Monday, February 21, 2011

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

The Thief
by Megan Whalen Turner
Puffin Books, 1996
219 pages

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.


Aarti said...

I know the feeling of a book not quite living up to your expectations- it happens a lot with books that get tons of positive reviews. (For me, the most recent one I remember feeling disappointed in was Graceling.) That said, I *do* love this book and its sequels- the plot gets more intricate as the story progresses and I'm very excited to see what happens next...

Unknown said...

They're a problem, expectations. I'm not above trying this again at some point; I feel like I was maybe missing something. That said, sometimes books just don't click emotionally; I appreciate this book intellectually, but it didn't really grip me. (On the other hand, I loved Graceling on a fundamentally emotional level, but couldn't tell you a thing about it intellectually, so...)

Jeanne said...

Part of the fun of this one for me was picking it up before I even knew who Megan Whalen Turner was, and discovering Gen's character, bit by bit. I can see that heightened expectation might have made it less fun.

Jill said...

I read this one so long ago that I have only dim memories of it. I have heard such gerat things about the sequels, though, that I intend to reread it so I can continue with the series.

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Tsubasa! And also, you must have a fun book club if they're reading The Wee Free Men. I couldn't get many of my friends to read that (but my kids' friends, that's another story). :-)

Unknown said...

I think I could see reading the sequels at some point, although I don't feel an absolute need.

The book club -- this is one of the advantages of running it! I get to pick the books we read ;) But they're always game for my picks, which is awesome. I really hope they enjoy The Wee Free Men. I'm partway through and I think I might love it even more upon re-reading.

Unknown said...

Jeanne, the unfolding of Gen's character definitely elevates this book above your average fantasy adventure. I was a bit in awe of how well it was done, even with the depressed feeling of disappointed expectations.

Marg said...

I liked this book, but it is really the next couple of books that make this an above average series of reads!

Hope you do get to read the sequels eventually.

Unknown said...

Hmm. That is definitely something to consider when I'm looking at what to read next... thanks for the push, Marg, I probably need it!