by Megan Whalen Turner
Puffin Books, 1996
I have been hearing about this book, and this series, for years. As long as I've been reading book blogs. It crops up throughout the blogosphere every once in a while, which is a fair bit of staying power for a YA book; when I first heard about it, I expected it to be a recent publication. Turns out it was a Newbery Honour book in 1997, which is about the time I would have read it happily as a teen if I had known it existed.
I think, unfortunately, there were a few expectations in play here. I have not heard anything from anyone who dislikes this book, and plenty from people who adore it and Gen, the main character, unreservedly. The praise is well deserved, as the book is excellent. It's not that there was anything wrong, or bad. I just didn't fall in love with it the way I had hoped to, which is always a bit of a disappointment.
So. We meet Gen as he is called out of prison into the magus' office, where he is recruited for a secret mission to steal a jewel so old as to be mythical. He has made a boast to the wrong people: "I can steal anything." And he backed that up with stealing something he shouldn't have on a dare, and then bragging about it publicly. After a too-long stint in the king's prison, he and the magus, the magus' two apprentices, and a soldier head off into the mountains, into the wilds of the enemy country of Attolia, to find and steal the jewel.
It's a simple adventure/quest storyline, and its success is in the telling and the world-building. The world is based, we are told in the author's note (which happily appears after the story, as is always preferrable), on ancient Greece. Reading this so shortly after reading Libraries in the Ancient World made the world seem almost sharper and more real to me; the smells, the sights, the baking heat, all of which I already had on the brain. I suspect that the world is strong enough to stand on its own without help, though, strengthened by the myths sprinkled liberally throughout the text. These are given to us as stories told to the characters by each other, and it worked really well.
It's hard for me to write a lot more about this book without spoilers, and believe me, you do not want spoilers. I had carefully avoided reading any myself, and I'm not about to ruin anything for anyone reading this. Suffice to say that what Turner set out to do, she accomplished magnificently with me, leaving me at the end of the book to admire her skill and forethought with what I can only describe as awe.
Despite the fact that I didn't love it the way I wanted to, I do recommend this book to anyone, really. It will be enjoyed by teens through adults, particularly those who like either history or fantasy, but I don't think either are a requirement. Gen is a bit of a prickly, slippery character, but a fascinating one without good analogues in other fantasy I've read lately. It's always good to discover something new, and I'm glad I did. This book deserves the accolades it gets, and I am not surprised at all at its staying power.