Thursday, 21 October 2010
Review: Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon - Jonathan Stroud
Bartimaeus is a djinni - a shape-shifting spirit enslaved to carry out the wishes of one of Solomon's ruthless magicians. He spends much of his leftover time and energy trying to find a magical loophole that will somehow allow him to escape his bonds and get back to the Other Place. Until, that is, he chews his master up, spits him out, and gets sentenced to a spirit chain gang for his trouble.
When Bartimaeus rescues mysterious traveller Asmira from bandits, he thinks he's found a way out. But he doesn't realise Asmira is following orders of her own, and she's intent on taking him with her...
I have to be honest here, it took me a little while to get hooked by The Ring of Solomon, the prequel to Jonathan Stroud's hugely popular Bartimaeus trilogy. At first I wasn't sure why. All the ingredients were there, and I'd been looking forward to picking it up. Then a friend of mine who has read - and loved - all the previous Bartimaeus books suggested that it was because I didn't have an existing relationship with the main character. As it turned out, that was spot on. By the time djinni Bartimaeus crosses paths with girl assassin Asmira, he'd grown on me - a lot. His unique blend of arrogance, sarcasm and all round swagger kept me utterly entertained for the next few hundred pages, and by the time the ending rolled around I felt like we were old friends.
While readers of the original trilogy will pick up The Ring of Solomon knowing exactly what kind of treat awaits them, it's certainly not essential preparation for the prequel experience. This story is a standalone, and sees Bartimaeus (reluctantly) sharing the spotlight with an all-new character in the surprisingly formidable Asmira - a knife-throwing priestess who brings new meaning to the phrase 'girl power'. Stroud makes sure new readers are kept up to speed about magical practices, summonings and spirits with the help of brief background notes and Bartimaeus's own unique approach to footnotes. And by unique, I mean witty and deadpan and generally made of win.
As a djinni, Bartimaeus isn't one of those fairytale genie types that most people will remember from childhood. While he can be summoned to do the bidding of human 'masters', he's not about to happily grant three wishes to anyone who cares to clean up an old lamp. Especially since the powerful magicians who summon him are effectively binding him into captivity with their incantations - and they know it. Bartimaeus's trademark petulance and barefaced cheek may be amusing, but it also reflects the reality of his plight. He spends eternity locked in a cycle of being summoned, carrying out duties as a sort of supernatural slave, and trying to find a way to destroy his captor and be free again. Probably the most fascinating aspect of The Ring of Solomon is the way that it explores the dynamic between master and slave. It's a book that makes you think about the way those roles are mirrored in the real world, and how - if at all - that cycle can be broken.
Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon is a cracking read. While marketed for children, it's one of those books that genuinely works as a crossover title because it's not about the experience of any one particular age group. It's the kind of book a parent would buy for their child, and then end up squabbling over who gets to read it first. Clever and snarky and epic, it's a story for everybody.
Out: October 14th 2010, UK
A big thanks to Random House / Doubleday for providing a review copy.