Author: Jonathan Stroud
Reading Level: 6th grade and up
This is a guest blogger post. Josh is 16 years old and just finished the trilogy. (I feel remiss here — since I neglected to recommend this series to him when he was in middle school!) He sent me a long email with his reviews of the three books and we subsequently exchanged a couple more emails, especially about the endings of this trilogy and the His Dark Materials trilogy. There are plot spoilers.
ABOUT The Amulet of Samarkand
Bartimaeus is hilarious. I simply love the djinn. Nathaniel is interesting to follow as well, a fun character with a couple flaws. There really isn’t much to speak of in this book other than plot: it’s fun, but Bartimaeus is the real winner of this one.
ABOUT The Golem’s Eye
Here we see Nathaniel turn into the pompous, arrogant named John Mandrake. He falls into the very trap Bartimaeus told him to avoid: letting the corrupting influence of magicians twist him into something horrible. The things he does and says are unbelievable, and the effect is doubled by how he behaved in the 1st book. We get introduced to Kitty, who’s a good person at heart, and then gets caught up in the whole Honorius affair. Mandrake shows his bastardness with his perpetual breaking of vows, many only hours or less after having made them. Bartimaeus is fun as ever: was sad about Queezle, that she got introduced and then snuffed out, but oh well. So goes the storyline.
ABOUT Ptolemy’s Gate
By far the most interesting, most powerful, most moving, most climactic of the three (well, for that last one I suppose there’s a reason, being the end and all). We see Mandrake turn from arrogant into the marginally better (or worse, depending on your POV) “top magician”. Bartimaeus evokes a lot of sympathy with his sorry state, and Kitty becomes my favorite character for the majority of the book.
And then Mandrake slowly crumbles, leaving a mature Nathaniel. He still has flaws, but then, so does everyone but Bartimaeus. As Kitty and Nathaniel work together, with each other (and slowly begin to admire each other: my guess is given a couple years, they’d end up as very good friends or more, provided Nathaniel doesn’t relapse, which I don’t think he would), it’s my favorite part. To see Kitty put the same trust in Bartimaeus that Ptolemy did, showing greater understanding of him than perhaps even the Egyptian boy (though Ptolemy did not have someone’s notes or previous history as guides, admittedly).
And then, when Nathaniel accepts Bartimaeus into his own body…this is where N/B takes over as my favorite character(s). The fact that, working together, they manage to destroy far more powerful spirits than they. The fact that, working together, they are the culmination of Ptolemy’s hopes and dreams, the ultimate climax of Nathaniel and Bartimaeus’ relationship, the fulfilling of the purpose of Kitty’s visit to the Other Place…once they become both two souls and one, a single 2-part mind in a single body, I could not put it down even for work. I was breathless as they turned the staff on Nouda…
AM. Nathaniel hit by the Detonation. Coming from Barti’s POV, it is even more effective. And then when Nathaniel realizes the seriousness of the wound, his acceptance of his fate and determination to do selfless good is such strong writing. The last meeting with Kitty, where N/B both know what has to be done, and the whole concealing it from K thing…I really felt it. Comparable, at least for me in my after-reading-state, to when Lyra and Will realize they must separate in Amber Spyglass.
True to form, he breaks his final promise, having finally made one beyond his power to keep. This was where I was sad that the “item” could never happen (Kitty’s picking through the wreckage at the end made me think she was feeling the loss of a possible future, one containing more happiness, or at least more possibility, than her current one, a future with a united djinn/human in it).
I thought that writing N and B’s end at the very end was the best move of the whole trilogy. We already know what happens: we know that the great evil is destroyed by the heroic death of N/B. Now we get to see the heart of darkness, the center of the inferno, as N/B march to their death. The connection between them in this scene is so powerful I thought they might actually survive. This isn’t the usual master-servant relationship; this isn’t even Ptolemy’s relationship. Ptolemy was a trusting, kind, benevolent, freedom-giving master, yes, but he was a master, as evidenced by his final dismissal of Barti. N and B banter as friends, they speak as equals, as 2 halves of the whole. Nathaniel’s character at the end here practically radiates goodness off the page. And then, the way he dismisses Bartimaeus, I feel, is from an equal to an equal. The delivery of the dismissal is not that of a master dismissing a slave, but of a friend releasing a friend.
My throat was seized up the whole final scene, but it was the 2nd-to-last paragraph, where the Staff breaks, that the tears almost fell (almost, because I usually manage to keep them in while reading, though I failed during Amber Spyglass several years ago). The simplicity of the writing there – “Nouda did this. Nathaniel finished the Dismissal. I went. The Staff broke.” had so much raw POWER in the way it was written. Stroud simply couldn’t have written that end any better (except maybe Nathaniel surviving: just as he turns good, he turns so good that he must make up for the magicians’ sins and evildoing. He dies for a better world, and I do rather prefer when they get to actually see that world).
I’d discuss the last paragraph but I need breakfast. Barti’s final words in the trilogy, starting with “typical master”, given that Nathaniel was anything but, either give the paragraph a tone of affection or a tone of disgust. Choice of the reader, so I chose affection :)
*** (Another email discussing the endings of Amber Spyglass and Ptolemy’s Gate is omitted.) ***
Amber Spyglass had a Tough ending…but I think that, for me, Ptolemy’s Gate takes the cake. To see what Nathaniel becomes by the end of the trilogy…in book 1 he was bumbling but likable, in book 2 I nearly burned the pages with him, in book 3 first couple parts I was a little put out with him (especially given his treatment of Barti), in last 150ish pages I thought, “This is what he should have become from book 1.” The opposition of him + Barti and him from the previous books was so pronounced, and the tentative friendship springing up between him and K…it all made his death doubly sad and twice as noble.
Still tugs at the hearstrings, reading it. It’s his Redemption, and yet he goes so much farther than he “needed” to, to redeem himself. For once, a magician of the old generation does what people of such power are supposed to do (at least in our society): use it for the people, sacrifice himself for the commoners.
I cannot really honestly say which one affected me more at the moment of reading — but I do think that Lyra and Will’s final parting has a much stronger lingering effect. I read that scene, what, 8 – 9 years ago and I can still feel the sorrow now; whereas I do recall Nathaniel’s final sacrifice (and you described it so well below) and how much I sobbed over it, it does not give my heart a blow whenever I think of it.
It’s something about the way the two are written, I think. Something about them makes Bartimaeus stronger than HDM for me. I can’t place it…my first guess would be that in Barti, the whole experience comes from 1st person, and their unity is such a 180 from everything before it, but I’m not sure if that’s it.
Maybe it’s the fact that N/B was 4 days ago, and L/W was 4 years ago…but there’s no way to either prove or disprove that.
Given the time difference between reading the two (not too much for an adult, but for me it’s my entire emotional maturation to date), I don’t think I can honestly say either one. L/W affected me more, but I hadn’t read many books before then in which the heroes either die or must sacrifice something HUGE to win. I’m more used to it by now, and being a fan of happy endings, anything with such sacrifice will .