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REVIEW: The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Dear Ms. Turner,

Your young adult fantasy novel, The Thief, was named a 1997 Newbery Honor Book, an ALA Notable Book, and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. After hearing good things about the series that begins with this book from two different friends, I was eager to begin reading it.

Thief Megan Whalen TurnerGen, the hero of the story, is languishing in the King of Sounis's prison when the Magus, who is the king's advisor and scholar, comes to see him. The Magus explains that he needs Gen (a thief who managed to swipe the King's seal) to steal something for him, but he won't reveal what. Gen will be released into the Magus's custody if he agrees to this theft. If he tries to escape before stealing the object and turning it over to the Magus, the King of Sounis will offer a huge reward for Gen's capture.

So it comes about that Gen agrees, and the next day, he begins a journey to an unknown destination in the company of the Magus, a soldier named Pol, and two young men that Gen dubs Useless the Elder and Useless the Younger. Gen must make the journey on horseback, and he is not very good on horses. He is also weak and hungry because of the time he spent in prison. Therefore he is not always on his best behavior as the group travels, and tensions begin to develop in the group.

Since Gen bragged about stealing the king's seal, the Magus thinks Gen is a good thief but a stupid one. He plans to use Gen as he might a tool, like a hammer, but he doesn't accord him anymore respect than he would a hammer. Gen, who had reasons for bragging about his thieving that he doesn't want to reveal, is chafed by the Magus' attitude.

Then there is Useless the Elder, whose real name is Ambiades. He is the kind of person who looks down at anyone from a lower station, and sees most people as being below himself. To say that Ambiades is difficult to get along with is an understatement, and Gen doesn't even bother trying.

On the other hand, Gen comes to like Pol and Useless the Younger, whose real name is Sophos. Pol is very capable and Sophos friendly to Gen.

During their travels, the group passes from the Kingdom of Sounis to that of Eddis. Gen's mother was from Eddis, and he is familiar with its religion, in which a different, older set of gods is worshipped than the ones prayed to in Sounis and Attolia. To make the journey more enjoyable and to educate Ambiades and Sophos, the Magus begins to tell Eddis's creation myth to the other men. Gen knows different variations of these stories from his mother, and eventually, he too begins to tell the others stories about the old gods.

Some of the dynamics between Gen and his companions begin to change as the journey progresses. Gen also learns that the object he will be stealing is something that could shift the balance of power between the three kingdoms of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia. When, about halfway through, the travelers reach their destination, the place turns out to be more mysterious and magical than Gen imagined.

Will Gen succeed in stealing something where countless others have failed? And what will happen to him and his companions after this attempt? What will happen to the balance of power between Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia? Those things are left to the reader to discover, and in the process, we also learn that not everything is what it appears to be.

It took me a while to get involved in the story because although Gen's narration was very well written, his character was not instantly sympathetic to me. In the beginning of the book he is portrayed as a rather selfish person who cares mostly about his own comfort and about becoming famous through an extraordinary theft. This does change as the book continues, and I gradually grew to like him better.

The first half of the book seemed somewhat slow to me. The tension between Gen and his companions begins with mild annoyances, and I felt a bit impatient while waiting for something of greater significance to happen. The myths of the old gods held my interest, and I thought that you did a terrific job of making them unique, and giving them the flavor of mythology at the same time.

The second half of the book held more excitement, and I especially liked what happened when Gen and his traveling companions reached the place where the object he came to steal was located. There were some twists that were revealed at the end of the book, and even though I had guessed one of them all along, there were others that surprised me.

The setting of The Thief is based on Greece, and it was refreshing to read a fantasy with a Mediterranean flavor. I enjoyed the little details such as the characters eating olives and cheese for lunch and yogurt for breakfast, but one little detail that threw me was the mention of guns. Although they were said to be less accurate than crossbows, I still had to revise my mental picture of the society of this world. Because everyone traveled on horseback and there were no other inventions as advanced that were mentioned, I had not anticipated that guns would exist in Sounis, Eddis or Attolia.

While I can't rave about The Thief, I enjoyed it enough to look for the next book in the series, especially since I've heard that this is where things get romantic between Gen and a rather interesting woman who makes a brief appearance in The Thief. As for this book, although I think it may be a better read for young adults than for grownups like me, it's still good enough to get a recommendation and a B- from me.

