Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud

As you can tell from the books I review, I enjoy a good young adult fantasy fiction book now and again. I find them interesting and entertaining break from the more “serious” books I read.

My latest read in this genre was Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud which is the final volume in the Bartimaeus Trilogy. Having read the previous two volumes in this series ( see here and here) I was excited about reading the grand finale. The book lived up to my expectations. In fact, I think Ptolemy’s Gate is the best book of the series. It is an entertaining, suspenseful, and imaginative fantasy adventure.

For those of you who are unaware of the premise of the series here is a little background. The story is set in London, but a London in a sort of parallel universe. Actual history overlaps with an imagined fantastic world. In this world magicians run the British Empire using the power of the demons and spirits they summon and control. Young magicians are taken from their parents and placed in foster settings with government magicians so they can learn their craft and take their place in a magic orientated aristocracy or bureaucracy. The “commoners” are the average citizens who don’t have the ability to use magic or summon demons.

In the first book, we meet the lead characters Nathanial and Bartimaeus. Nathanial is an eleven year-old magician apprentice who summons the demon Bartimaeus to gain revenge on a cruel magician. In the end, these two pair up to save London from the schemes of the evil magician Simon Lovelace.

In the second book Nathanial, known as John Mandrake, is now a part of the government and is determined to prove his worth despite his young age. This volume builds the tension between the magicians and the commoners and details the pressure Nathanial is under and the resulting warping of his personality. It also further develops the group known as the Resistance and the character of Kitty Jones. The book ends with a climatic battle with a giant Golem and Nathanial believing Kitty is dead.

The final book in the series picks up three years after the second volume. Nathanial, who is now part of the ruling council as Information Minister, is under even more pressure as the war in America is proving to be a bigger challenge than the magicians had anticipated. Kitty is now living in London under various false identities. She is scheming to find out all she can about Nathanial and Bartimaeus in order to end the tyrannical rule of the magicians. The history of these three characters intersect (in some cases literally) to bring the series to an action packed conclusion.

As with the past volumes, Ptolemy’s Gate is told through the eyes of each character in alternating chapters. Bartimaeus again tells the story in the first person and provides most of the back story. He also provides the comic relief often through snarky and humorous footnotes. The straightforward plot is told in the third person via Nathanial and Kitty.

What made this book so interesting is the way it develops the characters and weaves an interesting story from Bartimaeus’s past into the conflict between the magicians and the commoners. I had some problems with the second book, but the tension and angst built up in that book are brought to a satisfactory conclusion in the finale volume.

Stroud uses Bartimaeus’s past with Ptolemy not only to flesh out his character but to introduce an imaginative and exciting plot twist. In book two, the dinjin’s novelty had worn off and his role in the series seemed a little thin. But here we get a better understanding of his nature and his personality. In the same way, Nathanial’s grating personality and annoying temperament seemed to dominate book two, but in book three he finally opens his eyes to what is going on around him and the impact it is having on his life. Kitty too experiences a kind of epiphany once she achieves what had been her goal for so long and finds it provides little solace or comfort. In the end, all three must realize that, despite their carping and bickering, they are seeking the same thing and must work together if they are to survive.

Lest I leave the impression that the book is all slow character exposition and introspection, there is plenty of action involved. Stroud builds the tension up and slowly reveals the clues, but once the pieces fall into place the story takes off and ends with a epic battle and a stunning conclusion. The concept of Ptolemy’s Gate and the resulting description of the Other Place is creative and fascinating. Clearly Stroud has an active imagination.

If you are a fan of young adult fantasy fiction, or just fantasy fiction in general, I recommend The Bartimaeus Trilogy. If you have read and enjoyed the first two books in the series, get thee to the bookstore or library and pick up the exciting conclusion. The only thing you might be disappointed about is the ending of this interesting and entertaining series.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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