The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud (Hyperion, 2010, to heck with putting in an age bracket like I usually do, because both my 10 year old boy and my mother would enjoy this one, 416 pages)
Under the rule of Solomon, Jerusalem prospers. The power of Solomon's ring allows him to command legions of powerful spirits, and to keep under control (more or less) the magicians who serve him. These magicians in turn draw their power from their ability to raise demons, and command them. One of the middle-range demons thus raised is an old timer named Bartimaeus--the cocky type, constantly thumbing his nose (and other ruder things) at authority, happy to boast about his great deeds of yore, back when Mesopotamia was still going strong.
But all is not well for Bartimaeus. He's under the control of the very nastiest of Solomon's magicians, a most unpleasantly sadistic man who is hiding a myriad of dark secrets. Worse awaits-- Bartimaeus is about to face a truly horrendously impossible task...tricky even for a clever demon like himself, the sort of assignment that means almost certain destruction. And it's all the fault of a knife-wielding, demon-summoning, teenaged girl. A girl hell bent on carrying out her mission, even if it means death--a mission to kill Solomon and take his ring.
Asmira was honored when the Queen of Sheba sent her out on this impossible mission. She was determined to do her best, as behoved a member of the Hereditary Guard, firmly believing the fate of her country depended on her. But now that she has reached the doors of King's Solomon's palace, her only recourse is to depend on the wiles of Bartimaeus...and who can trust a demon, enslaved by magic and desperate to find freedom?
Oh my gosh I enjoyed this one so very much. Not, so much, the first hundred or so pages, which were mostly Bartimaeus annoying various beings and getting into trouble, because I found Bartimaeus is hard to like when he is just one demon among many. But once Bartimaeus and Asmira get together, the sparks begin to fly! With her to provide a foil for him, Bartimaeus pushes the boundaries of standard cold-hearted demon-ness, and Stroud does a beautifully teasingly tantalizing and oh so engrossing job of making Bartimaeus sympathetic (while still demonic). And he was just the companion Asmira needed to push her out of her box of blind duty and into independent thinking. From kick-ass knife thrower without much personality, she progresses to strong young woman one can really root for.
Bartimaeus made his first appearance in an eponymous trilogy of books that begins with The Amulet of Samarkand. I didn't mention at the beginning of this post that I'd met him in those books before, because this book stands alone just fine. It takes place millennia before the events of the trilogy; there's no need at all to have even heard of them to enjoy this one.
I'd recommend The Ring of Solomon in particular to those who enjoy Sarah Rees Brennon's demonic books (The Demon's Lexicon et seq.). There's the obvious common ground of demonic magic, and the fact that she too is exploring the tricky ground of making someone alien sympathetic, but she and Stroud also share a nice sharpness of wit that makes for very entertaining reading!
Note on age: The books in the Bartimaeus trilogy are pretty firmly YA; The Ring of Solomon, on the other hand, makes a great middle grade read (which is where Amazon has it)--lots of mayhem and demonic death, but in a middle grade-ish sort of way. That being said, it's also a great YA and adult read.
My one small quibble: right at the beginning, on page 11, Bartimaeus uses honky tonk piano playing as a metaphor. Since at this point we are still at 950 B.C.E., and since I don't think demons time travel, I was kicked out of the story. But I bravely kept reading...and was richly rewarded.
Added bonus: Asmira is a first rate heroine of color, dark of hair and skin.
Here's another review from Liz at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Teacozy.