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

25 Comments

  1. EC Sheedy
    Jul 09, 2007 @ 15:38:36

    While this book sounds fascinating–perfect in fact for some girls in my family, I’m left with a question. Why is it that so many older readers–and by that I mean not under twenty–are now seeking out and reading YA novels. What are they finding there that they are not finding in adult romantic fiction? Is there more story, more creativity . . . what? I don’t usually read YA, but I’m thinking of trying because of the wonderful reviews many of them are getting on the romance blogs.

  2. Jorrie Spencer
    Jul 09, 2007 @ 15:48:07

    I adored this series! I, too, found the very beginning of The Thief a little slow and, in fact, I had to start it twice. But I was riveted by the second half. Not only by the magic, and the twists and turns, but also by what I felt was Gen’s real danger, from different sources. I also thought the characterization was very well done, right down the line.

    The next book is quite different. Also, it’s best, if you don’t like spoilers, to not read the blurbs of any of the books in this series.

    I look forward to your coming reviews, if you continue to review them, that is :)

  3. Janine
    Jul 09, 2007 @ 17:33:44

    While this book sounds fascinating–perfect in fact for some girls in my family, I’m left with a question. Why is it that so many older readers–and by that I mean not under twenty–are now seeking out and reading YA novels. What are they finding there that they are not finding in adult romantic fiction? Is there more story, more creativity . . . what? I don’t usually read YA, but I’m thinking of trying because of the wonderful reviews many of them are getting on the romance blogs.

    Interesting, thought-provoking question. I can’t speak for other readers, but I think I enjoy the YA I read because for me to pick up the books, they have to come very highly recommended by friends whose opinion I trust, or be written by authors I know I love.

    For that reason, it usually works out that the writing turns out to be quite good in these books, and yes, there is a lot of creativity. In the YA fantasies, the worldbuilding is very well done as the authors often come from a background in fantasy rather than romance.

    There are settings unlike anything I encounter in romance — for example, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is set in a dystopian England where terrorism has led to a war, and teenagers are left alone to fend for themselves. Francesca Lia Block’s Weezie Bat series (which I think has been compiled in one book called Dangerous Angels) is set in a kind of psychadelic version of Los Angeles.

    Actually, mentioning these two writers also reminds me that voice is another important component of what I enjoy. Block’s writing is downright poetic, loaded with images so vivid they might be in neon. Rosoff has her narrator include dialogue in the narration without quotation marks — not something I applaud in and of itself, but in this case, I think it makes a good window into the character’s thought process. In the YA books I’ve tried, at least, the voices have been very distinct.

    Also, in terms of character, the characters are less likely to follow in a tradition of a certain type like the alpha hero. Sharon Shinn’s narrator in The Dream Maker’s Magic falls in love with a boy who has a permanent limp and a rather frail body. I don’t see many heroes from this kind of mold in the romance genre, where typically, the male love interest has to be strong, tall, tough, and super-masculine.

    I love the romance genre, and I read more romances than I do YA books. Maybe there are other restrictions on YA that I’m not aware of because I don’t read that many of them, but the ones I’ve read have been very creative. The other thing I like about them is that they are often optimistic, even if they don’t end in marriage. I tend to shy away from some of the other genres because I prefer optimistic books, but YA does not present a problem in that regard.

    One last thought: I also think it’s interesting to read about teenagers because they are vulnerable and emotional. Love (and other emotions) hits them hard, and I like that. Plus, as much as I enjoy reading hot love scenes (and I do), it’s nice sometimes to read something where the focus is on a character’s coming of age rather than his or her hot sex life.

    Maybe more people will chime in here and answer this question. Others might have different reasons than I do for reading YA.

  4. Janine
    Jul 09, 2007 @ 17:37:10

    Jorrie, I unfortunately have read the blurbs about The Queen of Attolia so it’s likely that I already know too much. I will probably review the next two books when I read them (though that may be a ways off). I am a slow reader, so I end up reviewing most of the books I read.

  5. Keishon
    Jul 09, 2007 @ 20:17:53

    Finally, you read the first book! I was starting to wonder when you’d get around to them. I agree in most part with your review in that the second half of the book was a much better read from the first part—-but the series does get stronger and darker with my favorite being The Queen of Attolia. No matter what you might have read–there are still surprises in store for you. Look forward to your thoughts on them because I think you would enjoy them even more than The Thief. Now you need to read Tithe by Holly Black.

