Review: Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud
In the final installments of the Bartimaeus series we finally find out the identity of the previous rebellions’ masterminds and why the djinni Bartimaeus was so partial to the form of a certain Egyptian boy. First things first, though.
After unravelling the Golem plot against the Prime Minister successfully, Nathaniel/John Mandrake became even more powerful than before. Although only seventeen, he is now a fully-fledged, independent magician, the youngest ever Minister of Information (or rather Disinformation – honestly some his moves reminded me of the infamous Joseph Goebbels…), the member of the Council – in short one of the most influential people in magical London. He owns a delightful villa in a pleasant quarter, he commands several powerful djinni and minor magicians as well, he is constantly invited to parties and performances. What’s more, women court him and fawn on him, even those influencial ones, like Jane Farrar. Any teenager’s paradise? Hardly. In fact, Nathaniel has never been so lonely and in a greater danger to boot.
The suave, ruthless and unerring John Mandrake persona suits him ill, although he is hardly avare of it. He must constantly watch his back – his colleagues wouldn’t spit on him if he were on fire. He is constantly overworked, having unofficially much more responsibilities than a mere propaganda job and, as the parties and theatricals are simply compulsory for every member of the government, he hardly finds one free moment to rest and think. What’s more, Nathaniel’s most precious slave djinni, Bartimaeus, is now as weak as a kitten due to the prolonged bondage to the material world. The young minister, afraid of many possible implications (Bartimaeus knows his birth-name and might spill the beans on him if summoned by another magician) desperately wants his slave-friend around all the time, although such a treatment might exhaust the djinni in question to death.
Rupert Devereaux, the Prime Minister and Nathaniel’s immediate superior, is becoming more and more paranoid when it comes the his personal safety and the loyalty of other magicians. Instead of ruling the empire he sets his ministers at variance (so nobody gains the upper hand) and goes often to the theatre as the most popular magician-playwright, Quentin Makepeace, is his closest buddy. Devereaux clearly tries to forget about all troubles, even those he really shouldn’t forget for his own sake – the most dangerous rebellion is quietly brewing in the background again and its nature is so shocking that even the cleverest magicians couldn’t have predicted it. Or maybe they could, had they been a little bit less bigheaded and less occupied by their internal feuding.
The magical British empire is also in dire straits – the war with America is at a standstill, with more and more casualties every day. Normal people – the Commoners – have started to protest on the streets; they’ve had enough of war effort and magical exploitation, no matter what propaganda lies Mandrake’s employees have been spreading around; what’s more, some Commoners, especially children, discover they have a kind of resilience to magical activities. Add to this the fact that one of the conspirators, who previously had taken an active part in both plots, haven’t been unmasked and imprisoned yet and you might understand why Nathaniel is so wound up.
Meanwhile Kitty, having now two false identities courtesy of the family of Hyrnek, works for an elderly magician, Mr Button during the day and as a barmaid at night. She hasn’t left London, although her friends would have made it easy for her; she has her own agenda – she wants to discover more about the nature of spiritual entities such as Bartimaeus. Kitty, having still in mind her previous chat with the djinni, simply doesn’t understand why magicians enslave the sources of their power instead of cooperating with them peacefully. Is it really impossible (because too dangerous)? Haven’t anybody tried it before? Well, in fact there was one exception.
We are told more about the unique bond which used to link Bartimaeus and a boy-magician, Ptolemy, living in Alexandria in the second century BC. Although just in his teens, Ptolemy had been more powerful than an ordinary wizard, consecrating all his life to studying the Other Place and spiritual entities, inhabiting it. He actually befriended his djinnis, asking them questions and never wanting their protection or any other services. He also visited the Other Place more than once – a feat no other magician has achieved so far. Uncharacteristically, Bartimaeus and other demons did plenty of things for him unasked, saving his life many times and helping ordinary people with their problems. Unfortunately Ptolemy became too absorbed in his studies to see a real danger approaching. His cousin, a drunken, blundering crown prince, jealous of the fact that Ptolemy was more popular among people of Alexandria than him, decided to murder the boy. Bartimaeus and other djinnis guarding Ptolemy, urged him to leave and hide but he turned their advice down as he couldn’t possibly leave his beloved library. When the worst came to the worst, the boy dismissed Bartimaeus in the final gesture of friendship (the djinni didn’t want to leave and, heavily outnumbered, would have been killed for sure) and died alone. To honour the memory of his only human friend so far, Bartimaeus often takes the form of the Egyptian boy while being summoned to the material world. Kitty, to her utter disbelief, is the first to discover why he does so.
