Monday, December 11, 2006

Ptolemy's Gate

Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud. Audiobook.

This needs to get added to my Best Books of 2006 list!

Plot: The conclusion of the Bartimaeus trilogy. Nathaniel (known publicly as John, magicians must keep their true names a secret) has achieved a position of power and prestige in the government. Life should be perfect; isn't living well the best revenge? He justifies the abuses of the government and magicians because.... well, he is a magician! And works for the government!

Maintaining his place in the world isn't easy; Nathaniel relies heavily on Bartimaeus, a powerful (and snarky) djinni who has lost some of his strength because Nathaniel never gives him a break to return to the Other Place. Seriously; a djinni needs to recharge every now and then, but Nathaniel doesn't allow it. Meanwhile, Kitty, a commoner with a bit of magic, continues to work for the good of the people, which means freedom from magicians like Nathaniel. Bartimaeus wishes for freedom also; freedom from being bound to Nathaniel and other magicians, freedom to return to the Other Place. It all comes to a head when a magician oversteps himself and London itself is threatened.

The Good:
An excellent fantasy; the world is fully realized and the characters could walk out of the pages. I read the second book two years ago, so certain details of what went on before this were a bit fuzzy; based on that, I do think a reader could start with this book and then go back to the others. But, it's a much better experience to follow Bartimaeus's adventures in full, so I recommend starting with the first book, The Amulet of Samarkand.

Kitty is an amazing character; she is driven, she is smart, she doesn't take any nonsense. She also has a surprising amount of faith in people. Her strength and sense of purpose and sacrifice are believable; she's not a goody-goody, she is a person with a mission.

Bartimaeus is one of the best fictional characters, ever. He is over 5000 years old, and this is his trilogy, the story of his time in service with Nathaniel and his life before. He is snarky and sarcastic, a voice of wisdom, but also a little too inclined to bring up past triumphs. (Ah, there was that time a thousand years ago when I....)

When I read the first book, it was easy to describe this as dark Harry Potter, with Nathaniel in the Harry Potter role: a young boy apprenticed to a magician. Dark because these magicians are not Dumbledore nice; dark because the magicians rule the world. The magicians believe that they are better than non magical commoners, deserve to be a higher class, and look at commoners as insignificant and incapable of self-government. Kitty is the voice and face of the non magical, and matters are confused because Kitty has some magic about her. The magicians look at djinni as things to be used; it's no wonder that Kitty and Bartimaeus, both despised by those in power, bond.

Nathaniel has grown from a frightened boy to a powerful magician; his journey has led him to embrace the power, at the expense of others. It's an amazing portrait of just how someone goes to the "dark side."

These three stories are separate at first; Nathaniel believes Kitty to be dead, and Kitty lives under an assumed identity; these separate threads weave together into one cohesive story, with Bartimaeus connecting it all.

This alternate world is fully realized, with a past that goes back thousands of years and a present that involves other countries. There is so much going on -- wars, political intrigue, issues with magic -- that some points aren't resolved at the end of the book. This works very well; yes, the story Bartimaeus tells is resolved, but the world in which it is set goes on. Could there be other books set in this world? Yes, and I'd love to revisit; but the story of these three characters is wrapped up.

My only wee problem is that for some reason, I thought these books were set in the past, yet with this one I realized they are set in the present. The first book had a very 19th century feel to it; I think I need to reread!

Links: official website.


Camille said...

I thought this book was just stunning. Stroud is just amazing.

Lady S. said...

I'm another big fan of this book! Re the past/present setting, I got confused the same way & think it's the alternative history that does it. Have you seen his website? There's a lovely 'historical notes' for new MPs page:

Michele said...

The first book did have more of a 19th century feeling to it, actually Liz, it wasn't just you.

This book is on the Cybils SF&F longlist, I'm pleased to say. It's one of several that I want to see win (which will make compiling the shortlist an interesting task !)

Brian Farrey said...


Stroud is so underrated. This book is missing from far too many Best of Lists this year. ALL the Bartimaeus books have been underrated.

I missed seeing Stroud at the Edinburgh Book Festival by mere hours (but I did get a signed copy of the British edition of PG). And I got to interview him for TeenReads so that made me happy.

He needs to write many, many more books.

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