Book review: Bartimaeus: Ring of Solomon – Jonathan Stroud

English: British versions of the Harry Potter ...

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.
Bartimaues: Ring of SolomonA 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.

Book review: I Rama: Age of Seers by Ravi Venu

“There will be a time when men will fight among themselves in the name of God, when peace will fail; at that time a part of me will re-emerge.”

Here’s another retelling of the Ramayana, this time, told from the perspective of Rama. The blurb on the back and the fresh perspective sounded promising, and I was really looking forward to reading the book. When I got it in the mail, the first thing that struck me was how slim the volume is, just 257 pages, considering it’s supposed to be a trilogy. But I cracked it open with great excitement.

The story is narrated by Rama at a time when he knows he is about to leave the mortal world. Starting from when he was around 17 years old, the book traces his story until he is sent into exile by Queen Kaikeyi.  A major portion of the book deals with the lessons he and his brother Laxman learnt from Bramha Rishi Vishwamitra when they went with him to fight the demon Tataka and her two sons.

The most interesting twist in the story is that of Queen Kaikeyi. Instead of the usual portrayal as a woman who sends Rama into exile to put her son on the throne, Venu casts her as a key to unfolding the legend and allowing Rama to go after his destiny. She tells Rama about the signs she has seen and the intelligence she has gathered, about how important it is for him to go alone and fight the demon king Ravana. She tells him that she plans to use the two boons she won from King Dashrath in battle to ask him to send Rama into exile and put Bharat on the throne, as once Rama has gone, his father will not be in a state to rule the kingdom.

That, I have to say, is the only interesting part of the book.

Unlike Ashok Banker’s excellent Ramayana series, in which he has humanized Rama, or Amish’s brilliant story telling in the tale of Shiva, whom he imagines as a normal man who attained the status of God through legend, Venu has presented this tale as a fantasy of unbelievable proportions. According to him, the seers and sages who roamed the planet at the time were actually supernatural beings who came to earth through time portals, using earth to exert control over many astral planes. Which is the reason why, we are led to believe, celestials (good forces) and demons (negative forces) fought to gain control over earth. But while the celestials use their positive energy to foster humans, demons just want to gain supremacy over earth and feast on humans! All developments in art and science were also apparently brought to humans by these supernatural celestials. Total suspension of belief required to read this, if you ask me.

At this point, I must say that I enjoy fantasy fiction. (The Song of Fire and Ice series, anyone?) But in fantasy fiction, you create a different world with magical beasts (like dragons) and different countries (like Westeros). You don’t create fantasy fiction out of religious texts! You either humanize the characters and present them as  more believable human beings (Ashok Banker) or imagine them as normal human beings whose legendry deeds made them into Gods (Amish) or present a different take on the story if you like (in this one, for e.g., the re-imaging of Queen Kaikeyi). But you don’t convert it into fantasy fiction!

Apart from this, the writing is shoddy. Sample this:

“The brothers had acquired this art of stealth movement as Mother Sumitra grew them both alike in their skills.”

Or this:

“Before the sages took over, Earth developed itself by means of organisms and huge monsters; it took a long time for this planet to evolve from those large beasts to the present human kinds.”

Overall, this is one series you can safely miss. Read this one at your own risk!

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Book review: Caught in Crystal – Patricia C. Wrede

I seem to be on a reading and reviewing roll lately. Here’s another interesting read for all you fantasy fiction buffs out there.
Caught in Crystal - Patricia C. WredeCaught in Crystal tells the story of Kayl, an inn keeper struggling to maintain her inn and raise to two children. Things seem normal until the arrival of Corrana, a member of the Sisterhood of Stars (a coven of witches). It turns out that Kayl was a member of the sisterhood too, but she left her position as one of the best fighters and strategists of the coven after a mission went horribly wrong. But now, the Sisterhood needs her to return to the Twisted Tower, bringing Kayl’s past crashing down around her.

The first half of the book traces Kayl’s journey back to Kith Alunel – the dangers on the road, flashbacks into the past, and her struggle to regain her fighting form and keep her children out of harm. Though interesting, it makes for very slow reading, because nothing really happens during this time. However,  Patricia Wrede’s charecterization is quite good, making you plough through the pages because you want to know how things turn out for Kayl and her children.

It’s in the second half of the novel that things start to pick up. Kayl realizes that she has no option but to return to the Twisted Tower, and that no matter how hard she tries, her children will be involved in the mission. As they journey towards the Tower, we get a glimpse into the shadowy events of the first mission and the secrets and motivations driving the members of the circle. There’s magic and action, secrets unfolding, and the center of it all, the Twisted Tower and the sinister sorcery inside it.

Overall, then, the story is interesting and the charectors are likable. The plot, however, plods along in some places and zips through in others, making the pacing a bit uneven. The other bone I have to pick is with the setting – some places, like Kith Alunel are described well, but I couldn’t quite get a feel of the place she set this fantasy story in. This could be, in part, because Caught in Crystal is a series  – its the fourth book in Patricia Wrede’s Lyra series. I wouldn’t call it a deal breaker, because even though I haven’t read any of the other books, I had no problem following the events in this one, which makes it perfect as a stand alone read.

Avatar: Opening a Pandora’s box of issues

Watched James Cameron’s Avatar this weekend — it’s a brilliant movie!
The plot can essentially be summed up thus: Ex- marine Jake Sully manages to gain the trust of the indigenous Na’vi with the intent to double-cross them at the end. Along the way, though, he falls in love with cat woman Neytiri and with the philosophy and way of life of the cat people, finally leading an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.

However, there is more to the movie than initially meets the eye. On one level, Avatar is a fantasy flick with stunning visual effects, but on another, it has a more shadowy subtext —a discussion about race, oppression and the annihilation of an indigenous people for access to natural resources. Cameron also draws heavily from Red Indian philosophy when characterizing the Na’vi people, be it their ritual of thanking the spirit of animals they kill for meat, their respect for nature, belief in the Ehwa (pure souls), or their gathering space under the Wisdom tree, where they can hear the voices of all the elders.

Dig a little deeper, and there’s a subtext on the length that developed countries are willing to go to secure oil or other natural resources (in the case of the movie, a rare mineral that can save the earth) —Col. Miles Quaritch giving orders to bomb the area that has the highest concentration of the mineral (right under the Na’vi’s wisdom tree). Makes you think back to the Gulf War and the battle against Iran.

Then there’s the colonizers creed — the indigenous people are always backward, even though they have a deeper understanding of nature and the environment, so give them western clothes, teach them the language, and get them to co-operate by any means possible. If that fails, use force. So what if their sacred spaces are destroyed?

Overall, Avatar scores because it caters to all kinds of viewers — those who just want to be entertained, and those who also want to think. Since there is no in-your-face preaching on the subtext of the movie, you can choose to ignore it and be amazed at the world of Pandora. Or you can have your cake and eat it too — enjoy the stunning visual effects while stimulating your mind. Either ways, you’re sure to love the movie!