Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: "The Thief" by Megan Whalen Turner

"I can steal anything," the thief Gen claimed--and proving it has already landed him in the king's prison. Now the king's advisor, the magus, wants to put Gen's boasts to the test.

With the magus and his apprentices, Gen is dragged across the mountains and into hostile country where discovery will mean death. The magus believes Gen can steal a sacred stone from the altar of the long-forgotten gods. With the authority of the gods behind him, the magus could dictate the future of alliances and wars for years to come.

But Gen has plans of his own. And he is is used to playing a very long and risky game to get what he wants.

3.9 out of 5 stars

(grump + breakdown below the cut)


My last experience revisiting an old familiar story went poorly. Kristen Britain's Green Rider had been near and dear to my teenaged heart, but when I picked it up again with the mind to recommend it to you, dear readers, I realized it was perhaps not all that I remembered

Rediscovering Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief has been the exact opposite.

Turner's masterpiece, The Queen of Attolia, is a magnificent story and one that I treasure. I always saw The Thief as a necessary but unremarkable prequel. I remembered it as a quick middle-grade adventure. I used to recommend my friends read The Thief to get a grip on the main character, Gen, and to lay some history for the events in The Queen of Attolia before picking up that much greater novel. I hadn't actually read The Thief myself in years. I thought I had taken away everything I needed from the book long ago.

I'm happy to have been so mistaken. What I did not recall was that The Thief is both immensely clever in its own right, and utterly hilarious.

There is little I can say without ruining the ending, sadly. It's one of those perfect endings possible only in good mysteries, when all the puzzle pieces click together and form an entirely different picture than the one expected. It's delightful to flip back through the pages and see all of the hints Gen lays for the watchful reader.
"You can go," the magus said to the guards. "Come take him back in half an hour."
He looked me over for several moments more and didn't seem impressed.
"I saw you at your trial," he said finally. I didn't say that I'd noticed him there as well.  "You're thinner."
I shrugged.
"Tell me," said the magus, "have you found yourself reluctant to leave our hospitality? You said at your trial that not even the king's prison could hold you, and I rather expected you to be gone by now."
I said, "Some things take time."
"How true," said the magus. "How much time do you think it's going to take?"
About half an hour, I thought, but I didn't say that either.
The dialogue between the small but intensely characterized cast crackles with both humor and a wealth of underlying tensions. Everyone has a secret, none more so than Gen, and unraveling them is half of the delight. The other half is, of course, the promised thievery... and the various forms it takes.

I have tagged the book as "historical fiction" as well as "fantasy," which requires a little explanation. Gen's escapades take place in a near-exact analogue of Ancient Greece, divided into small warring city-states (Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia) rather than large countries. It's what I often refer to as "magic-less fantasy" or, to be more hifalutin', "speculative fiction." This is an alternate Ancient Greece as it might have developed if left to simmer, unchanged, until the technological advancements of the Middle Ages. Turner has created her own pantheon of Greek-like gods to play with, and developed a separate mythos to accompany them, but as a tribute to the original classic mythology rather than as a substitution.

The Thief is still not a mind-blowing work of fiction. I cannot, in good conscience, put it on the same level as the books to which I have previously 5 stars. It's simply written and not overly deep, for all of its slyness. The pacing drags quite a bit, what with the unnecessary narration of background actions.(I'm more aware of this than usual, because I am reading the book aloud to my roommate, and tedious description of people folding maps and putting them into packs and mounting up grows wearisome when I know there is adventure to be had, goshdarnit!)

Nevertheless, The Thief is a solidly fun read: one which will keep readers snickering at the banter and Gen's running commentary, while enjoying the combination of a fantastical road trip with a historical heist tale.

And you should read it, dear reader, and mutter "Gen, you viper" under your breath as you pick up the book to which I WOULD award five stars--The Queen of Attolia.

Complexity of Writing: 2/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 3/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 3/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: adventure violence, flogging

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