"The old man looked up at me. 'Bartimaeus--'
'That's my name,' I said. 'Now, are you going to get up, or shall I come to you?'"The Ring of Solomon (2010) by Jonathan Stroud
Let's flashback seven weeks ago: remember how I was beside myself in geeky anticipation of an unexpected prequel to the Bartimaeus Trilogy, a series of novels I love? Just last Friday, I walked into the sad excuse of a bookstore we have in small-town Malacca and lo, a trade paperback edition of the book was sitting on the new releases' shelf, lifting the hem of its skirt at me. Considering that I wasn't expecting to see it until possibly early next year, to call it a pleasant surprise would be a gross understatement. I actually gasped when I saw it, and bagged it on the spot. I finished reading it over the weekend with the accompaniment of several Starbucks lattes and now, I'm suffering from some kind of acute literary withdrawal. I feel hollow and irritable. I feel angry at myself for pigging myself out on the new book so quickly, leaving me wanting more so bad.
This spoiler-free review is my way of working it out.
The Ring of Solomon is a standalone novel featuring Bartimaeus; the funny, irreverent, charismatic djinni we first encountered in Jonathan Stroud's tremendous (if underrated) contribution to spec fic and children fantasy, the Bartimaeus Trilogy. While the original books were set in an alternate version of London ruled by megalomaniacal, corrupt magicians, The Ring of Solomon turned the hourglass about 3000 years back - back to the time of Solomon the Wise.
For those of you who are counting and are fans of the original novels, that's before Bartimaeus met Ptolemy circa 127 BCE. Needless to say, that's one of the reasons why I was so excited about this prequel; I wanted to know the the demon before the boy.
I consider Bartimaeus one of my top three favourite fictional characters alongside the Batman villain, Joker, and the Raven King from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - and The Ring of Solomon only solidified my opinion of the incorrigibly depraved djinni. Initially, I had reservations about reading one of Barty's many alluded ancient adventures because it might ruin how I imagined his past to be, and a tale writ black and white is rarely superior to the stuff of our imaginations. This new book is one such rare treasure, and I rank it as highly as I rank the first book of the trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand. The book have everything a Barty fan can wish for: a bigger-than-ever serving of Barty's first-person narrative, the historical in-jokes, the laugh-out-loud asides in the footnotes, and the djinni's comical dealings with magicians and other spirits. I sure hope you have at least a passing familiarity with the Bible (or at least the stories about Solomon) because some of the best gags will fly right over your head if you don't.
Nathaniel, who was Bartimaeus master in the events of the trilogy, was the perfect straight man to the djinni's jibes and high jinks. I won't spoil anything but Barty certainly had no shortage of foils in The Ring of Solomon. There's a character here who strongly reminded me of Kitty - a central character in the preceding books - but in the best ways possible. I know how much fans malign Kitty (mostly for stealing screen time away from Barty).
The novel featured an interesting exploration of the concept of slavery, one which I believe was never properly addressed in the antecedent books. You see, in Barty's universe, all magicians gain power by summoning and enslaving beings such as Bartimaeus to do their biddings - which is a dangerous endeavour for the magicians and an abusive contract for the bonded spirits. The Ring of Solomon extended the theme to ideas of loyalty to one's ruler, nation, duty, ideals and beliefs. I can always appreciate a book which is able to open up new avenues of thought for me.
One of the most triumphant successes of The Ring of Solomon is its entrancing re-imagination of Old Testament Israel as a kingdom ruled by magicians. Likewise, one of the most enjoyable elements in the original trilogy is the invention of Gladstone's London where the royal family was deposed while a Parliament of politician-magicians run a dystopian country at the cusp of decadence and the brink of revolution. The author, Jonathan Stroud, managed to do it again with Solomon's Jerusalem without rehashing his previous ideas. I'm completely behind the man if he's planning more books detailing Barty's epic escapades in ancient Sumer as Gilgamesh's spear-bearer or his long and illustrious career in ye olde Egypt. And I certainly won't say no to reading about his time in service to Scipio Aemillianus Africanus (when he witnessed the fall of Carthage), 13th century China (where he and the djinni Faquarl assassinated Genghis Khan using poisoned grapes) or imperial Prague before it was conquered by Gladstone. Apparently, Bartimaeus was also present at the Battle of Persepolis where Alexander the Great - my personal hero - defeated Darius, so I'm holding out for this one in particular.
Just to draw this glowing, gushing review to a close: The Ring of Solomon is a surefire hit with fans of the first three books and being a standalone work, it is going to delight new readers as well. With luck, it will inflate the djinni's following even more. Hopefully, with an increasing number of people clamouring to read about Barty's adventures, Mr Stroud will get to working on more books to add to the mythology. Everybody wins!
Now if you'll excuse me, I got a book to re-read.
P.S. There is one plot point in The Ring of Solomon which nearly ruined the story for me but considering how awesome the rest of the book was, I was willing to overlook it. If you're curious and have already read the novel, highlight within brackets to reveal: [It's Bartimaeus' use of the titular ring to defeat the marid Ammet - after it was explicitly and repeatedly implied that such a stunt would tear the djinni's essence apart. I nearly threw the book across the room with great force at Stroud's complete disregard of the stakes he had set up in the story]
Wants his own fourth level djinni,
k0k s3n w4i