Review of The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud

The Ring of Solomon

A Bartimaeus Novel

by Jonathan Stroud

Disney Hyperion Books, New York, 2010. 398 pages.
Starred Review
Winner of the 2011 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Books

In honor of the completion of the 2011 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Books, I thought it would be fun to post my reviews of the books in the competition which I hadn’t yet reviewed, and to feature excerpts from the judges’ brilliant commentary. It’s only fitting to begin with this year’s winner, The Ring of Solomon.

The Ring of Solomon is a stand-alone novel, but it uses the incredible, snarky, powerful, irreverent, infuriating, and footnote-writing djinni, Bartimaeus, from the Bartimaeus Trilogy. The book is truly independent, so you could read it before or after the trilogy. Really, it’s quite brilliant of the author to do this. When you have an unforgettable character who’s a djinni who’s thousands of years old and boasts about his time with Solomon, why not give us a picture of what happened at that time? The only thing the two sets of books have in common is the character of Bartimaeus (and I think another demon or two), and the alternate reality where magicians do works of power by binding demons to their will.

Solomon has a ring with a spirit attached to it that is so powerful, no one can stand against him. Of course, it is with the power of the ring that he gained his amazing wealth and carried out his magnificent building projects.

Bartimaeus starts out in the employ of one of Solomon’s under-magicians, but then comes under the power of Asmira, a dedicated girl assassin sent by the Queen of Sheba to assassinate Solomon and steal his ring — a suicide mission, as far as Bartimaeus is concerned.

When I read this book, I was as delighted as I expected to be. Brilliant writing, hilarious footnotes, and knuckle-clenching dangerous adventure. I liked it that the happy ending was not for the young girl to become another of Solomon’s wives. (I don’t think that’s a spoiler.) Now, there wasn’t as much emotional depth as in The Bartimaeus Trilogy. But that was a much longer work, a trilogy, and a work of towering genius that builds over the course of the three books. This book definitely kept me reading late into the night, had me laughing, and also very tense. It didn’t make me cry, as I’m quite sure The Bartimaeus Trilogy did, but it’s still a brilliantly plotted, wonderfully entertaining book.

But you don’t have to take my word for it! In School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, all four judges who were offered a choice between The Ring of Solomon and another excellent children’s book chose The Ring of Solomon. Below are excerpts from their explanations of their choice:

The first round judge, Adam Rex, called The Ring of Solomon “a rollicking fantasy about a waggish djinni who becomes unwittingly embroiled in plots to steal a ring of unfathomable power.” He says, with footnotes, “Stroud has crafted what you might claim on one hand to be an old-fashioned save-the-world adventure, complete with the requisite all-powerful MacGuffin and a real mustache twirler of a villain or two. He’s also made something that’s fresh and modern–modern in its sense of humor, modern in its irreverence. Okay, maybe irreverence isn’t all that modern, but it always feels like it is. Doesn’t every generation think they invented it?” He also says, ” Every chapter left me wanting more–if Stroud and I were in a Scheherazade/King Shahry?r situation I totally would not have killed him at any point.”

In the second round, judge Patricia Reilly Giff was confronted with a choice between a graphic novel retelling of The Odyssey vs. The Ring of Solomon. She describes the book as ” inventive, action packed and hysterically funny.” One of the factors that led her to choose The Ring of Solomon as the winner was that she “had to stay up at night to keep reading, just to see what Stroud had in store, those twists and turns that kept me guessing until the end.”

In the third round, Karen Cushman freely admitted, “I am not a big reader or a big fan of fantasy novels. When I saw early on that A Tale Dark and Grimm and The Ring were both in my bracket, I anticipated I would have an easy time eliminating them. This just goes to show you how much I know. And now I publicly shed my credentials as a thoughtful, caring, mature person and reveal my snarky, ironic underbelly.

“Woo hoo! The Ring of Solomon! I was gobsmacked. What a book!”

Karen Cushman goes on to eloquently point out the powerful themes that show up in this book, underneath the snarky humor and gripping adventure:

” I found it exuberantly plotted, with evocative descriptions, terrific language, and intriguing
characters, both human and otherwise.

