Book Review: The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

August 3, 2011 at 3:49 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Gen can steal anything.

Or at least that’s what he tells anyone and everyone who’ll listen, but when he steals the ring of the King of Sounis and shows it off in a wineshop, it lands him squarely in prison. Then the king’s magus comes and says he needs Gen’s unique skills, and takes him on a journey across three lands to to a ravaged place forgotten by all but the gods, and an abandonded temple that holds a prize like no other.

Gen can steal anything- if he doesn’t lose his life in the process.

There’s a rule about narrators: never trust them. First person narratives are filled with bias, deliberate skewing, missed moments, misinterpretations. Narrators get confused. Narrators don’t notice significant details. Narrators lie.

Nowhere is this made more plain than in this book.

We know from the very beginning that Gen is far more than just a thief stupid enough to let bragging get him put into jail. He pays attention to odd things, knows bit and pieces about history that he wouldn’t really be expected to, but more than that, he deliberately baits his companions. He does things a certain way, designs his actions and statements to provoke telling reactions. Granted, that isn’t always the case; if there’s anyone with a more lacking mental censor button, I challenge you to present him/her. He carefully balances obedience against expectation, as well as his own natural defiance, so we as the reader are waiting breathlessly for the reveal, even as his companions become more and more secure in their assumptions of him.

I first read this book years ago and loved it, but when I went back to look for it at the library again, I couldn’t remember the title or author, and giving the cover and the story didn’t ring any bells with the librarian. Over time, I more or less forgot about it, until suddenly I saw the cover again! (I know it’s had at least one reissue, but I was so SO glad it was the same cover). Suddenly there were two more books to be read, and another to be out in a few months. Upon rereading this book, with so much more experience as both a reader and a writer, I’m still in love with it.

This isn’t a book that lets you make assumptions. We know, from the very beginning, that the main character is both a thief and a liar, that he deliberately exaggerates things to provoke a reaction or specific result, and that he has secrets. We know all of that nearly from page one.

But watching that all play out through the rest of the pages? Brilliant.

The political maneuvering is beautifully-written, full of people who are not necessarily good or evil, but who have different motives and means. Where some seek personal glory, others seek national power, or a unified front against a greater threat, or prosperity, or the well-being of a population. There are some who exude that sense of power, but some do it in a distinctly menacing fashion while others radiate a higher quality. We meet those who are unceasingly loyal, those who are traitors, those who are utter innocents, those who have a job and do it well no matter the obstacles. We see the danger of assumptions and how others can so easily play into them- or against them.

More than anything, this novel is based on both perspective and perception. It’s a bold move, having the narrator lie to the readers for so long, but because everything is spun off of those two principles, it works. It also gives us a rather interesting spin on the question of religion.

Eddis, the mountain country in a tenuous position between the strongholds of Sounis and Attolia, still follows the old gods. The lowland countries, conquered years before by invaders from across the sea and semi-recently reclaimed, follow newer gods, introduced by the invaders, though some still honor or remember the old gods. Then there are those who doubt them entirely, who believe in myth and superstition and old stories and leave it at that.

So what do we do when suddenly the gods become visibly active in our lives?

Gen finds out.

And it scares him witless.

Which I loved. Not to get into a tangent on religion, but it’s amusing to me how many religious phrases have become such a part of our linguistic culture that a self-professed atheist will still use the phrase “Oh my God” without a shred of irony. It’s simply part of the lingo. We’re very casual with such things, as well as with promises/prayers/bargains, but what would happen if every time we said “Oh, God please (fill in the blank here)” we got an answer? Maybe not the answer we expect or want, but a genuine answer as solid and real as your mother texting you with an invitation to dinner? For someone who doesn’t believe, that moment when he realizes his gods are paying attention to him can’t be anything but terrifying, but Gen is far too much of a pragmatist not to find a middle ground. The fun is in watching him struggle to find that middle ground.

This book is a masterclass of misdirection, and if you like it, check out the rest of the series: The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings.

Until next time~

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