Monday, November 14, 2005

Of Sardonic Djinni and Other Things

Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud

The trilogy is done. Stroud impressed me with this volume, reaching almost Philip Pullman-like levels of the metaphysical. He tells a good story. Bartimaeus is spectacular, Kitty is herself, and Nathaniel redeems himself. 'Nuff said. Here's what The Independent had to say.

The day the demons took over London by Suzi Feay

With the publication of the final volume in the Bartimaeus trilogy, we can at last fully appreciate the complexity of Jonathan Stroud's epic design. The story revolves around the antagonistic, wisecracking relationship between Bartimaeus the demon (djinni is Stroud's preferred term), and Nathaniel, the boy who conjures him. The master-slave relationship is distorted in their case, because Nathaniel once let slip his real name (he goes by "John Mandrake" for much of the series). Nathaniel lives in an alternative London bitterly divided along magical lines. Here there is no benign overlap between magicians and Muggles; magicians run the country, the army and the police with the help of captive djinn, brutally exploiting the commoners.

We encountered Kitty, a member of what is effectively a terrorist cell, way back in Book One, The Amulet of Samarkand. It turns out that more and more commoner children like Kitty are being born with the ability to see through the hocus-pocus used to oppress them. Stroud's sympathies are definitely with the Muggles.

In Book Two, The Golem's Eye, we met the terrifying afrit (another type of demonic entity) Honorius, inhabiting the bones of the long-dead magician, Gladstone. The implications of this - demons incarnating in human bodies, albeit dead ones - are horrifyingly fleshed out in Ptolemy's Gate.

Kitty and her crew disturbed Gladstone's tomb in Westminster Abbey in order to retrieve the prime minister's staff of power (rather incompetently wielded by Nathaniel - no Harry Potter he). In this book, hell quite literally breaks loose, the uneasy balance between demons and men is destroyed, anarchy is loosed upon the world and the staff and the amulet return to play a part in the gloriously dark finale.

There are many delights to savour in this series. First and foremost, the wonderful, sardonic voice of the all-knowing and all-weary Bartimaeus, whose wit is often deployed in footnotes. Then there's Stroud's inventiveness as he rewrites world history (Bartimaeus helped build the walls of Prague, the Great Pyramid and most of the Seven Wonders; and the American War of Independence, taking place at the time of the series, is a rebellion against colonialist British magic). Finally, there's the robust way Stroud deals with Nathaniel. Unlike J K Rowling, always on hand to ensure that Harry grabs the snitch, finds the spell and trounces Slytherin, Stroud exhibits a profound scepticism towards his his boy protagonist. His sympathies lie rather with Bartimaeus, wrenched time and time again out of the Other Place into this world to do Nathaniel's bidding. Throughout The Golem's Eye, Nathaniel only intermittently displayed any good qualities. Ptolemy's Gate is his last chance to redeem himself.

But the signs aren't promising. Only 17, he's a member of the government, basking in acclaim and wealth, responsible for writing crude propaganda to fool the commoners into believing the American war can be won. His transformation into cold, unfeeling John Mandrake is almost complete.

Among all the horror and comedy, there's satire which verges on the uncomfortable. The magical government looks like New Labour, full of smiling, smarmy spin. Colleagues are backstabbers. An "enemy within" is bringing terror to London with a series of explosions. Only Bartimaeus, from the perspective of centuries of existence, comes up with the right response. He laughs.

With the publication of the final volume in the Bartimaeus trilogy, we can at last fully appreciate the complexity of Jonathan Stroud's epic design. The story revolves around the antagonistic, wisecracking relationship between Bartimaeus the demon (djinni is Stroud's preferred term), and Nathaniel, the boy who conjures him. The master-slave relationship is distorted in their case, because Nathaniel once let slip his real name (he goes by "John Mandrake" for much of the series). Nathaniel lives in an alternative London bitterly divided along magical lines. Here there is no benign overlap between magicians and Muggles; magicians run the country, the army and the police with the help of captive djinn, brutally exploiting the commoners.

We encountered Kitty, a member of what is effectively a terrorist cell, way back in Book One, The Amulet of Samarkand. It turns out that more and more commoner children like Kitty are being born with the ability to see through the hocus-pocus used to oppress them. Stroud's sympathies are definitely with the Muggles.

In Book Two, The Golem's Eye, we met the terrifying afrit (another type of demonic entity) Honorius, inhabiting the bones of the long-dead magician, Gladstone. The implications of this - demons incarnating in human bodies, albeit dead ones - are horrifyingly fleshed out in Ptolemy's Gate.

Kitty and her crew disturbed Gladstone's tomb in Westminster Abbey in order to retrieve the prime minister's staff of power (rather incompetently wielded by Nathaniel - no Harry Potter he). In this book, hell quite literally breaks loose, the uneasy balance between demons and men is destroyed, anarchy is loosed upon the world and the staff and the amulet return to play a part in the gloriously dark finale.

There are many delights to savour in this series. First and foremost, the wonderful, sardonic voice of the all-knowing and all-weary Bartimaeus, whose wit is often deployed in footnotes. Then there's Stroud's inventiveness as he rewrites world history (Bartimaeus helped build the walls of Prague, the Great Pyramid and most of the Seven Wonders; and the American War of Independence, taking place at the time of the series, is a rebellion against colonialist British magic). Finally, there's the robust way Stroud deals with Nathaniel. Unlike J K Rowling, always on hand to ensure that Harry grabs the snitch, finds the spell and trounces Slytherin, Stroud exhibits a profound scepticism towards his his boy protagonist. His sympathies lie rather with Bartimaeus, wrenched time and time again out of the Other Place into this world to do Nathaniel's bidding. Throughout The Golem's Eye, Nathaniel only intermittently displayed any good qualities. Ptolemy's Gate is his last chance to redeem himself.

But the signs aren't promising. Only 17, he's a member of the government, basking in acclaim and wealth, responsible for writing crude propaganda to fool the commoners into believing the American war can be won. His transformation into cold, unfeeling John Mandrake is almost complete.

Among all the horror and comedy, there's satire which verges on the uncomfortable. The magical government looks like New Labour, full of smiling, smarmy spin. Colleagues are backstabbers. An "enemy within" is bringing terror to London with a series of explosions. Only Bartimaeus, from the perspective of centuries of existence, comes up with the right response. He laughs.

3 Comments:

Blogger Accidental Fame Junkie said...

Hi Sylvia! I'm so glad you are back in the blogosphere!! First of all, activate the word verification option in your comments settings, so that you can avoid spam like the above comment.

After your review, I want to read Bartimaeus now!!!!!!!!!!!

Again, welcome back! I will link you soon!

Mon Nov 14, 06:22:00 pm GMT+5:30  
Blogger Desultory Writer said...

Well it isn't my review, it's from The Independent. Just the first few lines are mine.

Do read Bartimaeus! He's a very cool djinni.

Btw you didn't respond to my comment on your blog - who was the prof in your dream?

Tue Nov 15, 12:06:00 pm GMT+5:30  
Blogger Accidental Fame Junkie said...

Hi Sylvia! The old college professor was Mridula Jose! She looked slightly aged but not unrecognisable. Sorry, there was some problem with the Internet connection at office, so couldn't post a reply to your comment. Btw, you have this blog since December 2004 and only now I got to know of it. Why?

Wed Nov 16, 01:29:00 pm GMT+5:30  

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