Will Bartimaeus ever enjoy such a intimate relationship again? Will Nathaniel meet Kitty and finally thank her for saving his life? What will become of the British empire and its quarreling magicians?
It is a thrilling finale indeed. The chapters presenting the Bartimaeus’s point of view I found once again the best and the story of his friendship with young Ptolemy- very moving and inspiring. I also loved the fact that the author didn’t forget about one single character which had been introduced in previous books – for example we finally find out the name of the mysterious mercenary, so resilient to magic and instrumental in all of the rebellions attempted. I fully appreciated the scene in which Jessica Whitwell (white-haired, cleverer version of Cruella) was the only government member who put up a fight and showed some backbone in time of crisis – her male colleagues just meekly accepted their fate. Now the ending…well, not every author would dare to end his or her successful series this way for sure – it was a huge surprise to me. Not revealing what happened to Nathaniel, Kitty and Bartimaeus, I just would like to say that after reading the whole series for the first time I was out of sorts for almost a week. On the other hand, I suppose this kind of ending was only too logical so after the rereading I think I am a bit more comfortable with it.
Once again: I know it is a children’s series and there’s probably a set limit when it comes to the number of pages but in my very humble and biased opinion the author might have tried to show more of the Ptolemy’s personal history. He set this character well in time, that’s true, but kind of forgot about the real Ptolemys, a very colourful Greek dynasty with great narrative potential, which used to rule in Egypt after the era of pharaohs. Let me present a short excerpt of the historical background which, in my view, might have been exposed in the books more ( I based it on the Wikipedia entry, so it will be nothing fancy or too scholarly I assure you).
The uncle of the young Ptolemy from the book (let’s call him Ptolemy-magician for the clarity’s sake) would be no one else than Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, nicknamed Physcon (“”Sausage”, “Potbelly” or “Bladder”) for his obesity. Nice, isn’t it? His complicated career started in 170 BC, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Egypt, captured his brother Ptolemy VI Philometor, the alleged father of Ptolemy-magician (btw the whole family wasn’t into fancy names so they needed nicknames to differentiate) and let him continue as a puppet monarch. Then Alexandria chose Ptolemy Euergetes as king. The evil and degenerated crown prince would be Ptolemy IX Soter II or Lathyros (“grass pea”). His story is practically an ideal material for a separate book (but perhaps not a children’s book when you come to think about it). At first he was chosen by his mum, Cleopatra III to be her co-regent (his father Ptolemy VIII wished that she would rule with one of her sons after his death and she complied), though she was more forced to choose him by the Alexandrians – apparently he was quite popular at the beginning. Continuing the tradition of pharaohs, he married his sister Cleopatra IV, but his mother pushed her out and replaced her with his younger sister Cleopatra Selene. Later, she claimed that he tried to kill her, and successfully deposed him, putting her favorite son Alexander on the throne to rule with her. However, she later grew tired of the now Ptolemy X and deposed him, putting Ptolemy IX back on the throne- quite a merry-go-round. She was soon murdered by Ptolemy X, who took the throne again. He was then killed in battle, and Ptolemy IX reigned until his own death. In Alexandria, Ptolemy IX, replaced the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great with a glass one, and melted the original down in order to strike emergency gold issues of his coinage. The citizens of Alexandria were outraged at this and soon after, Ptolemy IX was killed. As you see, the righteous wrath of people is something difficult to bear.
All in all I love this series far better that “Harry Potter”. Neither of its parts really let me down – it is funny, inventive and well thought-out from the beginning to the very end. Trully magical.