Fans of Jonathan Stroud’s fantastic Bartimaeus Trilogy, which began with The Amulet of Samarkand and ended with Ptolemy’s Gate, will be happy to know that the title character — the wise-cracking fourth-level djinn who has long-standing issues with authority — is back and funny as ever in The Ring of Solomon.
Rather than continue the story of the first trilogy, though, or give us a typical “here’s what happened just before” prequel, Stroud has chosen to set this new story thousands of years earlier during the time of, well, Solomon (the title’s a bit of a giveaway). Luckily, when your main character is basically immortal, that isn’t a problem. Bartimaeus’ favorite bête noire Faquarl, a fellow djinn with whom he’s matched insults and blows for millennia, is back as well. Otherwise, we’ve an entirely new setting and a whole new cast of characters. Since Bartimaeus was the greatest strength of the trilogy, though, the loss of the others makes little difference.
The book opens in Jerusalem, where Bartimaeus and Faquarl have been summoned into the service of a cruel Egyptian magician, Khaba, who is himself in service to King Solomon. Years ago Solomon discovered a magic ring of immense power that allows him to summon untold numbers of minor and major spirits, as well as the Spirit of the Ring itself, a forbiddingly powerful demon. Solomon uses the threat of the ring to gather around himself a cadre of magicians whose summoned demons he employs to build his temple, help his people, and cow neighboring realms. One such realm is Sheba, whose queen has several times rejected Solomon’s marriage proposal.
The Ring of Solomon follows several plotlines. One is Bartimaeus’ trouble in behaving while under the whip (literally) of Khaba, who has his own powerful and mysterious demon protector. Bartimaeus’ troubles with Khaba open up another storyline as the two, along with Faquarl, get sent into the hinterlands to deal with the bandits who have been ambushing caravans. There, Bartimaeus meets Asmira, a Queen’s Guard from Sheba who has been sent on a suicide mission to assassinate Solomon and steal his ring. Her attempt to do so, and Bartimaeus’ involvement, makes up much of the latter half of the book.
As with the earlier trilogy, Bartimaeus’ voice — he narrates the entire book — is the reason to read The Ring of Solomon. Oh, the story itself is more than adequate. There are some twists and turns, a few surprising developments. Asmira develops as a character in realistic and (by the end) moving fashion. But it’s that singular, sarcastic, boasting, footnoting, narcissistic voice that carries you along. Whether he’s namedropping (“When I was spear-bearer to Gilgamesh”), regaling the reader with his exploits (“yours truly forgetfully popping out to buy some figs in the guise of a rotting corpse, thus causing the Great Fruit Market Terror”), or even offering up cooking advice (“one roc’s egg, scrambled, feeds roughly 700 wives”) it’s a voice you can’t help but get sucked in by.
I laughed out loud on several occasions, read lines and passages to my wife on others, and simply reveled in the voice the rest of the time. Stroud tempers the sarcasm with a true warmth in the tone. Bartimaeus may play the gruff demon who hates all humans (he does, in fact, eat one in the novel), but even Faquarl calls him out on his act: “This has always been your trouble! Getting all softheaded over a human just because she’s got a long neck and a steely eye.”
In the trilogy, Bartimaeus was a major character, but one of several who shared the narrative spotlight. With The Ring of Solomon, Stroud has stripped down the characters and streamlined the plot, making this more YA than the trilogy and letting Bartimaeus’ voice shine on every page. It doesn’t have the depth or complexity of the earlier books, but is no less enjoyable for that. I highly recommend it and am hoping for more. After all, there’s a gap of a few thousand years to fill in between this book and the first of the trilogy… lots of time and opportunity for Bartimaeus to get in more trouble.
Bartimaeus — (2003-2011) Ages 9-12. Publisher: A witty, gripping adventure story featuring a boy and his not-so-tame djinni. Nathaniel is a young magician’s apprentice, taking his first lessons in the arts of magic. But when a devious hotshot wizard named Simon Lovelace ruthlessly humiliates Nathaniel in front of everyone he knows, Nathaniel decides to kick up his education a few notches and show Lovelace who’s boss. With revenge on his mind, he masters one of the toughest spells of all: summoning the all-powerful djinni, Bartimaeus. But summoning Bartimaeus and controlling him are two different things entirely, and when Nathaniel sends the djinni out to steal the powerful Amulet of Samarkand, Nathaniel finds himself caught up in a whirlwind of magical espionage, murder, blackmail, and revolt. Set in a modern-day London spiced with magicians and mayhem, this extraordinary, funny, pitch-perfect thriller will dazzle the myriad fans of Artemis Fowl and the His Dark Materials trilogy. And with the rights sold in more than a dozen countries, and a major motion picture in the works, the Bartimaeus trilogy is on the fast track to becoming a classic.