|The Ring of Solomon
by Jonathan Stroud
|Sugar Changed the World
by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos
Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin
I’ve been asked to decide which book is better–The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud, or Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos. That is, I’ve been asked to choose between a rollicking fantasy about a waggish djinni who becomes unwittingly embroiled in plots to steal a ring of unfathomable power, and a nonfictional exploration of the sociopolitical influence that sugar has had over world history and culture. I’m especially suited for this, since I’m always posing these sorts of questions to myself in my daily life: which is better–jogging or goldfish? A really good haircut or Thai food?1
So it was with absolutely no trepidation at all that I plunged into reading The Ring of Solomon, which just happened to arrive four days before the other one.
Thanks to my background as an illustrator I’ve had the almost unheard of privilege of designing all or part of each of my book covers, and not once has it occurred to me to ask if there’s any money in the budget for iridescent ink. You probably know what I mean–the prismatic oil slick sheen that varnishes the illustrations on the covers of each of Stroud’s Bartimaeus books.2 Otherwise the cover is quite traditional, similar in composition to the sort of color plate-pasted-over-cloth-binding you’d see on a book published almost a hundred years ago. I feel like the contrast here is a halfway decent analogy for the story within. Stroud has crafted what you might claim on one hand to be an old-fashioned3 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?
Maybe it’s the heroic rogue of a main character, or the Arabian setting, or possibly even the Disney logotype on the spine of the jacket, but I got to thinking about the animated feature Aladdin. The first ten minutes of that movie contain a sprawling musical action set piece in which we learn that the titular hero
–Has to steal to eat
–HAS to eat to live
–Works really, really hard at it
–And did we mention he’s an orphan?
and anyway after he finally absconds with his hard-won loaf of bread he just gives it to the first adorable pair of street urchins. Contrast this with heroic rogue Bartimaeus, who in the first twenty pages of The Ring of Solomon
–Defiles an ancient temple
–Burgles a holy relic
–And kills and eats an old man.4
The djinni Bartimaeus, and by extension Stroud, is not going to make some cloying play for our affections. This is not SPOILER ALERT a story about reformation END SPOILER ALERT. I’m even going to go out on a limb and say that Bartimaeus is refreshingly without an arc here. Throughout the book he behaves only in the singularly free-thinking fashion that has made him the irritant of both humans and spirits alike, what with his universal impudence and humorously digressive footnotes.5 In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I previously read The Amulet of Samarkand, the first of the original Bartimaeus trilogy, so I’m aware that he’s starred in at least four stories now. I suspect that Stroud understood early on that he had a very special character here, and it wouldn’t do to keep neutering him with sentiment in Act II of every book. He is who he is, and I think he would be alarmed to know that I found him to be the most human of all Stroud’s characters.
His first-person chapters alternate with third-person chapters that focus on other actors, particularly a young and deadly Sheban named Asmira who is tasked with assassinating the powerful Solomon in order to save her homeland. And here lies my chief criticism of the book: Bartimaeus is so effervescent that chapters in which he doesn’t appear (much less narrate) sometimes come off like flat soda by comparison. Bartimaeus is such a force that he spills out in every direction–through the fourth wall, into the margins of the page, and onward into self-awareness and anachronism, such as when he invokes copyright (actual copyright) to protect one of his signature fighting moves, which he informs us he’s been using since 2800 B.C.E. Note that The Ring of Solomon is set 900 years before there was a C.E. to be B.
I realize it’s a weak critique to complain that an otherwise great story is only intermittently fantastic. That’s why I got in that early dig at the iridescent ink. Take that, book designer! What I haven’t admitted yet is that the eleven-year-old me probably would have thought the iridescent ink looked great. He would have loved the story as well, and on this we wholeheartedly agree. Every chapter left me wanting more–if Stroud and I were in a Scheherazade/King Shahryār situation I totally would not have killed him at any point.
I’ll admit I originally assumed I was being sent two works of fiction, and eagerly awaited Sugar Changed the World, no doubt the story of an irrepressible girl named Sugar who would teach us all a lesson about tolerance or whatever. What I got, of course, is a powerful look into the best and worst of humanity through the lens (not to mention focus) of a single commodity. But while we learn a great deal about sugar’s scientific, agricultural, and industrial history, it’s all about the people on the ground.
SCtW is my kind of history book. Relatively uninterested in kings and politicians, this is more of a Howard Zinn-style people’s history, albeit one which far more gently grinds its axe. Christopher Columbus gets mentioned, for example, on three separate pages. The longest passage by far is only fifty-seven words. Readers will learn far more about Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved African taken to Barbados to work in sugar, or even Thomas Thistlewood, a white overseer who wrote with a kind of nauseating jocularity about the cruelties he inflicted on his charges. They’ll also learn about the university of Jundi Shapur, which flourished fifteen hundred years ago in what is now Iran and which sounds so wondrous I can’t believe I’d never heard of it before. They’ll learn that the “whitest and purest” sugar of the ancient world came from Egypt of all places. Suddenly those sugar cube pyramids we all built in grade school are elevated above the level of busywork to some kind of totemic historical metaphor.
It would be easy to call this a bitter book about a sweet spice, and there are unquestionably some difficult truths in Sugar Changed the World. There were also, for me, odd moments of pride–it was interesting to discover that the slave trade was focused so heavily in the Caribbean and South America, for example, and when I learned that only four percent of the slaves taken from Africa ended up in North America, and that these slaves had a comparatively low death rate, I chanted the feeblest U-S-A of my life. So why did I come away from this book inspired? A section on Gandhi didn’t hurt. Likewise sections on new (to me) heroes like the Haitian leader Toussaint, and English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, a contemporary of William Wilberforce. This is an ultimately hopeful book, and I hope it finds a place in the classroom.
Excellent period illustrations and photos abound, including sample pages from a grim old children’s picture book that painstakingly details how sugar got from the West Indies to your sweet shop, and unintentionally details everything that was wrong about the Victorians. The back matter of SCtW contains a great set of appendices that include, among other things, a timeline, a web guide to additional images, and an essay aimed at parents and teachers that explains how the book was researched.
So now we get down to the absurdity of this decision. Apart from a few locales these books share nothing in common. Wait, Sugar Changed the World is a scholarly work–does it have footnotes?6
Whatever, I’m calling it. Advantage Stroud.
1jogging, Thai food.
– Adam Rex
And the Winner of this match is…
… THE RING OF SOLOMON
I love this match-up, but I hate that it’s in the first round. Bartimaeus does steal the show in The Ring of Solomon with his first-person narrative, and it’s not that the contrasting third-person chapters are weak, as much as Bartimaeus is just so utterly irresistible. What I most appreciated about Sugar Changed the World is how it connected the dots for me in an entirely different way. Yes, there is Gandhi in South Africa helping Indian workers—and what were those Indians working on? Sugar. Yes, there is Columbus sailing around the world—and what is his cargo? Sugar. Yes, we bought the Lousiana Purchase so Lewis and Clark would have something to explore, but sugar plays a key role here, too. My child self prefers The Ring of Solomon; my adult self prefers Sugar Changed the World—but just barely. It’s too close to call, and I don’t envy Adam having to make this decision.
— Commentator Jonathan Hunt