British versions of the Harry Potter series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’ve developed a love for fantasy fiction. It started with JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which I read through college and into adulthood. After a long break from this genre, I returned to it with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, which was recommended to me by a colleague in the US. (I don’t understand the hysteria around these novels – after reading the first book I wanted to gag, but they did seem to get better. Or maybe I knew what to expect.) Then came Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), the brilliant and complex Fire & Ice series by George RR Martin and Joanne Harris’ novels based on Norse mythology (Runemarks and Ruinlight), and I was firmly hooked onto the genre.
So when I got the opportunity to review Bartimaeus for RHI, I jumped at the chance.
The novel starts with one of King Solomon’s 17 magicians commanding the demon Bartimaeus to search “the known world for objects of beauty and power” at the behest of the king. But keeping charge of a demon is no easy task. You have to be sure that your commands are worded without any loopholes that can be exploited and that you are always within your pentacle, or the demon will be quick to kill you to gain its freedom.
“Rizim had put the other eye out on a rare occasion when our master had made a slight mistake with the words of his summoning. We’d additionally managed to scorch his backside once or twice, and there was a scar on his neck where I’d come close with a lucky ricochet, but despite a long career commanding more than a dozen formidable djinn, the magician remained vigorous and spry. He was a tough old bird.”
A feat that Bartimaeus accomplishes within the first few chapters of the novel. And that earns him the retribution of Solomon, who orders the magician Khaba to summon and enslave him. At the same time, he tasks Khaba with constructing a marvellous temple with a workforce comprising of a bunch of demons, including Bartimaeus. But true to form, Bartimaeus manages to irk King Solomon yet again, getting Khaba kicked off the temple project and sent to the desert to hunt bandits.
Meanwhile, in far away Sheba, the Queen receives a messenger from the King. Seeing as she has refused his offer of marriage multiple times, Solomon now orders her to pay him a tribute of frankenseince or see her city destroyed at the hands of an army of spirits. What makes Solomon’s threat so ominous is the ring that he discovered years ago, which allows him to summon an untold number of spirits and command the forbiddingly powerful Spirit of the Ring. The threat of this ring brings a number of magicians to Solomon’s court, whose summoned demons are used to build temples, maintain law and order and keep the peace. It’s a ring that everyone wants…but no one should have. Anyway, back to Sheba. To save her country, the queen sends Asmira, a loyal captain of her guard, to Jerusalem to kill the king and take his ring. And this is where the real fun of the novel begins.
Jonathan Stroud’s version of Jerusalem is peopled with monstrous djinnis, marids and afrits, all of whom are enslaved to a magician and must carry out their every command. He’s taken stories about King Solomon from the Old Testament and given them a magical spin, with Bartimaeus cooking up trouble, cracking humorous wisecracks and causing mayhem wherever he goes. The story has some interesting twists and turns, with evil getting its due reward (or rather, punishment) in the end.
The principal character of the novel is Bartimaeus, and he is absolutely delightful! He’s got this wicked sense of humour
“Then again, Solomon was human. And that meant he was flawed (Go on, take a look at yourself in the mirror. A good long look, if you can bear it. See? Flawed’s putting it mildly, isn’t it?)”
with a side of sarcasm
“It’s the same with spirit guises; show me a sweet little choirboy or a smiling mother and I’ll show you the hideous fanged strigoi it really is. (Not always. Just sometimes. *Your* mother is absolutely fine, for instance. Probably.)”
along with a healthy dose of boastfulness
“‘The Evasive Cartwheel’™ ©, etc., Bartimaeus of Uruk, circa 2800 BC. Often imitated, never surpassed. As famously memorialized in the New Kingdom tomb paintings of Rameses III – you can just see me in the background of The Dedication of the Royal Family Before Ra, wheeling out of sight behind the pharaoh.”
Jonathan has also taken care with his human characters. Asmira, for instance, goes from being convinced about her mission to kill Solomon, to feeling helpless and worthless, and finally finding her sense of purpose as the story unfolds. King Solomon too, despite being a known figure, has been given some rather interesting character twists.
Most of the chapters are narrated by Bartimaeus, and these include back stories and explanations of various magical (and other) terms – told in the form of footnotes – in his distinctive (read: witty and sarcastic) voice. Some of the chapters are narrated by Asmira and others are in third person – and all of these transitions are handled well.
What I enjoyed most about the book, though, was Bartimaeus and his wit! The Ring of Solomon is the prequel to the Bartimaeus trilogy, which I haven’t read. So, I can say with full confidence: if you haven’t read the trilogy and don’t think you want to get into one, read this one book – it works perfectly as a stand-alone novel. Me? I’m going to be reading the rest of the trilogy – I need to know what trouble Bartimaeus cooked up in modern day London! 😉
Disclaimer: I got a copy of this book from Random House India, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.