Monday, January 24, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 355 (1/24) -- The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

In the first half of the last decade, Jonathan Stroud wrote one of the great fantasy trilogies of our time -- and he did it under the "young readers" banner, so a lot of fantasy fans barely noticed. (The kids did; the first three "Bartimaeus Novels" were huge sellers and joyously received by both actual young readers and their teachers and librarians.) The original Bartimaeus trilogy starts off feeling like yet another response to Harry Potter -- with a young British hero learning how to use magic in a world that superficially resembles our own -- but Stroud had a much more ambitious plan than Rowling did; the Bartimaeus books blend serious philosophical and social issues with amazing action sequences, and tell their story in first two, then three distinctive, separate voices. Even more impressive, Stroud didn't go out of his way to make any of his main characters overly likable: that young British magician, Nathaniel, is cold and cruel, like all magicians in his world; the djinn he summons, the titular Bartimaeus, has a tremendously engaging first-person voice, but easily admits that he'd be happy to slaughter as many humans as he could and flee back to his own world; and the third voice has her own concerns, once she appears. Those three books -- The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, and Ptolemy's Gate -- were not just a good sequence of books for young readers, or a fine action trilogy, but one of the highlights of the modern fantasy scene, a fully-formed work worthy to be compared with Tim Powers or Gene Wolfe in its scope and power.

Six years later, Stroud returned to Bartimaeus and his world with a prequel, The Ring of Solomon, set about three thousand years earlier. Obviously, all of the human characters of the trilogy are absent, not having been born yet, but some of the supernatural folk are familiar, starting of course with Bartimaeus himself. And if Ring of Solomon isn't as impressive and strong as its predecessor, that's only to be expected from a prequel. While the original trilogy was about the essential limits of freedom and responsibility for both the summoned and the summoner, Ring of Solomon is a more conventional fantasy tale, with those nasty magicians on one side and the good guys (human and supernatural alike) on the other.

It's about 950 B.C., at the height of King Solomon's rule; Israel is the strongest power at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and Jerusalem is the greatest city of the age. Like the trilogy, Ring is told primarily through two voices, and, as in the trilogy, one of them is Bartimaeus, whose first-person voice narrates about half of the book. The rest of the book is in third-person, with a scattering of chapters from various points of view (suitable just for that moment) and more than a third given over to the other major protagonist, Asmira. Bartimaeus is in service to Khaba, one of Solomon's seventeen master magicians, and causing trouble as always. Asmira is a young woman, one of the hereditary guards of Balkis, Queen of Sheba, and has been set on a mission to Solomon's capital, Jerusalem, after Balkis has refused demands for first her hand in marriage and then a massive tribute from Solomon's supernatural emissaries.

So Bartimaeus wants to be free -- and, twice in the course of this novel, he thinks he is free to return to the Other Place, whence djinn and their compatriots come from -- and Asmira wants to stop Solomon's impending attack on her country, which she expects to do by finding her way to Solomon and killing him. But neither of those things will be easy, particularly while Solomon wears the ring of the title -- one of the strongest magical artifacts ever known, which summons a legion of medium-rank spirits when touched and calls a uniquely powerful spirit when turned.

Ring's plot has a lot of complications and action, but it's essentially linear: Bartimaeus and Asmira must meet and then work together to get to Solomon. That doesn't work out the way either of them expects, of course -- and not just because Jerusalem is absolutely crawling with higher-order spirits -- and the enjoyment of Ring is in seeing how that happens. Ring doesn't aim as high as the original trilogy did, though it does have a interesting line in the question of freedom and slavery, but it's still more than just a romp -- Stroud is a writer with a serious undertone, no matter how frivolous and off-handed Bartimaeus may seem at any given moment.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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