Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review: The Ring of Solomon

Not quite a prequel to Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy, set in an alternate, modern day London where the technology doesn't seem quite as advanced but where magicans have been summoning spirits (what we, and they, call demons) since ancient times and I enjoyed the trilogy quite a bit. So when I came across this book at the local library, well over a year since it came out (I had seen it around in bookstores before but hadn't heard much of it so I had forgotten to look around my libraries for it) I figured it was about time to jump back into the series and see how it fared.

The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

Summary: Long before Bartimaeus was ever summoned to London he served under hundreds of other masters and like many dijinn one day he found himself in Jerusalem under a cruel master who was one of King Solomon’s highest magicians and thus his servitude begins anew. But while things look bright for Israel other nations resent how high and mighty Solomon has become and how he now taxes their nations, if they refuse they will feel the full wrath of his ring that can summon untold numbers of spirits. The Queen of Sheba is the latest person to be approached with these demands which she does not like one bit and so she sends one of her most faithful guards, Asmira, with the daunting task of killing Solomon and retrieving the ring. Of course, given that Bartimaeus becomes involved in this story it doesn’t go nearly as smoothly as anyone plans….

The Good: The story is a nice call back to the original trilogy where Bartimaeus often boasted that he had talked with Solomon, normally followed by a fellow spirit going “well who didn’t, the man got around”, and it’s nice to get more than bits and pieces of his original adventure (although I would have loved to hear about his time with Ptolemy in Egypt even more). The book, even though it's not a true prequel to the story, fits in well thematically, Bartimaeus is lazy but clever (with many footnotes), all magicians/people in positions of power are conniving bastards (with the lone character who fits into none of those categories is supposed to be sympathetic but is a bit dumb), and all the plans end up being more complicated than they probably needed to be (but in a fun way). In short, if you enjoyed the original trilogy you'll like this but if you aren't already familiar with the series this isn't as great a place to start.  

The Bad: One of the things that made the original books so much fun was the multiple points of view (Bartimaeus, Nathaniel and then later a third person named Kitty) and sadly Asmira is not as interesting a character nor as good a balance as those two were (this book actually reminded me of the first book of the trilogy a bit, neither Nathan nor Asmira felt real enough to me as Kitty did). The story never feels grounded enough and with a fantasy story you do need a certain amount of grounding, without that it’s hard to take any detail, fantastical or mundane, seriously and that’s when a story starts to fall apart. I also had a hard time figuring out if Solomon was supposed to be a multi-faceted character or if Stroud decided close to the end that he needed Solomon to be more sympathetic or the story wouldn’t work.

In the end I was disappointed by this, the story wasn't nearly as strong as I was expecting and none of the characters, yes even Bartimaeus, just weren't interesting. The setting was a nice change of pace, I've been studying ancient history lately so it was nice to read something actually set in the time period, but that was all I got out of it. I'm in two frames of mind over whether or not to recommend it; on the one hand I'm sure some fans liked it better than me, on the other I just didn't get anything out of reading it and don't have the urge to buy it (and I do already own the other three books). So I guess the review will have to speak for itself this time then.  

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