15 February 2007

Yes, Ptolemy's Gate Is That Good

When I agreed to be a judge for the first Cybils Award for Fantasy and Science Fiction, I rather hoped that this new blogocentric process would produce a gem that had been overlooked by other awards. I think the organizers did, too, since they were inspired in part by dismay at Bowker’s Quill Awards, which seem designed to reward established popularity rather than literary quality.

Maybe we’d honor an excellent book from a small publisher that hadn’t broken through in stores yet. Or a fantasy that had great literary merit but was passed over for prestigious honors because it was fantasy and thus didn’t quite fit the profile of the sort of book that deserved such recognition. Cybils to the rescue!

But we ended up giving the award to a book that’s already been a bestseller around the world, on the lists from the New York Times Book Review, USA Today, and Book Sense. A book that was called one of the best of the year by Child magazine, Booklist, and The Horn Book. A book that won the CORINE Youth Book Award (that seems to be big in Germany--who knew?). A book that was even nominated for one of those Quill Awards.

I see a couple of reasons for that. With Fantasy and Science Fiction getting so much more attention from publishers, critics, and readers these days, it would be hard for a good book in that category to fly under the radar. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cybils honorees in other categories include undiscovered gems--at least titles that aren’t yet bestsellers.

The other reason is that Ptolemy’s Gate deserves every award it gets. Man, it’s good! It was my clear favorite not only among the Cybils nominees in this category, but among all the novels I recall reading in the past year. As far as I can tell, almost every other member of the judging and nominating committees ranked it at or near the top of their lists as well.

Ptolemy’s Gate is the third book in a trilogy, and I hadn’t read the first two. So I lined up a young Bartimaeus Trilogy expert to help me when I got lost. But Jonathan Stroud’s writing enabled me to pick up the details of his world as I went along; I called on my expert about only one point after I’d finished the book--I didn’t want to stop.

Now I’ve bought the first two books in the series, The Amulet of Samarkand and The Golem’s Eye, and started to read from the beginning. And I’m even more impressed by how Stroud introduced his world and his first two main characters, and slipped in foreshadowings of the third book’s crucial moments. Yet the third story also takes place at a different level from the first: the characters are older, there’s more at stake, there’s a higher playing field.

Ptolemy’s Gate is more than good--it’s brilliant. And I don’t just mean the British “brilliant.” I stumbled into this example of our nations being divided by a common language a few years ago when I stayed in a house in Oxford. I mentioned having done some minor task on my way there, and my hostess responded, “Right, brilliant.”

Brilliant? I thought. It really wasn’t amazing, I reminded myself, trying to maintain what little modesty I command. But after a bit I realized that in American my hostess would simply have said, “Okay, great”--quick assent and approval, nothing special, now let’s move on.

So when I call Ptolemy’s Gate a brilliant fantasy novel, I’m writing as an American. It’s luminescently smart and inventive, it’s a nifty idea wonderfully realized, it’s an exciting read that also makes you think, it’s a wonderful example of how to structure and narrate a complex story. It’s that good.

Now if only I’d listened to my expert’s praise for this series years ago.


lemming said...

Almost eight years ago I approached my favorite bookseller, looking for something light, but thought-provoking, to read after subitting final grades."I"ll be burned out, you see, and..."

"OMG!" she yelled "you must read this new book - it's getting no publicity and yet it's so good..." thus I met Harry Potter.

It is possible to be popular and brilliant and I agree with you that PG is both.

Gail Gauthier said...

I'm glad you brought up the point about Ptolemy's Gate gate having been nominated for a Quill. Many of us involved with the Cybils did hope we were going to discover a forgotten gem. But I think the success of Ptolemy's Gate illustrates that sometimes a really superb book is rewarded.

I was on the nominating committee for fantasy and scifi. While I was quite happy with the shortlist we passed on to you, I would have been stunned if Ptolemy's Gate hadn't won. I, too, have bought and read the first book in the series and will be reading the second one at some point.

I was only vaguely aware of this series before the Cybils. I think the covers were a turn-off for me.