Bartimaeus 3: Ptolemy’s Gate
Ptolemy’s Gate brings the story of djinni Bartimaeus, young magician Nathaniel and the determined young woman Kitty to a rousing climax as their fates swirl towards a vortex. With their differing loyalties, does it seem possible that they could put personal grudges aside and save the world from a grim future? Jonathan Stroud provides the answer—but don’t go in with any preconceived ideas, for you will be in for some surprises.
Three years have past since the golem affair and the Resistance is believed to be finished, one of their more dangerous members, teenager Kitty Jones, presumed dead. John Mandrake—or Nathaniel, if you prefer—is seventeen, but already Information Minster for the Goverment of Britain and member of the Prime Minister’s Council. But stress coupled with teenage cynicism—not to mention getting lip from the irrepressible Bartimaeus—has him on edge, and his being in the good books of Prime Minister Rupert Devereaux makes him a target for other envious magicians. As war rages in America, with British troops finding themselves helplessly outmanoeuvred, Mandrake’s job is to present a rosy picture to the public as well as entice more young men to enlist.
However, a strange phenomenon seems to be occuring. More and more commoners—for years held in disdain by the ruling magician class, relegated to the fringes of society, their role seen only to serve to their betters (the magicians, of course)—are showing signs of unrest. And that’s not all. Many of them seem to be able to withstand magical attacks and even spot magical creatures. Mandrake’s war propaganda is seen with derision by many, and reports of commoner revolts are on the rise.
In Ptolemy’s Gate Bartimaeus’ past and his years with the Egyptian magician known as Ptolemy, of whom the djinni talks with respect and affection—sometimes going to the extent of taking on his form—come into focus. We see Bartimaeus at the height of his powers those 2,000-odd years ago, and learn of how the extraordinary friendship between djinni and master came about.
But the once-powerful djinni now finds himself helplessly trapped in this world, his essence wearing away, weakening him and making him increasingly vulnerable, thanks to the indifference of his master. Mandrake, paranoid about the fact that Bartimaeus knows his birthname, is hesitant to let him go. He holds on to him for vague reasons, sending him on meagre missions and even putting his life in danger.
Once, long ago… I could whirl through the air on a wisp of cloud and churn up dust storms with my passing… fell forests with a single breath. I carved temples from the sinews of the earth and lead armies against the legions of the dead, so that the harpers of a dozen lands played music in my memory….
And now… I was lying in the middle of a midnight road, flat on my back and getting flatter…. The object pinning me haplessly to the ground had a very specific function.
Oh, all right, it was a public lavatory…. (pp. 11-12)
Fortunately, his plight seems to have done absolutely nothing to dent his wit. Bartimaeus remains an absolute riot, whether trapped under a public loo, drowning in fish soup or bubbling as a pile of slime.
Meanwhile, Kitty Jones is far from dead, her spirit still indomitable. Living a double life with two assumed names, she has managed to avoid attention for the past three years or so. She works at a bar and helps out a retired magician by the name of Mr Button, picking up knowledge about the world around her, including about magic, magicians and demons, that had been kept from her during her scanty commoner’s education. Intrigued by a conversation with Bartimaeus in the previous book, she now dreams of a truce between humans and magical creatures, and put an end to the slavery of demons.
The Golem’s Eye sees Nathaniel come of age. Corrupted by the ideas fed to him as a boy that magicians were all-powerful, that they had a moral right to rule, he now finds himself giving in to introspection and not liking what he finds within. Never before has Nathaniel been a particularly likeable character, but that starts to change now. And unlike the transformation in Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, Nathaniel’s rose tint fading from his lenses is a touch more believable, and even slightly moving in parts. There is an incident where he meets his former art tutor Ms Lutyens, and her rejection of him is the final hammer blow to his self-esteem:
“You mistake yourself [Ms Lutyens tells Nathaniel]. It was the boy who was grateful to me, and you are no longer that boy. You do not speak for him. We have nothing in common, you and I.” (p.232)
The secret of the mysterious Mr Hopkins of The Golem’s Eye and the identity of the unknown magician benefactor of the Resistance are revealed. While the latter is not much of a surprise—many readers might have spotted it in the previous book—the devious plan they have hatched among themselves is truly horrifying. If they succeed, the consequences for the world do not bear thinking upon. There is only one way to stop them, and that will need both Kitty and Nathaniel, and Bartimaeus as well, to make sacrifices that could well cost their lives. From outright hostility, they will need to traverse to the very other extreme—complete trust. Which doesn’t seem very likely.
In the age of Harry Potter, Jonathan Stroud has written a masterpiece that easily surpasses Rowling’s later works—indeed, bears comparison to some of her best. Where Rowling stuck to an old forumula, Stroud has come up with a refreshing concept, and woven social issues and multiple perspectives seamlessly into his tale. And, perhaps taking inspiration from Terry Pratchett, he has made an art form out of a hitherto boring literary tool called the footnote.
If there must be a criticism of the book, it is that one wonders if Stroud hurried the end. But that takes nothing away from Ptolemy’s Gate. Some books leave an impression on you—when you look at them on your bookshelf you feel something. This is one of them.