Sunday, 31 October 2010
Review: Bartimaeus - The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud
Bartimaeus, the djinni with attitude, is back. The inimitably insolent Bartimaeus has returned - as a slave to King Solomon, wielder of the all-powerful Ring. Until a girl assassin shows up with more than just murder on her mind and things start to get.... interesting.
Shocking although this may sound coming from someone who writes a blog about books for children and Young Adults, but I only read the original Bartimaeus trilogy for the first time at the beginning of this year. For this reason they never featured in my personal Top 20 books of the last decade, something I would rectify if only I could travel back in time. However, to look on the bright side, I therefore only had a few months to wait between finishing Ptolemy's Gate, and receiving a proof of a new book featuring Jonathan Stroud's awe-inspiring creation, the djinni Bartimaeus.
If you're currently in the position I was in back in January then have no fear, you do not have to read through the original trilogy before diving into this book as it is not a continuation of the series. I guess it could best be described as a prequel, although not in the sense that it is creating back-story to lead into The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in the trilogy. In the books in that original series we were treated to many, many footnotes, some of which alluded to events from Bartimaeus's past, and the vast array of magicians he had served throughout his very long life. So in this outing we find ourselves in Jerusalem and its surrounding area in the year 950 BC, a period when Solomon was on the throne, a ruler seen by many to be a ruthless magician of exceptional power, thanks to the all-powerful ring that he wears at all times.
The beginning of the story sees Bartimaeus being summoned by Khaba, a cruel and very ambitious magician. Khaba is one of a select group of magicians who serve the mighty Solomon, each of which has a djinn, or some other sort of spirit, bound to them in a form of magical slavery. These magicians do not actually hold any magical abilities themselves, all their powers come from the spirits that they control. Mastery of spirits is not an easy task, and these men have spent years learning and mastering the incantations that will summon and bind a spirit to them. Most spirits resent this enforced servitude, and Bartimaeus is no exception; he is constantly seeking ways to break the control his master has over him (something that would prove rather bad for Khaba's health).
As well as Bartimaeus and Khaba, in The Ring of Solomon we are introduced to a huge array of colourful characters, both human and otherworldly. There is Asmira, a young assassin sent by the Queen of Sheba to deal with Solomon and steal the fabled ring, before the king invades their lands. Asmira is devoted to her queen, she has grown up in a society where the females are the warriors and royal guards and she has been waiting all of her relatively short life for the opportunity to serve her queen in this way. Asmira's quest brings a heavy does of action and adventure to the story, in a plot that is almost as fast paced as it is funny. Much of the humour comes from the interaction between Bartimaeus and the many other spirits, although there are also many deliciously funny scenes shared by Bartimaeus and Asmira as she binds him to her in order to aid her reach her goal.
If you haven't 'met' Bartimaeus yet then you are in for one hell of a treat - in my opinion he is one of the greatest character creations in modern children's literature, and he is certainly in my top ten favourite characters from any book, adult or child. He is every naughty schoolboy you ever knew, but with an an adult sense of humour based on sarcasm developed over centuries. He is arrogant, witty, irascible, mischievous, intelligent, lazy.... I could go on and on! He is the kind of character that most children's authors might dream of creating, but Jonathan Stroud got there first and not only that, but he has the writing skills to make us come back for more and more. However, one small word of warning - I know several people who have tried reading a Bartimaeus book and have nearly given up after a few chapters; if you find yourself not 'getting' him then please persevere - he really will grow on you.
Another element of these stories that some readers have not warmed to is Jonathan Stroud's extensive use of footnotes. The author uses these for many reasons: at times they add detail; they provide back history; they can add humour to the story. Personally I love these and feel that they make the stories even more uniquely special, but others have found that they interrupt the flow of the story and their reading pleasure is thereby diminished slightly. At the end of the day, this is all down to personal preference; I guess the story could be read without them, but as I have never tried to do this then it is something I couldn't state for definite.
The Ring of Solomon is definitely a book for the more confident of young readers, but it is also a book that can be thoroughly enjoyed by all ages, from 11 upwards. And yes, I am including adults in this. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if there are more adult fans of Bartimaeus than there are younger fans. I am sure that there will be many readers who will pick this book up, discover the irascible djinn for the first time and then want to read more, thus adding to the already huge group of Bartimaeus fans out there. Whatsmore, with five thousand years of Bartimaeus history to cover, Mr Stroud could be writing these for many years to come. Bartimaeus: the Ring of Solomon was released on 14th October, and my thanks go to Rosi at Random House for sending me a copy to review.