ, that ending. Absolutely the perfect way to end it, but it nearly had me crying in public. I still recommend this to anyone who liked the first book, but you can't say that you weren't warned. I also look back on my previous review and kind of regret that I wanted to know more about the Bondsmagi. Their presence is comparatively minor in this installment, but the consequences of Locke and Jean pissing them off so much last time is becoming all too clear.

If The Lies of Locke Lamora was an emotional rollercoaster, then I think it's safe to say that Red Seas Under Red Skies is the emotional equivalent of a battering ram. I still think that the series is a spectacle that any fantasy reader would be remiss to not get a copy of. But for those who like their fantasy adventures light and fun, then you might want to read this carefully. It is easy to get very involved with these characters' lives and then be absolutely devastated when things start to unravel. 5/5

Next review: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 3 August 2015

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

If you read a lot and have any interest whatsoever in the classics, then it's kind of expected that you will read Dickens at some point. I had been a little bit reticent to read him after a few attempts at his work had been stymied essentially because I was too young to appreciate the language and tone. Up until now, the only work of Dickens that I had finished was A Christmas Carol, and that had been quite a few years before, perhaps even a decade. As such, I thought that of all his books to try, The Pickwick Papers might be a good one to start with, since it's supposed to be a comedy and therefore unlikely to bog me down in misery. Admittedly, part of me wondered why I hadn't really heard much about Charles Dickens and his comic efforts, but I put it down simply to a change in interest as he developed as a writer.


The Pickwick Papers is essentially the misadventures of the eponymous Mr Pickwick and a selection of his close friends as they bimble around the English countryside, peppered with a few short stories that they hear told on their way. These misadventures usually end in some kind of misunderstanding or slapstick, though the tone does gradually shift more towards a matrimonial and domestic feel towards the end. In terms of structure, it actually reminded me a fair bit of Don Quixote.
So, I'll start with the good points. Firstly, the writing itself is of fairly good quality and not terribly difficult to pick up for people who are less familiar with the classics. There's even a glossary for some of the more obscure Victorian terms, which was appreciated considering that there were only a couple that I either knew previously or could glean from the sentence's context. Secondly, while I compared it to Don Quixote, I found that the humour in The Pickwick Papers had aged quite a bit better over the years and wasn't anywhere near as cruel in its slapstick. Thirdly, the short stories that are recounted throughout the narrative are generally quite interesting and entertaining, with the story of the man who was kidnapped by goblins being a particular favourite of mine. It makes me want to read any short stories that Dickens might have written, as he seems to have been pretty good at them. Fourthly, there was some reference to a town fairly local to me through most of my life, which was amusing in and of itself due to the obvious low opinion that the writer must have had of the place. That just tickled me.
Now for the bad points. Jesus Christ on a bike, this bored the living daylights out of me. I think the only reasons that I finished reading it was: a) I didn't want to write a DNF review for the blog, and b) there might have been some gift-related obligation guilting me into continuing. While I praised the book for having better humour than Don Quixote, I personally found that it went a bit too far and becomes kind of neutered as a result. There's not really much bite to the humour, largely I think because the majority of the book is so episodic and the characters really two-dimensional. The only character that really stood out for me was Pickwick's servant, Samuel Weller, if only because he seems to have at least a little bit of an inkling about how absurd everyone else around him is. Additionally, I found it really irritating whenever Dickens started writing in dialect, because it just slows every bit of dialogue to a crawl as you turn on your interpreter head. It also seems a bit like Dickens is using the whole dialect thing specifically to differentiate poor people from the rest of the cast, because with the rest of the characters (mainly middle to upper class) he seems perfectly happy to write their dialogue with correct spelling and generally accent-free despite the wide variety of locales that they hail from. So yeah, irritating and awkward, just my luck.

