When Nathaniel, a twelve-year-old apprentice magician, summons the Djinn Bartimaeus to steal the eponymous amulet as an act of petty revenge, his plan gets out of control. Nathaniel is hard-working and more naturally gifted than his underachieving master, Underwood. He falls foul of a rising politician, Simon Lovelace, who is disconcerted by Nathaniel’s ready knowledge and who treats him badly out of jealousy. Nathaniel has learnt enough on his own to summon a djinn whom he orders to steal a famous amulet from Lovelace and to hide it in the unwitting Underwood’s store. Lovelace, who had the amulet stolen from a government officer, tracks it down to the Underwood’s house.

Let it be said up front that the entire plot of this series rests on the idea of summoning so-called demons using pentacles and other conventional trappings of black magic. However, let it also be said that it is in no sense about witchcraft or magic (or Wicca or Magyk. Firstly, for all the devil-worship paraphernalia, the “demons” are classes of Djinni from an Other Place who are summoned and bound to our own world in this way.

The story and its readability turn on the characters of Nathaniel: smart, determined, more than a little arrogant, but still only twelve; and Bartimaeus, ancient, crafty, wittily self-confident, and more inclined than he lets on to trust Nathaniel. The narrative switches between Bartimaeus in the first person and Nathaniel in the third, so you hear all of the djinn’s cynical and world-weary asides (as footnotes) while you learn about Nathaniel and his world as he himself learns. The balance is about right, and Bartimaeus has just the right mixture of bored slave and ingenious operator with an unexpected streak of affection.

If you squint really hard, you can make out that Nathaniel ultimately profits from his wrongdoing. The amulet which he stole is indirectly the cause of the Underwood Family’s death. But it is also the reason for his being in place to prevent Lovelace’s scheme from succeeding and therefore of his own subsequent rise to power. I think, though, that the character is better than that. Certainly the amulet’s theft is a petty act of revenge, made possible only by the power he commands as a magician. But his actions later, while not perfect, are driven by more noble motives: he takes the honourable, if ultimately futile, step of owning up to the theft to safeguard the Underwoods. The bravery and ingenuity he displays later in Lovelace’s house inadvertently result in the death of a magician who was trying to kill him, but his overall intent is to prevent a far-reaching scheme to overthrow the government. The fact that he himself comes out of it quite well is more of a tribute to his quick-thinking and presence of mind but is a mark also of his ambition.

Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of goodtoread.org.