The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
-by Ramakrishna R M
This children’s classic is a treasure trove of lazy philosophy, half baked ideas, quirky humor, silly puns and overwhelming imagery. Yes, I called it a treasure trove, despite it’s very obvious flaws.This is because, Norton is a genius who masterfully weaves the fine threads of silly, nonsensical, punny humour with a gentle of dose of satire and wisdom to create an absurd tale that could be interpreted as either didactic or satirical.
The Phantom Tollbooth is about the journey of an easily bored but thoughtful boy through a Wonderland, where everything is meant to be taken literally. Yes, trust me on this, there is a watchdog named Tock, who keeps time literally, (he has a clock for a body), who can fly because ‘time flies’. Here, he meets absurd characters like the ‘Whether man’, Faintly Macabre the Which (puns are fun, ain’t they!) , the Mathemagician of Digitopolis among others. The characters, however are merely a ploy for a gag or wisdom of sorts. The writing though sketchy or overdone at a few places, is witty at large. The biggest flaw in the book however is the plot line which is too simplistic and weak leaving the novel meandering at times.
Overall, despite a very weak storyline, the Phantom Tollbooth makes a good easy read.
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
– Anirudhya Mummaneni
The Amulet of Samarkand is a deliciously dark novel that takes the premise of Harry Potter and adds a pinch of real-world cynicism to it. The novel is complex and witty, making it a slightly sophisticated read for young readers and a fast moving adventure for adults.
The story is set in a parallel universe, where the whole world is ruled by magicians. They are a conniving and power-hungry lot, which leads to some strife. The magicians have a little secret they desperately guard from the uneducated masses, the fact that they don’t have any magic at all, obtaining what little they do have from the various demons they summon and bind.
Nathaniel is a boy sold by his parents to the government at the age of six to be an apprentice magician to Arthur Underwood, a petty bureaucrat who rules his home like a tyrant to compensate for his lack of skill and influence. Underwood tutors the boy in magic, but Nathaniel, being inquisitive, takes the initiative to study advanced magic, without his master’s knowledge.
When Nathaniel is humiliated by a high-ranking official, Simon Lovelace, he summons a 5000-year old djinn, Bartimaeus, for vengeance. The task given to him was to steal Lovelace’s newly acquired artifact, the Amulet of Samarkand. What Nathaniel didn’t anticipate was Lovelace’s obsession with the amulet. He had actually murdered the original owner to obtain it, and will stop at nothing to get it back.
And if Nathaniel wasn’t up to his knees in problems, Bartimaeus manages to learn his real name. Magicians use a pseudonym with demons, so they can’t track them down and take revenge upon them after the contract is fulfilled, which they usually want to, considering that the magicians are enslaving them. Will Nathaniel manage to escape from Lovelace, his only help being a bound demon who now has the means to kill him?
In the beginning, Nathaniel comes off as emotionally cold, making him difficult to sympathize with. But as the story progresses, what begins as a childish rebellion turns into the struggles of a kid who did nothing to deserve his lot in life. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is a character that is easy to like. Having been around for five millennia, he is jaded and scoffs at the magicians’ petty power squabbles. His wit takes the edge off the bleak parts of the story and keeps it entertaining.