Thursday, 25 November 2010

Bartimaeus and the Ring of Solomon

Bartimaeus and the Ring of Solomon Jonathan Stroud, 2010, Doubleday [Random House], 403 pages, paperback, NZ$36.99
ISBN 978 0 385 61916 5

Bartimaeus is back. Or, rather he’s before. When the Bartimeus trilogy ended with young Nathan the political kid-wizard joining forces (quite literally) with Bartimaeus of Uruk, his djinni servant, it was a terrible loss to fantasy literature.

Fortunately Jonathan Stroud has taken Bartimaeus at his word and allowed him to tell us the often-hinted-at story of his days with King Solomon. It is a prequel (ghastly word) that stands alone as a comic monument to recalcitrant spirits and their struggles with the bloody-minded magicians who try to enslave them. As always Bartimaeus lards his narrative with his distinctively acid wit. “Impartial observation liberally spiced with sarcasm and personal abuse,” he calls it. Then there are his footnotes – each one a comic gem.

According to Bartimaeus – and who would doubt his word? - King Solomon not only has a ring that can command the mightiest powers, but he also has 17 of the world’s finest magicians serving him. Each magician has a nasty collection of afrits, imps, foliots, djinn, spirits and marids under their command, all of them locked in a snarling web of intrigue and enchantment.

Bartimaeus’s current master, the magician Khaba the Cruel, is using the djinni to help build Solomon’s temple, but a new task arises when the Queen of Sheba rejects Solomon’s diplomacy. Asmira, a lively young female assassin, with sharp attitudes and sharper knives, is dispatched to kill Solomon, while Bartimaeus, as always, is seeking ways to turn events to his advantage. The result is a hilariously funny satire of magical fantasy sagas, with plenty of triple- and quadruple-crossing. Asmira is a character who we’d all like to meet again, and Bartimaeus in his youth (well, second millennium) is as much savage fun as ever.

Stroud has done two good things here. He has produced a prequel that is even better than the original trilogy, and he has found a way to produce many more future (mis)adventures for Bartimaeus.

Trevor Agnew

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