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Doesn't quite live up to expectations but still a cracking read
on 15 June 2007
Wrapping up this over-arching storyline was always going to be difficult and whilst Stroud gets most of the way towards a satisfying wrap-up, I have to say that it didn't quite work as well as I had hoped.
The big problem is that Stroud has hidden the motives and identity of his villainous mastermind almost too well. For me, there weren't quite enough hints in the preceding two books that Quentin Makepeace was working towards his own agenda whereas in this book, Stroud goes a little overboard in making him seem suspicious. As a result, he doesn't quite satisfy you as a villain and even the revelation that Hopkins has been taken over by Farquarl isn't as thrilling as it should be because he's downgraded to such a sidekick role that you never sense any danger to the heroes.
A lot is made in the first two books about how magicians have their own form of ability or magical talent, which is identified at infancy so that children can be apprenticed to other magicians and learn the craft. Now, whilst these children are implied to be born to be Commoners rather than magicians themselves (i.e. we know that Nathaniel's parents were happy to 'sell' him into apprenticeship), there is a strong sense that there's a system in place to weed them all out. As a result, when Kitty's storyline focuses in on how she's able to learn magic and summon djinni, it seems a little too convenient and also raises questions as to whether all Commoners could perform magic provided they learnt the procedures or whether it's something that only those with Resistance to magic can master. For me, it took Kitty across the line into Mary Sue territory and whilst Stroud does work to counter this (i.e. the terrible effects wrought on her body when she succeeds in going through Ptolemy's Gate to The Other Place), it's not enough to round her out. Kitty also becomes a little dim or slow on the uptake at contrived moments in the plot, which contadicts the image of the sharp-witted young woman we've been led to believe she is.
Nathaniel's character arc is a lot more satisfying, if a little reminiscent of Anakin Skywalker. The Nathaniel at the start of the book has totally succumbed to his ambition. As Information Minister he sells lies to the Commoners that the disastrous war in America is going well and whilst he wants the war to end, it's not to stop the killing so much as to redeploy the forces against the increasing agitation by Commoners on the home front and therefore consolidate the Magician's rule. I found him to be a fascinating character - contrarily popular with the Commoners and hated and feared by his fellow magiciains, Stroud gives an acute sense of both the fear and the ambition that drive him forward and the scenes with Jane Farrar whereby they discuss an alliance are an interesting insight into his character, not least because of his obvious attraction for a woman who is at least as ruthless and driven as he is. I half-wish that Stroud had fleshed out this relationship more than he did, because I think it would have been more interesting than the nascient romance he implies between Nathaniel and Kitty, which whilst unspoken, didn't really convince me.
Nathaniel's turnaround from his dreams of power was a little telegraphed, but Stroud does a good job of mixing the sources - from Nathaniel's disillusions with the motives of his fellow magicians, to his slow realisation that the Commoners don't view magicians as the saviours and protectors that they believe themselves to be. I think it was almost inevitable that this would climax with a return of Ms Lutyens and his seeing himself through her eyes, which kind of robbed that scene of the power it deserved. Where I do have a great respect for Stroud is the unflinching way he sends Nathaniel to his fate - the Nathaniel we see at the end of the book still has his flaws but what happens to him is genuinely moving, all the more so because of the way Stroud chooses not to bring schmaltz into the scene - his mater of fact writing makes the scene all the more powerful and jarring and it's something that will stay in your mind for a long time.
Bartimaeus remains the character powerhouse of the novel. Some of the background scenes establishing the relationship between him and Ptolemy might have been better off in the previous books (as set out here, it seems a lot like "And now we go to the backstory"), but his sections are consistently amusing and moving. I do maintain my objection to the footnotes though, as they are sometimes too distracting.
In general, the plot moves pretty quickly although as I said, some of the backstory could have been placed in earlier books so that it doesn't feel like such a 'wadge'. It's a shame that the government magicians in general are portrayed in a two-dimensional light - even Mr Button, a magician outcast shares some of the shallow characteristics and it does begin to stretch credibility. I do however think that the ending is marvellous - Stroud sticks to his guns and bucks a lot of YA fiction trends with both the abrupt nature of the ending and the refusal to tint it with sentimality.