Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A note on magic

Well, all I can say is thank goodness for Bartimaeus! A good 12 hours with that cheeky djinni and any midwinter blues are just kicked on down the road. Yes, Bartimaeus is back and he's better than ever. Author Jonathan Stroud has written a prequel (of sorts) to Bartimaeus' 19th century London adventures, but The Ring of Solomon is a completely new, stand-alone story.

It's thousands of years earlier, during the reign of King Solomon (950 BCE) as he was building Jerusalem into the powerhouse of the Mideast. Solomon has a good 17 magicians at his beck and call, and those magicians employ an army of various magical creatures -- imps, foliots, djinn, afrits, and mariads -- to do his bidding. One of these slaves is Bartimaeus. And, per usual, he's cranky about his enslavement and uses his not-inconsiderable skills to evade work and make jokes at the expense of Solomon's many wives (a hippo impersonation figures prominently). Eventually, his insubordination results in eternal confinement in a sealed bottle.

Solomon's power comes from the ring he wears. And when he threatens the beautiful Queen of Sheba with invasion because she refuses to become one of his wives, the Queen sends off one of her loyal female guard, Asmira, to assassinate Solomon and obtain the ring. Asmira frees Bartimaeus from the bottle and commands him (very carefully, as we know that the djinni will use a misspoken spell to avoid work and escape slavery and destroy his master ... he's done it before) to help her with her mission.

Is it possible to not love this guy? His storytelling skills are unmatched, I think -- with his clever observations, his undeniable sense of irony (except when it comes to himself), and those funny, funny footnotes. Bartimaeus meets his match in Asmira -- something I don't recollect feeling when I read the original trilogy (third installment four years ago) -- and I think he knows it. There's also a splendid adventure to be shared -- full of action, humor, and even some thought-provoking ideas on the pitfalls of power. Stroud can keep writing these as long as he likes. (I'm not so enamored of the other novel of his that I listened to.)

Before I kept track of the books I'd listened to via this blog, I did listen to Simon Jones read both the second and third books in the Bartimaeus trilogy. It's the kind of marriage of character and narrator that pretty much means I won't ever eye-read any further installments. It's Mr. Jones or nothing. His nasal delivery is just perfect for the sarcastic, irreverent djinni with his snarky footnotes. He reads the footnotes with a change of voice that almost always lets you know that you're hearing the small print. The novel switches from first to third person (both telling Bartimaeus' part of the story [and I have never quite worked out what circumstances cause the djinni to choose third person]), and Jones makes a slight change in his delivery -- less supercilious and condescending. Sincere, one might say ... except that sincerity is out of the question with Bartimaeus.

Part of the novel is Asmira's story, which Jones provides yet another subtle change to alert you; not surprisingly, he gives this a much more straightforward reading. I confess that I do find him a little high and breathy and overly femmy when he reads Asmira's dialog -- which does have the capacity to annoy me -- but I am so enamored of Jones' overall narration that I'm willing to overlook this.

Jones keeps the lengthy novel moving along reading crisply and cleanly. He revs the pace up for the action sequences, but a listener never feels rushed -- just occasionally breathless (that's a good thing).

It might be interesting to listen to Jones read an adult novel (not the Hitchhiker's Guide ... frankly, I'm not a fan), just to see how differently he uses his prodigious narrating skills. Add it to the list [sigh].

The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud
Narrated by Simon Jones
Listening Library, 2010. 12:38

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