The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud
Summary from Goodreads:
The setting is an alternate version of biblical times during the reign of King Solomon, where magicians command djinni and Solomon rides herd over the known world due to his possession of an all-powerful ring that causes everyone to cower before him. The Queen of Sheba, aware that Solomon is preparing to disrupt her country's frankincense trade due to her refusal of his multiple marriage proposals, sends her most trusted guard, Asmira, to kill Solomon and steal the ring. Meanwhile, Bartimaeus has been humiliated because of his misbehavior and forced to work for Solomon's henchman, Khaba, on his new temple. After an amusing incident in which Bartimaeus is caught in the form of a hippo while illegally using magic to lay stones for Solomon's temple, he is sent to hunt other creatures who are disrupting trade routes. He encounters Asmira, traveling to Jerusalem under an assumed identity to accomplish her mission. How Bartimaeus ends up as her servant, and what they discover about the truth of Solomon's power, makes this a delightful and fascinating book, and it's likely to bring new fans to the original series. Bartimaeus is a wonderful creation, with his constant storytelling digressions delivered in the form of footnotes. But the new character, Asmira, is equally well rendered, with her keen ability with daggers providing her with much-needed self-defense.
This story isn't a continuation from where Ptolemy's Gate, the third book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy, left off. Rather it's a prequel of sorts. It's still Bartimaeus as our main djinni character but he has a different master, in a different time and in a different place. Nathaniel's not yet even conceived and Modern day London is replaced by Ancient Jerusalem.
Just as expected, Bartimaues is back in true form. And just as in the previous books, I believe he is still the main star. His narrations, observations and commentaries are as witty and sarcastic and hilarious as ever. His character remains consistent from the previous books. An insolent djinni of some power, but unlike most of his kind, he is not quick to eat and tear into a human, or a fumbling magician. It isn't to say he did not do that. But it depends really on how he perceives the human and his intentions. I find that he is a rather fine judge of character. It isn't only his sharp wit and ingenuity that stands out but also his heart. (technically, he doesn't have one because he is a spirit but you get what I mean) And I am glad that I have yet to read this particular quality of his in this story. He is one of the best and memorable characters ever written in middle grade literature, for me at least. This story is elevated to another level because of his narration.
Bartimaeus' POV switches with Asmira, the hereditary guard. A head strong young girl, skillful with knives, extremely brave, a bit of a fanatic. Her somewhat rigid, order-abiding character provides for a nice contrast to Bartimaeus' insolence and indifference. I find that she's somewhere in between a Nathaniel and a Kitty. While reading about her POV is not as much fun as Barty's, still her back story and personality and her own observations about politics and duty was a satisfying read. Plus, she and Barty made a wonderful duo with some really fun banters.
Plotwise, it's fast-paced, filled with adventure and humor. Not to mention political intrigue and conspiracies. King Solomon, holding the most powerful ring there is. A ring that could destroy and build kingdoms. Of course, that kind of power attracts all sorts of enemies both inside the king's court and outside. There are a variety of spirits shown here than before too and their nature and power was much more expressed and explained. (Farqual, Barty's nemesis djinn, makes a comeback here as well.) There is a stealthy castle trip, spirit chases and fights, backstabbing and outwitting. And despite knowing that Bartimaeus will come out alive, I was still on the edge of my seat all through the story.
While the ending was not as emotional and haunting as it was in Ptolemy's Gate. It was more on the fun and funny side. Happy even. I can best describe it as, a surprising moment of exalted victory when you think everything is just so bleak and you are surely to lose.
To say that I loved Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy would be an understatement. I was thoroughly obsessed with it. And like I said in my earlier post, reading the last book in a series has always been bittersweet for me. So, as much as I don't want this series to end, I think it's time to finally let Bartimaues go and as is the djinni's trademark, he went out with a bang.