Jonathan Stroud, British fantasy author, put out the last book in his very successful Bartimaeus trilogy five years ago. The story focuses on a wise-cracking demon with a ‘talent’ for finding trouble, and an oft-bewildered young boy named Nathaniel, who summoned Bartimaeus to earth to do his bidding. Through the series of books, the lovable duo (who feel anything but love for each other) encounters political intrigue, creatures from the Other Place, and an enchanting, openly-magical London. The books were targeted for young teenagers.
Just a couple of months ago, Stroud surprised Bartimaeus fans by putting out a fourth book entitled, Ring of Solomon.
Being an immortal demon, Bartimaeus often bragged of his past exploits – proudly taking the blame for famous historical disasters or the collapse of empires – in footnotes to the reader. Well, Stroud finally takes readers back to one of those stories. Creating a veritable collage of the pre-established demon hierarchy, historical information, and Christian mythology, Stroud delivers a book that was just about as charming as his first three.
Bartimaeus has been enslaved by King Solomon via a magical ring for a number of years. Although Solomon seems like he’s got everything under control, his nation is coming apart at the seams – unruly ministers, desert rogues attacking his trade routes, and consistent marriage rejections from the Queen of Sheba are just a few of his worries. Bartimaeus, charged with the special task of taking down the desert rogues, finds himself in an unlikely alliance with Asmira, one of Sheba’s personal body guards. As war is looking more and more imminent, Bartimaeus is constantly faced with the choice of looking out for his own hide or saving the ancient world from falling into ruin.
One of the best parts of this book is that the plotline is standalone. You need not have read the trilogy to understand this book, nor will you “spoil” anything for yourself by reading this one first (in fact, it takes place over 2,000 years before the trilogy does). This is especially nice for people like me, who read the other books a long time ago and can’t remember the events so well.
After five years, I was a little afraid that Bartimaeus would not be as charming as I remembered him, but Stroud proved me wrong. It’s almost impossible not to appreciate Bartimaeus’s chatty tone. He tells his side of the story with obvious bias (in his own favor, naturally), submitting amusing asides or explanations to the reader as footnotes. The optimistic, unlucky, and eternally confident demon adds a comic element to an otherwise dark novel.
The story is told from alternating first person (Bartimaeus) and third person points of view. While I found most of the story interesting, the sections with Asmira were slow going at first. As a character, I found her to be remarkably similar to a hard working young woman from the original trilogy named Kitty, even though they were in very different circumstances. Don’t get me wrong, Kitty/Asmira is an interesting character and I enjoyed reading about her both times around. But I would have liked some variety – and maybe a character that was a bit more flawed.
For a young adult book, Ring of Solomon makes powerful statements about topics like slavery and women’s rights. Stroud is not at all in-your-face about these issues; rather, he weaves them into the plot with eloquence so that the readers can get the benefit of these lessons without feeling like they’re reading a political agenda. Another thing that I found surprising for a young adult book was that Stroud chose to deal directly with biblical themes. Fantasy and science fiction books sometimes run the risk of offending very religious people if they create a new religion, speak extensively of demons or spirits, etc. This book, however, treated Solomon as much more of a historical figure than a biblical one. Religion was left largely out of the picture. This was a good choice for the book, and allowed Stroud to tell the story without getting tangled in a complicated explanation of how God did or didn’t exist in harmony with the demons of the Other Place.
Generally speaking, the plot became quicker-paced and more interesting as it went along. The style was distinctly ‘Bartimaeus-ish’, just like the trilogy, and I was happy to see that this book held itself to the standards of the other three. I would have liked to see some improvement in Asmira’s storyline, but Bartimaeus’s cleverness certainly makes up for it. Ring of Solomon was a pleasant surprise and well worth reading whether you’ve been through the trilogy or not.
The books that constitute the Bartimaeus Trilogy are The Amulet of Samarkand (2003), The Golem’s Eye (2004), and Ptolemy’s Gate (2005).