|The Ring of Solomon
by Jonathan Stroud
|A Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whalen Turner
by Kathi Appelt
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster
Judged by Richard Peck
Her Ladyship, Katherine Paterson, said last year she found herself in a pickle over three fine finalists. It appears to be an annual issue, and this year the pickle’s on my plate.
On the evidence of these three winning reads, we have moved past the hard and gritty edges of the Printz winners and the conventions of the old-line Young Adult novel: that photographic realism, that plot told in a straight line.
We seem to have awakened into a new era–A.R. (After Rowling) in richly blended melanges of fact and fantasy, looping plotlines, shifting viewpoints, and, often enough, thick tomes in series. A lot of good reading to keep us occupied until the summer debut of the final Harry Potter movie.
Fiction–stories–are alternate worlds that question the readers’ real ones. And here before us we have three worlds that are alternate indeed: (1) a completely fabricated sub-continent of warring city states (2) a prosaic stretch of the Gulf-of-Mexico shoreline woven with myth in a child’s mind and (3) ancient Israel revised by a vast cast of supernatural beings.
In short: magus, mermaid, marid. I don’t know about you, but I feel turned every way but loose.
But these books all reach for young readers, and so they are on the Great American Theme: Coming of Age, being young in an old world and beginning to find your way.
And so down to cases. Of the three A Conspiracy of Kings addresses the most adult concerns and makes the greatest demand upon the reader. It is about the altering alliances and dark diplomacy of power politics: palace pacts forged and broken. Betrayal. Betrothal.
This chronicle of spilt blood, flying arrows and barons, and a stabbed horse makes resonant reading in the same season as “across the Middle Sea” the forces of Cyrenaica and Tripliana clash across actual geography. But this will ring no bells with the intended readers who don’t know where Libya is, and won’t be hearing about it at school.
Megan Whalen Turner’s book is about the making of kings. Embedded in its many layers is a boy, Sophos/Sounis, coming of age parentless, abducted, enslaved, and that all-time favorite, misunderstood. Throughout, the ages of the characters are muffled. But there is the clash and passion of adolescent friendship, between Sophos and that major figure from earlier volumes: “He would have given Eugenides his heart on a toothpick if asked.”
I don’t think this fourth-in-a-series stands wholly alone. Too many evocative events echo from earlier books: “‘I will forgive him because I have heard him scream when someone pulled a sword out of him that could have just as easily gone into me.’ “
But this busy, bloody tale reads as an ornate allegory of peer-group allegiance. And the setting is closely observed: Greco/Adriatic with one fiery glimpse of what looks like Pompeii. It all seems to be happening before the invention of gunpowder. It’s all longbows and sword play, until the surprising appearance on page 204 of a pair of Chekhovian dueling pistols.
Come to think of it, this story may be set in the future.
That stretch of Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi isn’t the first place you’d look for moody mysticism and magic, not to mention mermaids.
But how well it works for Kathi Appelt’s Keeper, the girl and her story. She’s lived her ten years in the “world unto itself” of Oyster Ridge Road, a faintly post-hippie enclave, where Keeper is outnumbered by adults and animals. They form a snug and caring circle around her. Yet they are all surrogates, and she yearns for her long-vanished mother, Meggie Marie. (Even the name inspires no confidence.)
To cope with this maternal absence and abandonment, Keeper has recast her mother as a mermaid who has swum away. By this childhood logic, Keeper herself has merblood and the borrowed lineage of “Signa and Lorelie, the siren, the ningyo, and the rusalka and the Meerfrau,” all the mystic mother figures of the deep.
Kathi Appelt’s story captures that time at the outer edge of childhood when the fantasies that have always kept you safe no longer work. Keeper’s fantasy folds all in a single action-packed twenty-four-hour period (though it feels longer), the night of the blue moon. Keeper’s belief in her aquatic DNA leads her into a series of descending missteps. She frees clamoring crabs meant for the gumbo, and before she knows it she’s literally out of her depth, in pursuit of a mermaid mother.
This book is a keeper for its gentle tone in chronicling that jarring moment when you can no longer afford to be as young as you’ve been. Every book for the young is the story of a step, and in these pages a girl takes a big one. Where it will lead her, we’re less sure. But that’s what sequels are for.
And now to The Ring of Solomon. There is no Nathaniel here from Jonathan Stroud’s trilogy. And this is prequel indeed: Jerusalem, circa 950 B.C., during the building–and rebuilding of King Solomon’s temple. No wonder it was a marvel; it was conjured by magic. Every brass column, every stretch of cedar floor. And the Ring on Solomon’s finger makes all things possible.
There on the building site is our familiar friend, Bartimaeus the Djinni, already as old as the stones he chips. He name-drops Gilgamesh of old Babylon and all the pharaohs of Thebes. Nefertiti too.
Bartimaeus amply fulfills the young desire to read about older characters. He’s two-thousand years old. Moreover, he gives new meaning to the phrase shape-shifter. There is no sex in these many pages, but we can never be sure of Bartimaeus’s. In the opening scene our protagonist is a lissome young maiden in a misfiring attempt to lure a magician to his doom. “‘Why so shy, my lord?’ she whispered.”
I thought of Susan Hayward, but then I’m in age somewhere between the intended reader and Bartimaeus. More frequently he’s a handsome, golden-eyed Sumarian youth, white-winged. And once in a while a pygmy hippo in a skirt, a dead ringer for one of Solomon’s wives.
All this variety can be pretty freeing to the young reader who may feel constrained by being trapped in the same inadequate body day in and day out. It worked for me.
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.
At 398 pages with footnotes, this tale is no Tweet. If it’s for the ten-and-up readers, they’re in for more bracing vocabulary than they’ve ever seen in one place. And a lot of outrageously British anachronisms: chuffed, treacly, knickers.
This read may be for the somewhat jaded young, with its breezy bits of camp. Bartimaeus again: “‘So, bang went my last lingering hope that she wanted me to help change the color coordination of her bedroom. Which was a pity. I could have done wonders with those silks.’”
Think Old Testament Noel Coward.
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.
– Richard Peck
Well, it’s no secret I’m a big Richard Peck fan, so I’ve been looking forward to this final decision with relish, especially since we have three excellent books (three fantasy books). I could have been very happy with any of these as the winner. I probably would have opted for A Conspiracy of Kings, but I can certainly understand how The Ring of Solomon stands alone better, relatively speaking. (The two books go head to head again at the end of the month for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize). I appreciate Richard’s commentary on each book, and as I reflect on Ring going the distance, I remember that each judge—Adam Rex, Patricia Reilly Giff, Karen Cushman, Richard Peck—has spoken of the book in nothing less than glowing terms. It is indeed the mark of the post Rowling era that young adult literature has embraced a wider variety of genres, forms, and narratives. What a wonderful world.
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
WINNER OF THE 2011 SLJ’S BATTLE OF THE KIDS’ BOOKS
THE RING OF SOLOMON
by JONATHAN STROUD
published by Hyperion