“I loved the distinctive voice of the rude, irreverent, sarcastic, resourceful, and surprisingly lovable Bartimaeus. Sure, djinni eat people but still I felt great pity and compassion for his deep longing for home and hatred of his enslavement.

“The book is wonderfully funny but had wise things to say about slavery and freedom, mindless obedience, and dying for empty concepts. Asmira, the teenaged Sheban sent on a suicide mission, is a true believer to a fault. Wise Solomon tells her, “I’m not your master…try not to need one.” And Bartimaeus says, “I know I’m enslaved…That gives me just a shadowy slice of freedom.” As Jonathan Stroud tells it, the issues of 950 BCE are the same we face today–the dangers of terrorism, fanaticism, and zealotry, and the price of power.”

Finally, in the Big Kahuna Round, Richard Peck was faced with three outstanding fantasy titles, Keeper, A Conspiracy of Kings, and The Ring of Solomon. His explanation of the charms of The Ring of Solomon is truly eloquent:

“Even the viewpoint flits. At moments when Bartimaeus is stuck in a bottle or some other tight corner, the spotlight falls on Asmira, a mortal maiden capable of mayhem (and acrobatics), sent by the sour Queen of Sheba to murder the King and steal his empowering Ring.

“‘Steal the Ring? Kill Solomon?’” says Bartimaeus. “‘…I might as well eat myself feetfirst, or put my head under the bottom of a squatting elephant. At least those options would be entertaining to watch.’”

“But of course this odd couple won’t become thieving assassins. They will in fact find the sudden self-knowledge we expect in books for the young. But their epiphanies are gussied up beyond reason by wordplay and action/adventure, and more special effects than Avatar and Rango put together, all in full color.”

He sums up his decision:

“You could have fooled me. I didn’t expect I’d pick as winner four-hundred pages of magic fantasy with Biblical allusions and a footnote on the Songs of Solomon. But I do.

“Because its very length and the wit of its diction are stinging retorts to both the grade-level textbook and Facebook.

“And because the fun is in how the tale is told, the yarn spun. Jonathan Stroud doesn’t control language; he unleashes it. The real magic here is in the turning phrase, and how much our texting young need that, and the liberation of laughter.”

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld


by Scott Westerfeld

Simon Pulse, New York, 2010. 481 pages.
Starred Review

Behemoth is the second book in “the Leviathan Trilogy,” and as such, you really should read Leviathan first. Once you do, you’ll be pleased with Behemoth. The plot threads that began in Leviathan get even further entangled in Behemoth.

The trilogy is an alternate history, steampunk version of World War I. The world is divided into two sets of countries: The Clankers, who use steam power to make large and complicated war engines; and the Darwinists, who manipulate DNA to create living beings that serve as powerful vessels of war. In the first book, we followed Alek, the son of the duke and his wife whose murders touched off the war. Alek is the rightful heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and there are powerful forces that want him dead.

Meanwhile, Deryn has joined the Air Service of Britain, posing as a boy. In the first book, Alek and Deryn became unlikely allies. And could Deryn be falling for Alek? It’s an impossible romance: In the first place, Alek doesn’t know she’s a girl, and in the second place, she’s a commoner.

In Behemoth, the great living airbeast Leviathan reaches Constantinople. There Alek escapes and Deryn gets sent on a secret mission — but both of them end up working together with the rebels against the sultan in Istanbul.

There’s all kinds of intrigue and adventure in this book, and plot threads intricately weaving together. So far, this trilogy gives a rollicking good read. It presents war in all its complexity from the perspectives of two very likable characters caught up in momentous events. The fantastical machines and incredible creatures add to the fun. This would make an amazing movie, though it would present a huge challenge to moviemakers. You’ve got something to appeal to almost anyone — plenty of action combined with characters facing difficult choices and frightening challenges. Good stuff!

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, read by Alan Cumming


by Scott Westerfeld

read by Alan Cumming

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2009. 7 CDs. 8.5 hours.
Starred Review.

I blame this book for making me late to a meeting last week. I set off in my car, popped the next CD in the player, and got enthralled in the story. I was halfway to my usual workplace when I realized I should have driven to the government center!

