Review : The Ring Of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

(Bartimaeus) "I wanted to wake you straightaway, but I knew I had to wait several hours to ensure you were safely recovered." (Nathaniel) "What! How long has it been?" (Bartimaeus) "Five minutes, I got bored."
That was your introduction to Bartimaeus, a sarcastic and cheeky djinni who was the highlight of the Bartimaeus trilogy, who returns in this eagerly awaited book. Whenever prequels or sequels to finished series are released, I am filled with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation, more so for a prequel to one of my favorite book trilogies of all time. Thankfully, Bartimaeus is back in his element, still kick-ass. The Ring of Solomon Official Description :
Bartimaeus, everyone’s favorite (wise-cracking) djinni, is back in book four of this best-selling series. As alluded to in the footnotes throughout the series, Bartimaeus has served hundreds of magicians during his 5,010 year career. Now, for the first time, fans will go back in time with the djinni, to Jerusalem and the court of King Solomon in 950s BC. Only in this adventure, it seems the great Bartimaeus has finally met his match. He’ll have to contend with an unpleasant master and his sinister servant, and runs into just a “spot” of trouble with King Solomon’s magic ring... .

Yes, Bartimaeus is back. Back with a bang bigger than the Big Bang. And it is through his wonderfully sarcastic point of view that we are taken through the events of the books which just happen to involve among the most powerful magical objects of all time. This is a pattern of the Bartimaeus books, Stroud introduces a powerful magical device and the rest of the book loosely revolves around it. And does this work ? You bet it does. The 6 year gap after Ptolemy's Gate has not dulled Stroud's storytelling skills in the least and the prequel is as great a read as the rest of his books if not better.

This time round, when Bartimaeus 'deals' with one of the magicians under Solomon's command, Solomon is angered and demands his most powerful magician, Khaba the Cruel to bring him in line, but Khaba is already working to overthrow Solomon, attain the ring and control of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Asmira, Guard Captain of Balkis, the Queen Of Sheba is sent on a mission to assassinate Solomon. How this all plays out forms the book's 400+ pages.

Just a good story, does not make a great book, you need some different characters to carry it as well. The book does have a lot of interesting characters like the loyal guard and our second protagonist Asmira, the sickly, ambitious and cruel magician Khaba, the 'wise', magnanimous but still grand and flashy Solomon and an assortment of spirits with colorful personalities doing their master's biddings. None of the characters come off as one-sided, nobody is a model of goodness or the devil's relative, everyone is a mixed bag, just like real humans. Cunning old Faquarl is the only character carried over from the past books, and though he's on the same side as Bartimaeus, manages to leave an impression, especially in a monologue after a certain desert fight.

All well and good, but its our dear old Bartimaeus who steals the show. Whether he's doing manual labour (forced), fighting entities(read : trying to escape with minimal damage) greater than him, stealthily bypassing defenses considered impregnable or just observing the mundane lives of humans while peppering the whole narrative with his experiences from his eventful existence ("Yours truly popping out to buy some figs in the guise of a rotting corpse, thus causing the Great Fruit Market Terror") and witty remarks ("Thing was, just by looking at him, I could see Solomon modeled himself on the big boys - the King's of Assyria and Babylon way to the east, tough potentates who didn't get out of bed without a defeated enemy's neck to step en route to the bathroom"), he is the reason you will LOVE the book. With a strange sort of courage and sense of self-preservation, old Barty is among the most entertaining and vivid characters you will ever read. The book is filled with footnotes where Bartimaeus offers his informative and amusing observations.

The book is well paced, starting slowly, introducing the characters, familiarizing us with the setting, the atmosphere and society of magic-riddled Jerusalem a general 950 BC way of life. With the initial setup done, events escalate quickly, with the last few chapters happening in a rush, barely giving you a chance to catch your breath. Stroud uses a first person style for the narrative, most of the story is told through the viewpoint of Bartimaeus and Asmira, plus one by Balkis, the same style he used in the previous Bartimaeus books. His writing style is great, and especially shines through in scenes where tension or misunderstanding between characters is shown. Thanks to the pacing and the plot twists, the book is a page-turner. The only flaw of the book is lack of complexity when compared to the earlier trilogy but then again, the trilogy had .... well, 3 books to build up that depth. The humor might feel slightly repetitive if you read the other books recently but you don't need to because the prequel is great even as a standalone book displaying Stroud's comic genius and entertaining writing. In a way, Stroud has streamlined the Bartimaeus world, keeping the best of it : Bartimaeus.

Put it to the well rounded characters, magical skirmishes, our cheeky djinni's wisecracks or the plot twists, but 'The Ring Of Solomon' is one hell of a read. I can whole-heartedly recommend this book to all lovers of fantasy and impertinence.

I tried, but I can't finish this review without another quote : "Can you define 'plan' as 'a loose sequence of manifestly inadequate observations and conjectures, held together by panic, indecision and ignorance' ?If so, it was a very good plan."

Rating: 4.5/5