Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ptolemy's Gate (Jonathan Stroud)

Ptolemy's Gate
(The Bartimaeus trilogy, Book 3)
Jonathan Stroud
Disney Hyperion
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: John Mandrake's formidable mastery of magic, his well-chosen political allies, and a healthy, ruthless self-interest have carried him far from his old life as Nathaniel, the unappreciated apprentice to a weak master. A powerful young force in Britain's magician-ruled government, helping orchestrate the political propaganda to sell the increasingly-weary commoners on the country's flagging international wars, beset at every turn by jealous rivals, Mandrake has money, influence, fame, prospects... everything that poor little boy he used to be could ever have wanted out of life. If not for the pesky tinglings of an atrophied conscience, he might even convince himself he's happy.
The djinni Bartimaeus has seen better days. Once a force to be reckoned with in the ancient world, now - thanks to extended servitude in the material world, which weakens a spirit's essence - he can barely hold himself together... literally. But, (generally) uncomplaining and (more-or-less) loyal as ever, he suffers his chains in (near) silence, helping Mandrake patrol London's increasingly dangerous streets in search of foreign agitators and home-grown rebels, some of whom are developing immunity to magical attacks. He's seen it all before, of course, the rise and fall of empires: the names and the languages change, but the slavery of spirits like himself remains the same. Only one boy, in all his five thousand years, ever thought that the cycle of bondage could be broken, that spirit and mage might someday work together... but Ptolemy paid a terrible price for his faith, and most of his groundbreaking research was lost to the ages. A terrible pity, but even a five-thousand-year-old djinni knows better than to think human nature can ever change.
Kitty Jones has officially been dead for three years. After a moment of mercy (or foolishness) prompted her to spare John Mandrake's life, she's been hard at work learning everything she can about magicians and spirits, even going so far as to become an assistant to a particularly eccentric mage far outside the squabblings of the powerful Parliament. Her unusual encounter with the djinni Bartimaeus forced her to re-evaluate her assumptions about "demons." Coupled with her lingering dismay over the ineffective Resistance and other equally toothless commoner efforts to throw off their chains, Kitty realizes that someone has to act if the endless, futile cycle of slavery and oppression is ever going to be broken... but what can one commoner girl hope to do when even Ptolemy, a powerful magician and a prince in his day, was ignored?

REVIEW: Some trilogies are simply three stories stitched together by recurring characters. Others - usually the best - are a single story that takes three volumes to tell properly, a continuous arc from start to finish. The Bartimaeus trilogy is one of those. In this third installment, Stroud wraps up all the hints and threads tossed out in the preceding books. The shadows of darkness in the halls of Parliament that young Nathaniel scarcely noticed grow to dominate the life of John Mandrake, the hinted tale of Bartimaeus's peculiar bond with his former master Ptolemy comes full-circle, the injustice of an empire built on slavery in any form builds to an explosion with cataclysmic consequences. The story overall is darker and somewhat more complex than the previous two books, because the lives of Mandrake, Kitty, and Bartimaeus have grown much darker and more complex; all three have important lessons to learn, facts to face, and sacrifices to make if they want to see their respective worlds saved. I've read that some readers didn't like the turns it took, but I loved it for that same reason. Throughout, the sparkling wit and wry commentary of the titular djinni remains unabated, even when faced with near-certain death and destruction. This is a magnificent conclusion to a great trilogy, one of the few books that's tempted me to raise the bar above five stars.

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