I was reluctant to read this book. Even though I liked the series that began with Uglies, and respected the level of the writing and world-building, I’d gotten rather tired of them. It only took a few minutes of listening to Leviathan to realize that this book had an altogether different flavor and that I wouldn’t get tired of it any time soon.

Leviathan is in the relatively new steampunk genre, which, as the author explains in a note at the end, combines a vision of the future with an alternate version of the past.

The book tackles the beginning of World War I from the perspectives of a boy in Austria and a girl in Britain. But events unfold very differently than they did in our world.

The boy is Aleksandar, the fictional son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death sparked the Great War. The book opens with a loyal count and a small company escaping with Alek after his parents’ death, because now he is heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and the people who killed his father want him dead.

They make their escape in a giant Stormwalker, a powerful war machine created by the German-speaking powers in this alternate world where they had an advanced understanding of technology. Alek had been wanting to learn to pilot one, but he never imagined learning to steer one at night, and in secrecy.

Meanwhile, in England, commoner Deryn Sharp from Glasgow is pretending to be a boy so she can enlist in the Air Corps. However, in her world Darwin changed everything, by not only discovering evolution, but also unlocking the secrets of DNA. Deryn lives in a world of fabricated beasts, living machines that can do anything you can imagine, but that also manufacture their own fuel (using digestion) and heal themselves.

On Deryn’s first day in the service, on her solo flight, she gets caught in a storm and manages to save her own neck, but gets picked up by the great airbeast Leviathan. The Leviathan has a crew of hundreds and is a cross between a whale and many other species, with innards that breathe hydrogen to keep it afloat.

The Leviathan is headed for a secret mission in Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire. But war breaks out around them, and Deryn’s path crosses with Alek. Can Darwinists work with Clankers to save both sets of lives?

This audiobook is full of exciting escapes and adventures from start to finish. As you would expect in a book involving a world at war, there are many different accents involved, and Alan Cumming does a superb job differentiating the characters by their accents and voices. I found myself starting to exclaim “Barking Spiders!” like Deryn after listening to this book for awhile.

And Scott Westerfeld has a complicated and strange world to present, but he pulls it off beautifully, never letting the action lull as he lets the characters describe their new experiences, such as Deryn flying over a London swarming with fabricated beasts and Alek learning to make a Stormwalker run. Alan Cumming manages to keep the excitement in his voice for the entire audiobook, as there are almost always exciting things going on. I hope he took lots of breaks while recording!

The one thing I didn’t like about this book is that it is definitely not a stand-alone story. It ends when they’ve gotten out of one narrow escape and have revealed some of the secrets, but the story and the war are definitely just beginning. And who knows how long it will be before the next installment comes out? Not fair!

One thing’s for sure, when the next book is published, I will want to read it just as soon as it comes out. This one was excellent on audio, but if the audio version doesn’t come out the same time as the print version, I may not be able to wait.

Leviathan made fantastic commuting-time listening, except for being too interesting to listen to when I wanted to go somewhere other than my normal workplace. It also was one of those books that made me want to sit in the car in my parking place until I got to a good stopping place — but a good stopping place never came.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of A Conspiracy of Kings, by Megan Whalen Turner

A Conspiracy of Kings

by Megan Whalen Turner

Greenwillow Books, 2010. 316 pages.
Starred Review.

I’ve been waiting eagerly for this book, the fourth about The Thief Eugenides. When it did arrive last week, sure enough, I didn’t stop reading until I finished, even though that severely cut into my time to sleep. I will probably reread it soon to savor it more slowly and catch the things I missed that I’m sure Megan Whalen Turner inserted all along. She has a way of writing books that get richer every time you read them.

Again, I can’t say too much about the plot, because I don’t want to give away all that happens in the earlier books. This definitely is a book you would enjoy more if you read the earlier books first. Or at least you’ll definitely enjoy the earlier books more, because this book refers back to almost every surprising plot point in The Thief and The Queen of Attolia.

