Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Ring of Solomon

The Ring of Solomon
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 13+

Some trilogies are open-ended. When the author decides to add a fourth book to it, we start to call it the So-and-So Quartet. Since fans of a series are unlikely to regret the arrival of a new installment, this sort of thing is usually embarrassing only to publishers who have invested money in packaging the first three books as the So-and-So Trilogy, and to unsparingly critical readers who notice (sometimes) that the fourth book isn't quite as good. But what do we do when a trilogy comes to a very definite, final end—like, for example, the Bartimaeus Trilogy, whose human protagonist John Mandrake made the final sacrifice at the end of book three? (Oops. Spoilers!) How does the author get away with adding a fourth book to the series? It's easy, actually. He makes it a prequel. And he makes it good.

The Ring of Solomon rewinds the series' alternate history of the world to the time of—you guessed it—King Solomon, of biblical fame. (Proverbs, anyone? Ecclesiastes? Song of Songs? The building of the first temple to the God of Israel? That guy.) This is, of course, long before the magically-enhanced version of our present day in which the original trilogy takes place. It is even before the time of Ptolemy, the young Egyptian prince whose memory the older Bartimaeus revered. It's a magical adventure in ancient history, with the charming difference that all the great achievements of mankind have been carried out by magicians, aided by demons summoned from the Other Place. And one of the most enterprising, clever, and sharp-tongued of these bound spirits is a certain fourth-level djinni whose name you already know.

Since the dawn of civilization, Bartimaeus has been grudgingly doing the bidding of those magicians skilled enough to bend him to their will—though they have never been able to stop him complaining and wise-cracking about it. As for those magicians without the needed skills, let's just say Bartimaeus found them delicious and move on. We find one of the latter kind summoning Bartimaeus in the opening pages of this book. As punishment for snacking on one of his court magicians, Solomon orders an Egyptian wizard named Khaba to discipline the djinni. So Bartimaeus finds himself on an all-demon work crew, building Solomon's temple and hunting bandits. At the site of a battle with those very bandits—some magicians and their captive afrits—Bartimaeus first crosses paths with a girl named Asmira, who has traveled from a distant Arabian kingdom on orders from her queen, the Queen of Sheba, to assassinate King Solomon.

What? Why? Didn't the Queen of Sheba like Solomon? Well, in our world, yes. But in Bartimaeus's world, the Queen of Sheba has been ordered to pay an expensive yearly tribute to King Solomon, on pains of seeing her kingdom destroyed. And Solomon could do it, too. He wears a ring on his finger that can instantly call armies of djinn, afrits, and marids to his command—each level of demon more powerful than the last. Plus, he has a council of seventeen wizards in his service, each able to summon any number of demons, from imps and foliots on up. Khaba is only one of them, though perhaps the most evil and ruthlessly ambitious among them. His very shadow is a marid that (yuck) loves his master, and the two of them together enjoy torturing spirits who look at them the wrong way.

So, when Khaba and his marid minion decide Bartimaeus deserves to be imprisoned in a bottle... and when Solomon's would-be assassin breaks the bottle and summons Bartimaeus to assist her... history's drollest djinni finds himself in a tight spot indeed. Now he has to help a clueless Arabian girl elude layer after layer of magically enhanced security to face off against a king who, at one turn of the ring on his finger, can destroy spirits far more powerful than Bartimaeus himself. He must also risk the servants of the other seventeen mages, including Khaba and his marid who have already proven too strong for him; and even if they get the ring away from Solomon, what then? What if the power of the ring proves too much for Asmira or even Bartimaeus to hold? What if the wise king really isn't the villain who threatens Sheba and its queen? What if succeeding in her mission no longer matters to Asmira? And what if an even greater danger threatens them all?

To answer these what-ifs, you'll just have to read Jonathan Stroud's latest installment in the adventures of Bartimaeus. It won't be hard to keep the pages turning. The adventure is so straightforwardly thrilling, and the bits narrated by Bartimaeus are so deliciously loaded with gruesome shivers, biting sarcasm, colorful boasts, and self-referential comedy, that even the footnotes won't slow you down. (You may want to skip the footnotes if you don't have a stomach for, say, a recipe for lightly grilled human marrow, pickled magician, etc.) Consider the whole book a proving ground for a "what-if" scenario: What if King Solomon's relationship with the Queen of Sheba was less a case of mutual admiration and respect, and more of a diplomatic crisis? What if, while serving the one God of Israel, Solomon retained the services of spirits such as Bartimaeus, and wizards like Khaba? What would happen at a meeting of the wise-cracking and the wise? And if a ring like Solomon's was ever in the world, how could there still be a world for Ptolemy and John Mandrake to live in?

I was going to call this Stroud's latest book, but more recently (in 2013) he came out with The Screaming Staircase, Book 1 of a new series titled "Lockwood & Co." For more information on this fresh start, visit his website.

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