Monday, July 25, 2011

The Ring of Solomon - Jonathan Stroud

I confess that I am a big fan of the Bartimaeus series. I read all of them and was unhappy it had to end at book number 3. The magicians in the trilogy are frankly unlikable. And I am not sure I like Nathaniel, the other central character of the Bartimaeus trilogy. I thought he was annoying, too full of himself, childish and a complete idiot most of the time. But Bartimaeus? Well, as Bartimaeus would be the first to say, “What’s not to like?”

Would Bartimaeus be as brilliant without the foil provided by Nathaniel in the trilogy? That was the only concern I had when I picked up Bartimaeus and The Ring of Solomon, a prequel to the trilogy.

Bartimaeus of Uruk is an ancient spirit of ‘great resource’, fourth level djinni, summoned from the Other Place by human magicians. His modesty never prevents him from telling us about the renowned masters he has served and the buildings that are testimony to his architectural and artistic skill. He has many a battle to his credit and has defeated djinni, afrits, madrids and many more powerful beings. If a lot of these victories seem to be sheer luck, it doesn’t matter! As Bartimaeus tells us, “I have a high enough opinion of myself already not to need extra flattery from you.”

It is Jerusalem, 950 B.C.  Solomon rules over his kingdom with an iron hand. He controls a group of elite magicians with his ring of power. Just turning it can conjure up spirits that are both powerful and deadly. The magicians are chafing at being controlled by Solomon, they are a mean spirited, evil and vicious bunch of people, and no one epitomizes this better than Bartimaeus’ master, Khaba.

While on duty, Bartimaeus meets Asmira, who is on a secret mission to assassinate Solomon. Queen Sheba, whom Asmira serves, has decided that Solomon must be destroyed. Is a hereditary royal guard actually equipped to deal with a powerful ring of power, dangerous spirits and wily magicians? Highly unlikely. But when Asmira tricks Khaba and rescues Bartimaeus, she begins an action packed adventure that is managed by Bartimaeus with his customary, insolent élan. She may not succeed but you can bet she is having the time of her life!

Bartimaeus has a unique ability, the ability to get into trouble. He follows the letter of the order given to him (when he absolutely has to) but never the spirit. There is chaos when Bartimaeus is around and the only person having a hearty laugh about it is Bartimaeus himself.

Magic, a dash of mischief, a few misunderstandings and a lot of mayhem best describe Bartimaeus´ working style. When Khaba orders the spirits under his control to build Solomon a great temple, Bartimaeus needs but a few minutes to create total disorder in the ranks. Bartimaeus tells us,

“My work was done. The argument was going nicely: all discipline and focus had vanished, and the magician was a nice shade of purple….

Khaba gave a cry of rage. ‘All of you! Be still.’

But it was far too late. Our line had already disintegrated into a bickering melee of shaking fists and jabbing fingers. Tails whirled, horns flashed in the sun, one or two previously absent claws slyly materialized to reinforce their owners’ points. “

Although Bartimaeus would have you believe that he is a poor, oppressed spirit merely pining for the Other Place, he is having loads of fun misinterpreting orders and driving his masters wild by pointing out how puny, unintelligent and powerless they really are.

Add to this a satirical wit, a wicked sense of humor (at the expense of other spirits and magicians), and a love of adventure (while following orders; of course), and you get a djinni with attitude a mile high! He has you chuckling, laughing out loud and glued to the book – and never bored.

Sadly, the rest of the book is not as entertaining. The chapters that have Asmira on her way to Solomon’s court are, in particular, a bit of a drag but the ending, spectacular and tricky, much like Bartimaeus himself, is outstanding.

And much as I disliked Nathaniel in the trilogy, he was at least doing what he did because he was ambitious and good at heart. Here, Asmira’s enthusiasm comes merely from her belief that she must follow the Queen of Sheba’s orders at all costs. True, you cannot doubt her courage or her bravery, but ultimately she is just a slave like Bartimaeus, a fact he constantly reminds her of.

As is typical of Stroud’s books, there are serious undertones to the book – the corruption caused by power, slavery, the individual versus the role given by society… and you can think about these themes at leisure. But as with the trilogy, this prequel, for me, is firstly about Bartimaeus!

Put on your bookshelf if you haven’t already.