I was fully expecting to be championing this book for this year’s Newbery Medal, but now that I’ve read it, I think it’s probably not enough of a stand-alone story to win. However, rabid fans of the earlier books (like me) will gobble it up and be excited that she’s definitely setting the stage for further exciting drama and conflict with the Medes. I strongly suspect that Eugenides will be up to some further scheming in future books, and I only wish that Megan Whalen Turner could write such brilliant books just a little bit faster!

I like that this book featured our old friend Sophos from the first book, The Thief. In A Conspiracy of Kings, Sophos must grow into his heritage. He’s the heir to the throne of Sounis, but the book starts with his kidnapping. There are powerful people who would like to make him a puppet king with the Medes pulling the strings. Can Sophos find a way to escape that fate? Can someone who preferred poetry to swordplay and who blushes easily and can’t lie convincingly seize and hold a kingdom?

In the first chapter, Sophos writes:

“I was crossing the courtyard of the villa, and it was as if one of Terve’s lessons had come to life. He may as well have been there, shouting, ‘You are suddenly attacked by fifteen men; what are you going to do?’ Only they weren’t a product of Terve’s imagination; they were real men, cutting down the guards at the front gate and streaming into the courtyard of the villa.”

If you haven’t yet read these books, full of adventure, danger, plots and counterplots, and wonderfully flawed heroes and heroines — order a copy of The Thief right away and get started!

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Review of Victory of Eagles, by Naomi Novik

Victory of Eagles

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Books on Tape, 2008. 10 hours, 30 minutes. 9 compact discs.

This is the fifth book about the dragon Temeraire, his captain Will Laurence, and how the Napoleonic Wars would have gone if dragons were in the fight on all sides.

Because of what they did at the end of the last book, Temeraire and Laurence are in disgrace. But the powers that be can’t punish Captain Laurence as they would like to, because they need him to keep Temeraire under control. But can anyone really control Temeraire and stop his insidious ideas about rights for dragons from spreading among the other dragons?

This book is not as upbeat and positive as the other books, because it starts out with defeat. Napoleon successfully invades England. But can he keep it? This is where Temeraire may make the difference.

I was sad when this book ended, since Naomi Novik hasn’t written the next book in the series yet. Simon Vance does a great job with the accents of dragons and men, and I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to him tell this saga as I travel back and forth to work.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Review of Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik

empire_of_ivoryEmpire of Ivory

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Random House Audio, 2007. 11 hours, 7 minutes on 10 compact discs.
Starred Review

Ah, the fourth book about Temeraire, the celestial dragon who fights with his captain William Lawrence in England’s Aerial Corps against Napoleon’s forces!

You definitely need to read these books in order. By this time, I am wholly caught up in the saga. Although Book Three, Black Powder War did not end with a cliffhanger, Empire of Ivory begins in the thick of things as if it did. It turns out that the expedition that ended the previous book was not as simple a solution as we thought it would be, and this book begins in the middle of a struggle to carry it out.

When Will Lawrence does get safely to England, he learns that the dragons of England are sick. However, it turns out that Temeraire may be able to find a cure in Africa. Along the way, we see the repercussions of the slave trade in a world where the natives of the African interior have dragons of their own. There’s all kinds of danger and ingenuity and narrow escapes.

I’ve been listening to these books on my commute to work, thankful that I moved further away! Empire of Ivory does end on a cliffhanger, so I checked out the next book the very same day I finished it, and am now eagerly looking forward to my next day’s commute. I have also gotten hooked on Simon Vance’s reading style, complete with accents, which is just as well. I’m sure I’d stay up all night reading the next book if I was enjoying the print version. Listening slows me down in a thoroughly enjoyable way.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Review of Mothstorm, by Philip Reeve


The Horror from Beyond Uranus Georgium Sidus!

by Philip Reeve

narrated by Greg Steinbruner

Recorded Books, 2009. Unabridged. 7 CDs, 8.25 hours.

Here’s a third rollicking tale of the adventures of the Mumby family, subjects of Queen Victoria in an alternate reality where Britannia rules outer space.

