Book #36: Ptolemy’s Gate (2005)

20130711-193118.jpgauthor: Jonathan Stroud
reader: Steven Pacey
language: English
length: 9 hours 59 minutes
finished listening on: 5 July 2013

This was another audiobook that I listened to recently. I was a bit disappointed with the quality of the file itself and the service where I got it from, though, because it was confusingly labelled: it said both “unabridged” and “abridged” in the product description – and it turned out to be definitely abridged, sometimes missing whole chapters when I compared it with an ebook version. That was annoying. At first I thought that by saying “abridged” it just meant they were going to skip the footnotes, which would have been nice, but wasn’t actually what happened in the end. And now, just having looked again to check a couple of details for the top of this post, I’ve noticed that they have started offering an “unabridged” version, although it’s 15 hours rather than 10. There’s a completionist part of me that wants to go back and start again with an unabridged or printed version, which is annoying.

Anyway, as for the story itself, it’s a continuation of the previous books in the Bartimaeus series, which I have covered recently. The same three main characters are back, each alternately taking the point of view in different chapters. The narrator was quite good at this, speaking in a neutral tone for the third-person perspectives, and going into a thicker Londonesque accent for Bartimaeus’s first-person perspective, to show that he himself was narrating the chapters. It emulated the way the book was written nicely.

The story takes a closer look at Bartimaeus’s past – in the previous books, a relationship with an Egyptian named Ptolemy was repeatedly mentioned, and here that relationship is explored more thoroughly, showing a special bond between the demon character and that magician. Some of this relationship is told directly in flashback, while some is teased out by the other characters in various ways.

The other characters have also developed since the last novel – Nathaniel is now referred to consistently for most of the book by his alterego John Mandrake, suggesting that he’s fully taken on the role that the name Mandrake came to suggest in the previous novels, perhaps one of haughty obedience. He’s now still only 17 but is a high ranking cabinet minister (sounds delightful). The girl Kitty has herself taken on various alteregos to avoid detection by the police, and starts learning magic in order to summon Bartimaeus herself.

A lot more of Stroud’s world is explored in detail here. We learn about the “essence” of demons quite a lot – for example, Bartimaeus is kept in the real world by Nathaniel for fear that he will reveal his true name accidentally, and this saps his essence constantly. In his chapters he spends half of his energy complaining about this fact. When he’s sent on dangerous missions, he comes back unable to form into something more coherent than slime.

We learn a lot in this book about what’s possible under Stroud’s magical rules; from the previous books, we already know about binding demons in pentacles and commanding them as slaves, but here he explores new ways of summoning and controlling demons.

Plotwise, a new conspiracy arises out of a realisation from the end of the last book, from the same people who conducted the conspiracies that formed the bulk of the plot in the previous books, but it soon transpires that it’s not that clear – there are other conspiracies bubbling underneath. The magical MacGuffins that were the subjects of the two previous books come back into play and form an important part of the final act. At times, Stroud, as is perhaps typical of the part three of a trilogy, pretty much writes himself into a corner, as on more than one occasion, the characters find themselves in situations so severe that it’s actually incredibly difficult to predict how they’re going to get out of it, and I’m pretty sure a blatant deus ex machina was used more than once. This can work, or it can’t, and this book treads that fine line. Overall I’d say it managed it, but even though it did, Stroud went right back into writing himself into another corner, and that almost got tiresome. I think I feel there are ways that one can have suspense in a novel without it being a seemingly impossible situation all the time.

Again, the setting is nominally modern Britain, but it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile that with the backstory, in which the Empire still exists and America is a rebelling colony. Not enough is made of the “urban” part of the urban fantasy setting. They have cars, but that’s about it. I think if there’s anywhere this series could have been improved, it’s there. As readers, we should be shown that the setting is modern, rather than deducing it simply from the blurb.

The other thing I always found unrealistic was the age of the characters – only but teenagers – and while I suppose this is always going to be inevitable with young adult fiction, to go along with wish-fulfillment fantasies, having a 17-year-old be in charge of a whole sector of government stretches belief for me.

And if you liked the first two books, you should probably be forewarned that (while I don’t want to spoil anything) this book ends on quite a major downer. Or I suppose bittersweet.

It’s a fitting end to a great series, though – it’s just a shame that I had the abridged version and have this niggling desire to go back and fill in the gaps by reading it again, but I don’t think I want to just repeat the same book again. Maybe another time.

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