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Ptolemy's Gate

Style: Average → Good

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive

In Brief: Magic & Djinni in an alternative modern world. Friendship and affection with a light dusting of humour. An appeal to the honour and morality present in people despite the apparent pragmatism of their day-to-day struggles. Heroic self-sacrifice for the common good.

Cover of Ptolemy's Gate

Author: Jonathan Stroud

Series: The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Publisher: Doubleday

Published in: 2005

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: Contemporary

Genres:  AdventureFantasyHumorous


Characters:

  • Nathaniel, at 17, is the youngest every minister for Internal Affairs. He’s become more and more like the power-hungry politicians he despises, but is not without a conscience and a sense of the good of society.
  • Kitty Jones, once of the Resistance, hides behind several identities. As she reflects on a startling conversation with Bartimaeus she conceives a bold plan to attack the injustice in society.
  • Bartimaeus is an energetic and self-important Djinn, not without a sense of affection despite a cynical façade.

Synopsis:

As the British Empire starts to implode, the ruling Magicians are unable to subdue the dissent of the increasingly magic-resistant Commoners. John Mandrake, once the boy Nathaniel, is in favour of using the magical artefacts he’s been responsible for recovering but is overruled by the Prime Minister whose favour he is losing. Kitty Jones is working, under a false identity, for a retired Magician from whom she learns enough to be able to summon Bartimaeus in the hope of proposing an alliance. This plan misfires but Mandrake learns that she is alive and takes her prisoner just as a larger plan is hatched by an unexpected player which brings both Mandrake and Kitty into an alliance with Bartimaeus in order to prevent a disaster.

Notes:

Ptolemy’s Gate – and the whole Bartimaeus series – is what The Hunger Games could have been but wasn’t; it gets right what The Hunger Games got wrong. And at this point, you are wondering what kind of comparison I could possibly draw between a bestselling young adult book-and-film combo and an understated and little-known magicians-and-demons trilogy, let alone a comparison which puts the high-profile series in second place.

Well both series are trilogies. Both are set in a dystopian society with an oppressed underclass and a dominant ruling class who can watch their subjects’ every move. Both feature a young woman, hardly out of girlhood, who must use her particular talents in a fight against that society. But at this point the differences start show. Suzanne Collins’ heroine, Katniss, lends her support as a figurehead and a fighter to a political and military struggle which doesn't ultimately challenge her world’s failings. In contrast, Jonathan Stroud allows Kitty Jones, originally a small-stakes Resistance fighter, to rise above the battles taking place in her society and to propose a more profound solution, one which emphasises the inherent nobility of those involved and which challenges the injustice of the society. The Hunger Games never tries for a profound solution; and never really considers the nobility of its characters except to reflect on how ill-treated they all are. Nor is Kitty Jones a solo player. Certainly she is mistrustful and prefers to act alone, but the story relies also on Nathaniel and on Bartimaeus, both of whom have had to overcome considerable obstacles of their own.

What Ptolemy’s Gate lacks in embittered grittiness it makes up in heart and wit. And in the chance it gives its characters to redeem themselves, and to make radical, heroic choices which prove that the corrupt use of power can successfully be challenged. Kitty & Bartimaeus were both struck by an exchange in which Bartimaeus' perpetual cynicism came up against Kitty's impassioned determination. It's an exchange which leaves Kitty hopeful for the downfall of the ruling Magicians, and leaves Bartimaeus intrigued that someone (other than the long-dead Ptolemy) was interested in the Djinni for their own sakes. By his estimation, their society has two generations before it reaches the point of overthrowing the Magicians, but then a far-reaching plot throws Nathaniel & Kitty together unexpectedly and forces them to involve Bartimaeus in an ambitious plan which calls for cooperation between Magician, Commoner and Djinn.

The series’ characteristic banter, especially from Bartimaeus, is still certainly present, but this book in particular has its poignant moments and pauses from time to time for a more serious consideration of the characters’ respective moral positions. The unique friendship between the Djinn Bartimaeus and the boy Magician Ptolemy is the touchstone of a story which has surprisingly moving moments, saved from become mawkish by the bickering asides. The narrative never takes itself too seriously, but it still manages to consider the perils of friendship between an immortal and a mortal being, the nature of individuation and of being in a non-material world, the need for cooperation and selflessness and the the possibility of self-sacrifice to achieve a noble end.

This is a rare entry in the fantasy genre. It can distinguish affection and friendship from mere animal attraction while remaining free from smut. Its tension and action is offset by banter. And it's willing to pause a little to reflect. But its final act is in no doubt about the need for self-sacrifice and heroism towards a greater good.

Themes:

  • Heroic Sacrifice
  • Existence and individuality in an immaterial world

Monday 15th October 2012