As with the others, this book is full of narrow escapes and deadly peril. Now Art and Myrtle go beyond Uranus (which they know as Georgium Sidus) and encounter a powerful Shaper. This Shaper has created a world of giant space moths, intent on making a new home in our solar system. Jack Havock and his crew are back, and we even find out the surprising story of Cilissa’s origins.

I’m still hooked on Greg Steinbruner’s narration, clearly delineating the voices of the different characters coming from such a wide variety of species.

These books will be much more fun when read in order. They’re full of humor, adventure, wild imagination, and wondrous doses of British pluck. This series would be fantastic listening for an entire family, and definitely provided diverting listening for my daily commute. Huzzah for another adventure!

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Review of Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik, read by Simon Vance

black_powder_warBlack Powder War

by Naomi Novik

read by Simon Vance

Books on Tape, 2007. Unabridged. 10 hours, 24 minutes. 9 CDs.
Starred Review

This is now the third book about Temeraire, the Celestial dragon serving in Britain’s Aerial Corps in this alternate history tale of the Napoleonic Wars.

Temeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, are ready at last to go back to England after a successful mission to China in the second book. Before they set out, they receive orders to go by way of Istanbul to pick up three dragon eggs for England.

To get there as quickly as possible, they must go by the overland route. Their voyage is difficult and dangerous and fraught with setbacks. Before they can get home, they wind up in the middle of Napoleon’s campaign to take over Europe and they in particular have gained a powerful enemy.

You definitely should read the earlier two books before you read this one, and I predict that you will be hooked, as I am. Temeraire is traveling the whole world in this series, since he took a different route back from China than the one he traveled to China in Throne of Jade. So now we see him outside the naval setting, navigating all kinds of challenges, and now zealous for a new cause: the promotion of dragons’ rights, from seeing how well they were treated in China.

I’m also hooked on Simon Vance’s vocal interpretation of the story, with Will Laurence’s proper British voice and Temeraire’s curious tone. I especially enjoyed the voice he gave the new hatchling in this book. I’m not even tempted to read the next book in print form — It is making my commute too much fun by listening. I’m also glad that I caught the series late — now I don’t have to wait before I can go on to Books 4 and 5.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Review of Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik

throne_of_jadeThrone of Jade

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Books on Tape, 2007. 10 CDs, 11 hours, 44 minutes.
Starred Review

Throne of Jade is the second book about Temeraire, the dragon who fought with England against Napoleon’s forces in this delightful alternate history. In the earlier book, His Majesty’s Dragon, navy Captain Will Laurence captured a dragon’s egg from a French ship, and became that dragon’s companion in the Aerial Corps.

After the events of the first book, the world learns that Temeraire’s egg was meant for Napoleon, for he is of a lineage that the Chinese only allow in the company of emperors or an emperor’s family. At the outset of Throne of Jade, a Chinese envoy has come, indignant that Temeraire is treated as the pet of a common sea captain, intending to persuade England to send Temeraire back to China.

Negotiations are difficult, and England desperately wants trade to China kept free. Temeraire will not leave Laurence, and Laurence is willing to face hanging rather than trick him into leaving. So Temeraire and Laurence face a long sea voyage to China, encountering dangers and intrigue along the way. When they arrive in China, they see a country where dragons live almost as equals with humans, studying and learning as much as fighting. Will Temeraire be won over and decide to stay?

These books are intriguing as they reveal “facts” about the lives of dragons, which seem so realistic, you quickly forget that they didn’t actually have dragons in those days. The characters are compelling, and you find yourself indignant with Laurence at the slight to his honour of even suggesting that he would lie to Temeraire. As before, the book reminded me of a Patrick O’Brien book, only with dragons — which I somehow find much more exciting.

My plan was to listen to a different audiobook before I go on to the next book in Naomi Novik’s series. (There are five.) However, I find I can’t stand the wait! When I learned that our library had a copy of the next audiobook, Black Powder War on the shelves, I immediately checked it out and will start listening the next time I enter my car. I first chose to listen to this book because I couldn’t quite get around to reading it, but now I can’t bring myself to “read” it any other way. I have grown fond of the characters as portrayed by the voice of Simon Vance, and don’t want to miss out on that variety by reading it to myself and hearing only the voices my own mind can conjure up.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: