This week I have been reading and re-reading – with great pleasure – Jonathan Stroud. This week, too, Usborne Publishing has been celebrating its fortieth birthday in some style. Now, some people might notice that this week’s post is a little shorter than usual, and some people might think that these two facts were somehow related. They’d be quite wrong, of course. I’m so glad we’ve cleared that one up.
Jonathan Stroud spent many years as a voracious reader, and quite a few as an editor of other people’s books, before writing three acclaimed thrillers for young adults: Buried Fire, The Leap and The Last Siege. Turning to writing full-time, Stroud began work on the astonishing Bartimaeus trilogy, a masterpiece of imagination and plotting and above all of voice in the character of ancient djinni (the proper name for genie) Bartimaeus of Uruk. Bartimaeus is surely one of the most delectably insufferable characters in children’s literature, perhaps in all literature: preeningly vain, sarcastic, know-all, unscrupulous, and given to pressing his points in barbed little footnotes like a feuding Oxbridge don. It’s his ill-luck to be summoned and bound by an apprentice magician, the ambitious and dislikeable Nathaniel, a resentful boy of twelve…
Bartimaeus was too good a character to retire altogether and, five years after ending the trilogy with Ptolemy’s Gate, Stroud recalled him for a “prequel”, Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon. 950BC finds Bartimaeus irrepressible in Jerusalem – a little too irrepressible, as he is pressed into temple-building service and contrives to be caught flouting the king’s commands whilst impersonating one of Solomon’s more important and less comely wives, singing rude songs about his private life all the while. At the same time, Queen Balkis of Sheba is given a terrible ultimatum, and dispatches her young guardswoman Asmira on a suicidally dangerous mission to save her kingdom. Bartimaeus and Asmira converge in an apparently hopeless quest: the source of Solomon’s power is a ring of such magic as to terrify even Bartimaeus, and to render the king invincible. Meanwhile there is Bartimaeus’ master Khaba the Egyptian magician, an exceptionally nasty piece of work, with his sinister spirit servant Ammet and his own designs on the ring… The footnotes are as good as ever: I particularly enjoyed the recollection of the battle of Qadesh – “Many great deeds were done that day, not all of them by me.”
Between trilogy and prequel came another superbly original and very different book. Heroes of the Valley was partly inspired by an Icelandic tale, and has a wonderfully vivid and persuasive Nordic-Viking setting. Halli is another ostensibly dislikeable hero: short and squat, a prankster and troublemaker, keenly aware of the gulf between his own and his family’s ordinariness and the heroes of legend. Each chapter begins with a fragment of the legends around Halli’s ancestor Svein and his impossible exploits – the skirmishes, the fights against multiple enemies and the legendary feats of strength, as well as the baiting and killing of the terrifying, subhuman Trows. Svein’s descendants have turned to farming now, though, and arbitrating their disputes, and carefully maintaining alliances with the descendants of other heroes. Only Halli’s uncle Brodir seems to have any fire left in him – and he is despised as a feckless hothead. Then the twelve great Houses of the Valley come together to Svein’s House for the Autumn Gathering, and two momentous things happen: Halli meets Aud, spirited and strong-willed and not at all reconciled to her role as a marriageable bargaining-chip; and he plays a trick on the son of powerful Hakon’s House which slowly revives a bitter feud. When the feud leads to bloodshed, and nothing comes of arbitration, Halli is drawn into a quest for revenge – one that he soon finds bears no relation to legends, and serves to unleash greater danger still for him and his family. But are all the legends just stories to be discarded? Do Trows really exist – and if they don’t, is it safe to leave the valley? Beautifully written, psychologically acute, dramatically gripping and with a superb plot twist at the end.
I hoped to give you a preview of Stroud’s forthcoming trilogy Lockwood & Co, as advertised on www.jonathanstroud.com, but I’m sorry to say the link is no longer live. It looks a cracker, though, aimed at a younger audience than the Bartimaeus books or Heroes of the Valley, and set in a ghost-infested London, with a feisty heroine joining an eccentric Psychic Investigations Agency. Publication is set for late August this year.