All in all, not my cup of tea at all. While I don't hate The Pickwick Papers due to it being at least well-written and not totally offensive to my personal standards. But the overwhelming impression that I got from it was boredom, with the occasional brief moment of interest when the short stories came around. Maybe one to pick up if your sense of humour is extremely gentle or if you're already a fan of Dickens. Otherwise I can't really recommend it. 2/5

Next review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 10 July 2015

The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

It was a couple of months ago that I first read a book by Georgette Heyer, namely one of her crime novels, Footsteps in the Dark. I wasn't terribly struck by it, so when I remembered that I'd received one of her Regency novels as a present I wondered whether she would benefit from a change of genre. Plus, up until this point, I hadn't read much, if any, Regency Romance. The fact that it was quite a short book just decided the matter. So, was my second foray into Georgette Heyer's work any more successful?


The Convenient Marriage starts with the Winwood sisters, members of a proud but impoverished family in a rather difficult position. The Earl of Rule, a wealthy and eligible bachelor, has made an offer for the hand of the eldest sister, the renowned beauty Elizabeth. Unfortunately, she is head over heels in love with her childhood sweetheart, the equally impoverished army lieutenant Edward Heron, so the proposal has only succeeded in making her incredibly unhappy. The youngest sister, Horatia, decides that this just can't stand, and convinces the Earl that he would be just as satisfied marrying the youngest sister as he would the oldest. It's not as if this is a love match right? So they are married, and find themselves becoming more fond of one another whilst a long-time enemy of Rule's attempts to bring them to ruin.
I'm not sure how I really feel about this book. While I enjoyed this overall, there are a few things that prevent me from loving it wholeheartedly. The positive things first though. First, I absolutely adore the main heroine, Horatia. When I think Regency romance, the thing that comes into my head is the image of someone wholesome enough that they can win and change your stereotypical rake into upstanding husband material, most likely being the epitome of English Rose in looks. Horatia is a spirited and headstrong 17-year-old girl with enough naivety to propel her into making some decisions that are less than well thought-out. She states her mind quite openly and is a prolific (and generally unlucky) gambler. Her looks are described by others as essentially the sort of face that only family could love, with her primary physical feature being her "preposterous" thick eyebrows. And, to top it all off, she is the only main character that I have ever seen with a stammer. She is utterly glorious. Second, the plot becomes surprisingly humorous as it gets towards the end. It very much reminded me of The Marriage of Figaro at times, if not in terms of events then in regards to tone. It was a lot more farcical than I expected it to be, and very skillfully pulled off too. Third, the villain of the piece, Lethbridge, is a fascinating mix of cold, calculating and incredibly charming. His downfall is a fantastic scene that brings excitement just before it turns firmly onto the more romantic comedy parts.
So, now to the things that I wasn't so fond of. First, a minor point. I think that having a working knowledge of aristocratic fashion would really help. While I was aware of the general tendency that fashions took at the time (skirts as wide as a bus and big powdered wigs), it meant absolutely nothing to me when I was told things like Horatia's hair being styled a la capricieuse. I presume that the narrative is talking about different hairstyles, but I couldn't tell you what it meant in terms of actual visual description. And since Horatia is very fond of indulging in her husband's wealth, it means that there's a bevy of descriptions of clothes and fashion styles and the uses of what must be several miles' worth of ribbon. But they become less frequent as it goes along, so it's not too egregious. Second, for as much as I love Horatia, I found myself largely bored by Marcus, the Earl of Rule. I can see what Heyer was trying to do with his character: self-indulgent and mischievous, but with a good heart and surprising seriousness lurking beneath the veneer. But instead of a romantic hero, he put me more in mind of a father figure, which is technically the point in some ways. The hero and heroine of our story are 35 and 17 respectively, so for much of the narrative Rule acts in a weird hands-off but benevolent paternal figure. I'm all for depicting romances with age gaps, I mean I've tried writing a couple myself, but it's difficult to set up their relationship as quasi-paternal at the beginning to only then make the father figure to morph into a lover figure. Related to this, I wasn't quite convinced by the change in the main romantic relationship from marriage of convenience to love match, simply because the two didn't really interact enough. When they did interact, it was usually Rule gently admonishing his wife for associating with the wrong people or for gambling away the allowance that he'd given her. Admittedly, they were shown to get on from the day that they met and Horatia did find her husband attractive throughout, but there wasn't really a noticeable change in their behaviour. We're just supposed to agree that at some point Rule begins to love his wife, though I couldn't for the life of me point out where his eureka moment is supposed to be.

Overall, a bit of a mixed bag but mostly enjoyable. A feisty main heroine, a sinister but charming villain and surprisingly good humour save it from being an entirely disappointing romance. If you're looking for passionate romance, this isn't for you. If you're looking for something a bit more focused on married life in a convenience match, then you'll have better luck. 3.5/5

Next review: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

So now to The Ring of Solomon. The book that I re-read the entire Bartimaeus series thus far to prepare for. I remember this book coming out with surprisingly little fanfare considering how well the series before had sold. Admittedly, by the time it came out, I was in my first year of university, so my attention may well have been a little on the diverted side. But now that I've finally gotten to it, I can finally find out if the prequel is worthy of the rest of the series.


The Ring of Solomon sees Bartimaeus serving a master in Solomon's Jerusalem. Having just devoured his last master, he finds himself facing enslavement by an even harsher magician as punishment. His exploits proceed to get him and his master into even deeper trouble, straining at their already frayed relationship. Elsewhere, Asmira is brought before her ruler, the Queen of Sheba, and charged with killing King Solomon and stealing his ring of power, following a violent demand for exorbitant taxes. Determined to live up to her mother's prestigious reputation, she sets off to Jerusalem with little more than a few knives and a prayer.
I sorely regret not reading this book earlier. It is everything that I loved about reading the series for the first time. Certainly it's been a long time since I nearly giggle-snorted on the bus. Bartimaeus was fantastic as usual, although it's obvious that this is a younger, slightly less jaded version of himself. It's an interesting change, as he still has a weird affinity for selfless/unwittingly suicidal humans despite Ptolemy being a far-off prospect. Speaking of Ptolemy, there's an interesting evil parallel with his relationship to Bartimaeus in the characters of the magician Khaba and his loyal marid Ammet. What was touching and poignant between Bartimaeus and Ptolemy becomes infinitely more sinister and unhealthily feeling like blind devotion on Ammet's part rather than an equal partnership.
There were a couple of things that I wasn't really expecting when I started reading The Ring of Solomon. Firstly, I didn't realise just how good a starting place this would be for new readers of Bartimaeus. On the surface, this seems like a stupid thing to be surprised about, but I've been burned by stand-alone spin-offs before. But this struck a really nice balance between providing enough information for new readers, whilst not bogging down the narrative with background that long-time readers already know. Since the setting is so far removed from the main trilogy, there's no knowledge needed about the main plot, so it's perfect for those who want to try out the series without necessarily committing to a trilogy that they're unsure about. Secondly, it made me realise just how much I want to see more from Bartimaeus, even if it's in the form of stand-alone stories. I hadn't realised just how much I missed reading new adventures for this character. It's unlikely that Jonathan Stroud is reading this, but if he is, then this part is addressed specifically to him. If you ever have any more ideas for Bartimaeus, please write them. If they could involve his time working for Nefertiti then that would be great, but honestly, I would probably read anything at this point.

A fantastic addition to the series, and a perfect entry point for anyone considering the series but unwilling to commit to a trilogy. It's perhaps lower in the stakes department, but as a self-contained addition, it's pretty flawless. 5/5

Next review: The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud

I remember when Ptolemy's Gate came out with surprising clarity. I'd read the first two installments of the series, loved them and then found out that the last part of the trilogy was yet to be released. So when I heard that the book was finally being released, I was hyped. I don't usually follow publishing schedules, so this is pretty unusual for me. So it perhaps wasn't a shock that when I finally did get to buy it, I read all but the last two chapters in a single sitting, interrupted only by my mum insisting that I had to go to bed. I think the only other book that came close to being so keenly anticipated was the third book of the Artemis Fowl series, which was devoured at a slightly more leisurely pace. I wanted the Bartimaeus trilogy to end as well as it had started, and I was by no means disappointed.



Ptolemy's Gate again follows Nathaniel, who has had another rapid rise through the parliamentary ranks in the three years that have passed since the previous book. He is now Information Minister, in charge of the propaganda being forced onto the commoners, as well as informally looking after his previous Internal Affairs post. Considering that his main job is now to encourage the populace to support a failing and increasingly unpopular war in the American colonies, it means that he is positively drowning in work. That's not much of a consolation for Bartimaeus, who has been constantly in Nathaniel's service for the better part of two years, and it's really starting to show. Where he was once nimble, cunning and more-or-less capable, years of constant service has whittled his strength down to a fraction of what it once was. With mounting frustration and desperation, he is trying to persuade his master to dismiss him before he just disperses entirely. Elsewhere, Kitty has been making herself busy learning about spirits and summoning in her latest plan to bring down the magicians' rule: a plan which requires the assistance of Bartimaeus himself. And in the background, another conspiracy is at work, one more terrible and ambitious than both Lovelace and Duvall's previous attempts at coups.
In my previous two reviews, I focused a lot on setting and theme, because they seemed to me to be some of the most interesting things to talk about after re-reading them. As a result, I have neglected to discuss my favourite part of the trilogy as a whole, namely the title character of the series: Bartimaeus himself. When I first started these reviews, that did bother me slightly, but it just didn't feel right at the time. It is only now in the final installment that I consciously realise why I refrained for so long. You see, Bartimaeus is kind of an oddity amongst many of my favourite characters in regards to the fact that he doesn't really change at all when it comes to personality or outlook. Certain individuals might rise or diminish in importance to him, but his overall character doesn't change. Honestly, why would it? He's thousands of years old, surrounded by people whose lifespans are minute in comparison and consistently has to endure the same old indignities by those same people. It doesn't make sense for him to have a traditional character arc. Instead, his character is revealed over the course of the trilogy in little chunks, with the most important parts saved for Ptolemy's Gate. I can't have been the only one practically begging to find out who Ptolemy was and why Bartimaeus still took on his appearance more than two thousand years after his death. Those sections didn't disappoint; by the end of the flashback sections in Alexandria, I was a heartbroken mess and wouldn't have it any other way. It's a story that fans of the series know is going to be tragic from the off-set, but I don't think it would work anywhere near as well if the relationship between Bartimaeus and Ptolemy hadn't been as good. I think the reason their relationship works so well is that at no point does Ptolemy treat the spirit as a symbol. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but hear me out. Nathaniel insists on keeping Bartimaeus in the world for two reasons: because he represents his precarious position in society due to the knowledge of his true name, as well as a link to his childhood and the adventure associated to that. Kitty's plan is initially scuppered because she sees Bartimaeus only as a reflection of the repression she experiences at the hands of magicians, not as someone that she is currently repressing herself, albeit unwittingly. Neither of them really considers him as a personality in his own right, and the realisation that they were short-sighted is a large, if understated, part of the plot's main drive.

A fantastic end to a trilogy that means a great deal to me. I would wholeheartedly recommend this series to anyone interested in fantasy, and to anyone who wants to interest their kids in reading. I honestly couldn't recommend this series enough if I tried. 5/5

Next review: The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud

When it comes to trilogies, the middle installments are often the ones that end up being forgotten, because they don't have the benefit of being needed for context that first installments have, and by default usually have less at stake when compared to final installments. In comparison, I have always thought of The Golem's Eye as being the point where things really start having impact. It is an example of how to get a trilogy absolutely right. As in my previous review, this is more an analysis of themes that I found particularly interesting re-reading The Golem's Eye as an adult. 


The Golem's Eye again follows Nathaniel, now known to the wider world as John Mandrake, after he has started work as a junior minister in the government ministry of Internal Affairs. At the tender age of 14, he is tasked with tracking down and apprehending the commoner group known as the Resistance. They have been making a general nuisance of themselves through a series of artefact thefts and minor attacks on magician-heavy areas, but so far it has all been fairly minor. Until one night when an entire street of shops catering to magicians are gutted in the space of a night. Nathaniel finds himself summoning Bartimaeus again, in order to find out whether the Resistance is truly responsible and, if not, who is. Additionally, the reader is introduced to the viewpoint of Kitty Jones, a commoner and member of the Resistance whose comrades are preparing for the raid of their lives. 
When I re-read The Golem's Eye, I realised pretty quickly that I would probably find most to talk about in the Resistance, for one primary reason: this is the first time they've really been introduced as more than a side note, and boy do they make an impression. When I was younger, I don't think I was really in a position to appreciate just how important Kitty's character is in the grand scheme of things. Back then, she was just the everywoman who is there to ground the narrative after spending time with characters who just regard all the magical chaos with a considerably more casual attitude. Now, having gotten more interested in politics of feminism, LGBT+ and disability rights, she becomes so much more personal and relevant. In this new light, Kitty's narrative becomes a warning against the things that can tear apart a budding movement, even before you take into account all the magic trying to take them down. Kitty and the rest of the Resistance are spurred into action largely through the personal injustices that they and their loved ones have suffered, combined with discovering their resilience to magic and a means of fighting back. At the beginning of Kitty's narrative, she finds them in the unenviable position of being considered more as a nuisance than a real voice of revolution, and with no-one willing to put forward alternative strategies. Adding to this, it's obvious from the offset that there are a couple of points that are creating divisions within the group, yet no-one ever tries to talk through them or resolve them. The first and most obvious is the attitude towards what the group does with the magical artefacts that they steal, specifically the ones that can be activated with nothing more than a few phrases. There are some within the group who believe that any weapon that can be used in resisting the magicians should be used, while others believe that using these weapons will only make them as bad as the group they're opposed to. When it comes to protest and the whole violence/non-violence question, I would argue that there are situations where both can be appropriate, but it's always a slim line. The Golem's Eye seems to weigh in more on the non-violence end of the spectrum, but that's as much because there's an acquisitive angle to it. Towards the group's lowest point, it's obvious that the remaining Resistance members are stealing these items as much for their symbolic value as for the use that they are to the cause. When they start wanting these objects for themselves and not for their use, then they become that much closer to the people that they hate. It's an interesting point to consider, but seems a little bit difficult to fully empathise with. The second division seems to be one that only Kitty is concerned about, but I would argue is the more important of the two. At the beginning of Kitty's narrative, she and two of her comrades steal some items from a shop that caters to magicians. Then, against Kitty's express orders, the other two set the shop on fire. While she is inwardly complaining that they're subverting her authority, she audibly makes the argument that the majority of the people who worked in that shop were commoners, not magicians. Her companions don't seem bothered by her complaints, brushing it off as inconveniencing collaborators. Despite the fact that the majority of commoners thus support the magician's regime, simply because they do everything that magicians don't want to do. And that summarises the most insidious thing that can happen in a group based on politics and ideals: when certain parts of a group refuse to consider specific types of people worthy to be in the same league as them. You get it in all sorts of movements: feminists who shun transwomen because "they're not real women", gay men and lesbians who shun bisexuals "not picking sides", and mentally disabled people who are dismissed because their disability isn't visible. If your politics are very black and white, you risk alienating a large proportion of people who would ordinarily support your cause. It makes me disappointed that it doesn't really get addressed as much in series. I would have liked to have seen how the Resistance continued, whether they would get more extremist or whether they would mellow out. Alas. 

A fantastic continuation of the series, The Golem's Eye really ups the stakes and the tension. Bartimaeus is dry and witty as always, and Nathaniel's evolution is subtle but worrying. A worthy middle installment. 5/5 

Next review: Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

This review is going to be a little bit different from my norm for one simple reason. The Amulet of Samarkand is a book that I have a long and beautiful history with. Having checked the publication date, I am pretty sure that I first picked it up probably not long after it had first been published. It was the beginning of the series that was to accompany me and be one of a few bright spots in a period of my life where my school made me very unhappy. It was a series that I read aloud to my mum in its entirety when other books were abandoned. Hell, it's one of the few books that I have actually gotten signed. I love this book. A lot. So when I realised that on my to-read list I had reached its prequel, The Ring of Solomon, I couldn't help but decide to re-read the full trilogy before I tackled the spin-off. The review will follow my general structure of plot overview followed by analysis, but there will be less focus on whether the elements discussed make it good or bad, since my opinion is stated pretty baldly here. Let us truck on then. 


