Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Amulet of Samarkand (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 1)- Jonathan Stroud

Whenever an author finds exceptional success in their field, it tends to spawn wave after wave of second-rate imitations, generally poorly written and badly executed.
J.K. Rowlings' Harrry Potter series has been no exception. The bookshelves are sagging under the sheer weight of witches, wizards, and magicians - the vast majority of which range from the forgettable and mundane to the abysmal.

There are some notable exceptions.

Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Triology is one of those notable exceptions.

The Amulet of Samarkand introduces us to a different type of magic - gone are the magical school of wizardry, muggles and quidditch and instead Stroud's world draws on a darker source of magic - demonic efrits, djinni and spirits, summoned and controlled through elaborate, cryptic rituals and protections that force the djinni's and many lesser demons into unwilling servitude to those with enough magical knowledge to harness their deadly power.

Enter the two main characters: Nathaniel, a magician-in-training, sold to the government at five and apprenticed to a master magician; and Bartimaeus, a 5,000 year old djinni, summoned by Nathaniel to steal the magical Amulet of Samarkand and effect Nathaniel's revenge on the famous London magician Simon Lovelace. Stroud has created a fascinating Dickensian alternate London, where the government is dominated and ruled by magicians and their magical servants. Rich, intricate, yet with a bleak understory that belies the magical trappings, The Amulet of Samarkand is a terrifically enjoyable read, albeit one with a dark undercurrent, at times too dark for younger readers.

The standout aspect of the book is however the cynical, wisecracking, shape-shifting Bartimaeus, whose character leaps off the page and springs utterly to life. Whether it is musing over what manifestation would be most off-putting for its summoner or cracking wise on the history of magic (much of which is found in the many, many footnotes that permeate the Bartimaeus sections of the book - word to the wise - do not skip reading the footnotes), Bartimaeus is hilarious (and witheringly sarcastic) and nigh on unforgettable. Unwillingly, Bartimaeus finds himself thrown together with Nathaniel and the unlikely pair find themselves taxed to uncover a sinister conspiracy designed to overthrow the government.

Stroud does an excellent job of pulling together a comprehensive tale, alternating the viewpoint from Nathanial to Bartimaeus and building in a nice, well-rounded world, with just enough of the familiar to give the magical world they inhabit some solidity and depth. One notable (and somewhat unsettling) aspect of the book is that the magicians for the most part are an unpleasant, ambitious and power-hungry crew. The question of whether Nathanial will drift into this mindset is one that makes the tale much more ambiguous then is typical.

An excellent book and well-worth a look.

You can visit the real Samarkand online at or here. You can also drop in on the real London here.

Drop by The Bartimaeus Triology online and read an excerpt from The Amulet of Samarkand and from the second book The Golem's Eye.

Here's a quick magic spell for you (hope it is helpful), courtesy of William Shakespeare:

"Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,--
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Devil's Highway - Luis Alberto Urrea

The Devil's Highway, El Camino del Diablo, lies sere, bleak , arid and forbidding, a calescent trail across the Mexican-US border for illegals seeking salvation and opportunity in the north.

The Devil's Highway is the true story of a group of 26 Mexican illegals who crossed the US-Mexican border heading through the desert for Ajo, Arizona on May 19th, 2001. By May 25th, only 12 came out.

Luis Alberto Urrea's book is a powerful piece of work. Urrea can sling a phrase with the best of them, weaving politics, desert myth, history and culture in an evocative, poetic style that captures both the facts and the heavy weight of the heart.

The author paints a horrifying and vivid portrayal of the events on the border, putting names, and faces in place behind the walkers, outlining the hidden necessities and motivations behind the illegal trek north. Urrea puts a human face on both the 400 dead illegals that the border claims annually and on the Border Patrol officers who stem the illegal flood of "tonks" (a name derived from the distinctive sound a flashlight makes when busted over an illegal's head) - sometimes hunting them down, sometimes rescuing them and sometimes burying them.

The Devil's Highway looks at the practices of the smugglers, who for an usurious fee take the illegals over the border to their low-wage jobs in the north and in the case of the Yuma 14 (the dead out of the 26), abandoned their charges to their fate - (first taking all of their customer's cash with them). Urrea also examines the politics and practices of the border (what he terms "the politics of stupidity"), the Border Patrol's approaches and attitudes towards their role (a blend of weary cynicism, professionalism and humanity) and, among other things, what it is like to die of hyperthermia.

Urrea excels in detailing the presence of the Devil's Highway, a bleak and searing hot stretch of forbidding desert that stretches across 250 miles, painting a lasting picture of the character of the land the walkers tried to cross - a desert littered with the bleached bones of countless travelers lured into a quicker route to California. Here's a brief excerpt:

"As long as there have been people, there have been deaths in the western desert. When the Devil's Highway was a faint scratch of desert bighorn hoof marks, and the first hunters ran along it, someone died. But the brown and red men who ran the paths left no record outside of faded songs and rock paintings we still don't understand.

Desert spirits of a dark and mysterious nature have always traveled these trails. From the beginning, the highway has always lacked grace - those who worship desert gods know them to favor retribution over the tender dove of forgiveness. In Desolation, doves are at the bottom of the food chain."

Powerful, terrifying and illuminating, The Devil's Highway is by far one of the best books I've read in several years. Don't just rely on my judgement, it was also up for a Pulitzer.

For more on the Desolation and the Devil's Highway, check out the National Park Services site on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument - reputed to be the most dangerous national park in the US due to the ongoing smuggling routes that wind across it.

Visit the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness at or here, and take a close look at the Devil's Highway at Desert USA and the US Fish & Wildlife Service site.

Interested in learning more about the US-Mexican border relations? Check out Borderlands at the International Relations Center for some interesting articles or read Time Magazine's excellent look at the border and the Coyotes . You can also drop by the Border Patrol homepage for a look at how they are fulfilling their role in the post-9/11 era. Be sure to check out BORSTAR which handles the search and rescue across the Devil's Highway.

You can also check out Humane Borders, for a look at yet another player in the borderlands.

For more reading on the borderlands, check out Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America's Illegal Aliens by Ted Conover, Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border by Sebastian Rotella and Hard Line : Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border by Ken Ellingwood.

Finally, you can visit Urrea's website here.

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