One of the most delightful literary characters to appear in the last decade is the cheeky Bartimaeus–a five-thousand-year-old djinni (“genie”) who plays the lead role in Jonathan Stroud’s trilogy The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, and Ptolemy’s Gate.
In Stroud’s world, magicians have no magic in themselves, but they do have the lore to summon and enslave demons, who can work magic. There are demons of various levels and powers. The lowest regularly summoned and enslaved are Imps, who can be crude and like to tell outright whoppers, but are good for standing watch and carrying messages. Next come Foliots, which Bartimaeus describes as “cut price djinn.” In the middle of the great chain of beings are the Djinn themselves, whose clever intelligence Bartimaeus extols, followed by Afrits, and finally Marids, who are rarely summoned because they are too strong for any but the most powerful magicians to control. Of Marids, Bartimaeus insightfully reveals that they are “dreadfully full of themselves.”
In the trilogy, Bartimaeus is summoned and enslaved to do the bidding of a sometimes jerkish young magician who learns to be a better person, despite himself. Of course, along the way the magician sends Bartimaeus in great peril, which he eludes with cunning, sardonic wit, and many good one-liners. I read the first book, loved it, then listened to all three read by Simon Jones, who makes these stories even better. The sad news is that I finished them. I simply wasn’t ready to let Bartimaeus go.
Which is why I was so happy to find that Stroud recently released a fourth book: The Ring of Solomon, which is a stand-alone prequel to the trilogy. The family and I just finished listening to it, and it is every bit as good, if not better, than the first three.
This story is set in biblical times where King Solomon has risen to uncontested power because of his possession of an all-powerful ring which allows him to summon hordes of powerful demons in a blink. Bartimaeus is enslaved to one of Solomon’s magicians. A mean man, who Bartimaeus catches in a mistake and escapes, principally by devouring him. But Solomon doesn’t take kindly to that, and orders Khaba, a sinister and cruel magician, to summon him back to make an example for the other demons.
Meanwhile, the Queen of Sheba, having denied Solomon’s marriage proposal three times, is sent an extortion threat. Angry and frightened, she sends Asmira, a young woman and loyal captain of the guard, to Jerusalem to assassinate Solomon.
Bartimaeus and Asmira hook up and find themselves in quite a pickle as they attempt to solve their problems. The story provides lots of humor, adventure, peril for both Bartimaeus and Asmira, and a number of surprising turnarounds. It also, in its own way, makes a comment on leadership, loyalty, and zealotry.
You’ll find it in the middle-grade section of your bookstore, but don’t let the placement fool you into thinking it’s not for adults. Like the best stories, it offers something for everyone. It’s a perfect blend of insight and entertainment and had my whole family, oldest to youngest, spellbound for the duration as we listened to it riding in the car. This is one of my favorite books this year. And if you want to really indulge yourself, listen to the audio book read by Simon Jones.
Travel to Medieval England
I love learning new things about places and peoples, even if it’s a place I’ve “been” to before, which is why Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England intrigued me. The first page convinced me to buy to book. And I’m so happy I did.
I’ve read my fair share of interesting and well-written texts on this subject, including, among others, Life in a Medieval City and Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies, Standards of Living in the later Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer, The Medieval Castle by Philip Warner, Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman, and Power and Profit: The Merchant In Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford. All engrossing reads. What sets Mortimer’s book apart is that he not only approaches the topic as a travel guide that leads to you interesting sights and shares fascinating tidbits about the place, but he also helps you imagine how it would be, as a 21st century person, to actually travel there.
For example, where would you go if you got sick? What happens if you’re robbed, where do you report the crime, and should you? Where might you get food and would it be something you’d find palatable? How will you get from place to place? Why kind of entertainment can you expect? And what can you wear without offending your hosts?
Mortimer focuses on the fourteenth century England, since this period comes closest to the popular idea of the medieval times. He tackles the topics of the landscape, people, the Medieval character, basic essentials, what to wear, traveling, where to stay, what to eat and drink, health and hygiene, the law, and what to do. And he does it all in a chatty, clear, and informative manner, with a bit of humor thrown in for spice.
Each page was a delight, and I found myself feeling like I was there. Furthermore, I learned a number of things that I hadn’t picked up in my previous readings. I’m tempted to quote all sorts of interesting tidbits he shares about the age, but I’ll refrain. If you are at all interested in the Middle Ages, I think you’ll love this book.