When the djinni Bartimaeus is summoned by a pre-teen boy, his assumption is that his latest master will ask him to perform some trivial trick like levitation. What he doesn't expect is for the boy to charge him with stealing an amulet of great power and reputation from a magician named Simon Lovelace. The boy in question is Nathaniel, the talented apprentice to a mediocre magician, and he has chosen the amulet as the means of humiliating and possibly ruining the magician who publicly shamed him two years prior. What neither of them know is the conspiracy that their theft will uncover, leading them to become wildly out of their depths as they try to get out alive and in one piece. 
When I started re-reading The Amulet of Samarkand, I was kind of expecting it to have not lived up to the way that I saw it through rose-tinted glasses. I knew that it would still be good, but part of me expected that the magic would have faded a little; the humour wouldn't be as good as I remembered it, Bartimaeus wouldn't have been as interesting. But I found myself pleasantly surprised. Admittedly, The Amulet of Samarkand is probably the weakest of the trilogy simply by dint of it needing to do a lot of set-up, but there is still a lot that is a heck more adult than I remember it being. I guess that this had always been the more child-like installment in my mind, simply because I would have read it at around the age of 12/13. But the thing that struck me most when re-reading this as an adult was just how dark some of the central themes are. 
First, there's the whole slavery issue with Bartimaeus and Nathaniel. It gets expanded more in the later books, but there's a fair bit to go on here. While Bartimaeus' sections are predominantly written in a charming and humourous way, there's no way to miss just how grim his life is. Constantly being ripped away from his home and forced into the service of creatures determined to think of him as a necessary evil at the very best. There's a point where Bartimaeus learns Nathaniel's birth name, leading to a temporary redress of the power balance between them and the djinni is utterly ecstatic because at long last there is a situation that he has a modicum of control over. Only for it to be set abruptly back to the status quo. As much as I can sympathise with Nathaniel in this installment, that's a moment where I can't help but hate him a little bit in that moment. 
Second, it really concerns me that the adults are so useless here. Much like The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I get a really strong impression that the author was trying to impress on adult readers just how dangerous it is to forget what childhood is like. I mean, I know that useless adults is a literary device common in children's books simply to stop adults jumping into the fray and instantly solving things, but The Amulet of Samarkand really goes a step beyond that. The majority of the adults here take on a surprisingly old-fashioned view of children, namely that they are just miniature adults who happen to be worse at things than the full-sized adults are. As such, the adults here appear largely malevolent and cruel, using any excuse to restrain, silence and humiliate their young charges. It is a setting where Nathaniel is forced to grow up incredibly quickly in order to keep up with an abusive system, where his master (explicitly stated to be intended as a replacement father-figure) fails to protect him from outside cruelty and even blames him for his victim status, where the only benevolent adult figures are non-magical women whose lessons to maintain a sense of honour are well-intentioned but essentially useless. It's a setting that only reveals its true horrors when seen through adult eyes. What makes it worse is that what these abusive systems are creating from their apprentices are adults who don't really have any functional skills. When Nathaniel briefly hits rock bottom, he has to rely on Bartimaeus to provide all of his essentials like food and shelter. But even he's not as bad as the adults in the climax. When they are confronted by the antagonist's master plan, their first course of action is to throw magic at it and hope that it goes away. When that doesn't work out, they run out of options and start panicking. At no point do any of them consider non-magical means to tackle the villain. Honestly, this is the only children's series that I can think of that makes the whole "adults are useless" trope quite so horrifying, and it just adds extra depth to the already decadent and privileged magician society. 

I will always recommend this book to anyone who wants to get into fantasy, whether they be children or adults. For the kids, there are great characters and really funny writing, as well as a plot that doesn't speak down to them. For the adults, the themes reveal themselves to be a lot darker and far-reaching than they initially seem, rendering it just as interesting after the whole growing up business. Arguably the weakest of the trilogy, but necessary for the really good stuff to happen in the rest of the trilogy. 4.5/5 

Next review: The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud 

Signing off, 
Nisa.