wayfarers all

children's literature, childhood and culture (and anything else that strikes my fancy).

My Photo
Location: pittsburgh, U.S. Outlying Islands

carbon-based life form: thinking, reading and gardening. New College alum; current grad student writing a dissertation. I specialize in children's literature, media, and culture, and queer/gender studies, with a strong interest in 19th century British literature and culture. I like history, a lot.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Bartimaeus: Ptolemy's Gate

I finished reading Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy about a week ago. Due to unbelievable amounts of busy-ness I haven't been able to collect my thoughts and post them here...but now I'm taking time out from the busy-ness (stolen time, really) to do so.

I'm happy to admit to being wrong: my first impressions of the trilogy were incorrect. After reading Ptolemy's Gate, I have to say Stroud has created a really fantastic work of fantasy/fiction. My one remaining complaint - and I think it's a valid one - is that somehow all three books felt a little too long, too wordy. Tighter editing would have worked wonders, but in retrospect, the books are strong enough that even with this verbosity: they're still remarkable.

I'm currently taking a class on queer theory, so I'm on Heightened Alert for queerness. and Ptolemy's Gate has it. Probably all three books have it, really. The most exciting moment for this came late in Ptolemy's Gate, when Bartimaeus (as narrator) says "It was all a bit butch and male." I can't say more without Giving Away The Plot, but my goodness! a book "for children" that says something was butch!!!!!


Stroud does a good job, I think, of making his main three characters - Nathaniel/Mandrake, Kitty and Bartimaeus - morally complex. This is no Manichean universe; these are good, bad, confused, complicated characters. The books refuse simple choices and predictability; the Other Place perhaps crystallizes this complexity. It was difficult for me (via Kitty Jones) to get my brain around a place so Other but it is an appealing Other Place, and one worth thinking about.

I'm certainly also a fan of the progressive - moderately progressive, anyway - politics of the book. any world where the ruling class is challenged is usually good with me.

So: recap. The Bartimaeus trilogy is definitely a keeper. I think eventually I'll re-read it, although I don't find it as intensely satisfying and in need of re-visiting as, say, Diana Wynne Jones's novels.

I have to say, though, I'm not sure how to deal with the ending of Ptolemy's Gate: in some ways, it was deeply satisfying. In other ways........I felt somehow cheated. I'm really not sure yet how I feel about this, but I do know the trilogy, as a whole, was definitely worth reading.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Yesterday I finished reading Jonathan Stroud's first book in his Bartimaeus trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand.

What to make of this book?

I admit I'm skeptical to snarly about the proliferation of glossily-packaged magic/fantasy novels for "children" since the breakout of Harry Potter. Fantasy is what I study, it's my favorite genre within children's lit and has been since I started working "professionally" on children's texts (fall 1998, for those keeping track at home).

The premise appeals: a more-or-less modern-day London, ruled by magicians who depend entirely on a vast array of enslaved magical creatures for their power. This is an alternate world with a different history - London is the center of the universe and capital of a vast empire. Prague is its erstwhile competitor for the claim of most powerful city in the magical world.

But Stroud doesn't do enough, I don't think, with his modern magical world. The Amulet of Samarkand is mainly about Nathaniel, a rather brattish - though brilliant - magician's apprentice who calls up and enslaves Bartimaeus, a pompous, self-important and rather snotty djinni. The cleverest bit here is Stroud's use of first-person narration for the Bartimaeus-focalized chapters. Bartimaeus as narrator is very conscious of his position as storyteller - his narration is littered with footnotes, a number of them very textually self-referential.

The problem with The Amulet of Samarkand, for me, is that I don't like either of its "heroes." Bartimaeus gets tedious with his wholly self-centered existence (although we do see glimmers of a kinder, gentler demon - and I hope these glimmers are expanded in the subsequent two books). Nathaniel initially appeals as the downtrodden genius apprentive/slave to a mediocre master, but his boundless desire for power and revenge is thoroughly unappealing.

I don't mind sarcasm at all, but I suppose I like my fantasy fiction to be a little more full of wonder. Samarkand is smart, cynical and, I suspect, a decent political allegory of sorts (conflict between commoners and magicians). I'm hoping the trilogy brings out these themes without being predictable or derivative, but I'm not too optimistic. I've started The Golem's Eye (the second book) and so far I'm curious but not enthralled. Stroud's a decent enough writer but for me, a good fantasy novel (see: anything by Diana Wynne Jones) is completely captivating. The fantasy needs to be believable, I think, to be good (Jane Yolen writes a nice short essay about this, "Turtles All the Way Down") and I'm not entirely sure that Stroud has created a believable fantasy world.

but i will reserve my Final Judgment until after the trilogy is complete.

Free Counter
Free Hit Counter