  6. Trisha
    Jul 10, 2007 @ 03:33:28

    I agree that the second half of the book is stronger and can see why people think it gets off to a slow start. But I love Turner’s writing, so I don’t recall it bothering me. I also like that she respects her readers and doesn’t write down to them. Her stories are occasionally complex, with all the strategizing (is that a word?) and machinations going on, but because she has a great command of language and uses it so precisely, particularly in The King of Attolia, the reader is not confused.

    Regarding EC Sheedy’s question about YA books, the Chicago Tribune just published an article about this. But here’s my, well, three cents worth about the appeal of YA (as a YA librarian who, as an adult, has been reading romance longer than YA lit but now reads way more YA than romance):

    1) Yes, I think there is much more creativity in YA than romance. You always hear romance readers complain about the glut of Regency historicals or vampires or Navy SEALs (okay, these are my complaints), but while there are certain types of YA books that may be overrepresented, it’s not to the same extent as it is in romance. Because YA is an age range, not a genre, you can pretty much find every type of adult book in the YA section. Romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, realistic fiction… It’s all there, sometimes within the same book. Well, I can’t think of any westerns, but that’s about it. Also, most romances are written in prose, in the third person past tense. In YA, you’ve got first, second (not often, but then I’ve never seen a romance told from this point of view), or third person narration, in the past or present tense, in prose or poetry (or IM, screenplay, etc.), and sometimes with multiple formats in the same book. And, in my opinion, there is also more variety in terms of character. Not just sexual orientation, but characters who are more imperfect, fallible. I can’t imagine a heroine like Daisy (from how i live now) in an adult romance, though I’d love to read it if such a book exists.

    2) I also think that now the boundaries of YA are stretching, it’s attracting more adult readers. Apparently, back in the ’90s, when I was a teen, publishers considered the YA market as ending at age 14. But in the past 5-7 years, there’s been an explosion of books for older YAs.

    3) There’s so much competition for teens’ attention these days that YA books need to be able to capture the reader’s attention early on and keep it. So, I agree with Janine, voice is key. And so is, I don’t know how to put this, tightness of prose, maybe? The story needs to get started right away, and authors can’t waste words. After you read a lot of YA books, you may become impatient with adult books, wondering when the story is going to get started.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to take up so much space. Should probably take this to my own blog.

  7. Charlotte
    Jul 10, 2007 @ 08:08:07

    I too think The Thief is the weakest of the three books to date, but the King of Attolia is one of my favorite books ever–it is absolutly stunning! So don’t stop after the Thief–the future rewards are great.

  8. Janine
    Jul 10, 2007 @ 10:01:11

    Keishon, I was thinking of you when I wrote this review. Glad you liked it. You have a great memory for books I’ve expressed interest in! I don’t know when exactly I will get to the Holly Black book — I haven’t picked up a copy yet, since I wanted to read The Thief first. Right now my bookshelves are groaning because are so many books on them still waiting to be read that there’s no space for new ones (and Jane keeps sending more!). Tithe is on my list of books to buy when I’ve thinned out those books, though.

    Trisha, thanks for expounding on the answer to E.C. Sheedy’s question. I’m not an expert on YA, so I wasn’t confident of my answers. It sounds like we are on the same page about it, though (except that I still read more romances than YA, and don’t see that changing soon). I agree with you about the tightness of the prose, too.

    You can post as much as you like here. I was thinking that I should have turned my own answer from a comment to a blog post, it was so long, so I actually felt better when you posted at length. It’s nice to have in depth discussions in the comment section.

    Charlotte, thanks for the encouragement to continue in the series. I have heard fabulous things about The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, so I plan to do so.

  9. Jorrie Spencer
    Jul 10, 2007 @ 12:01:37

    There are actually some people for whom The Thief is the best book in the series. I think it’s “younger” YA than the next two books, which may appeal a little less to some older readers. But I really liked how Turner used the narrator in The Thief. And it’s a nice, tight story. The third book (getting ahead of myself, I know) lagged a little, though there were too many good parts to mind overmuch.

  10. Trisha
    Jul 10, 2007 @ 15:53:11

    But I really liked how Turner used the narrator in The Thief. And it's a nice, tight story. The third book (getting ahead of myself, I know) lagged a little, though there were too many good parts to mind overmuch.

    Really? I love The King of Attolia best. I think it’s interesting that, among those who’ve read the entire series, we each have our own favorite. It’s not like some other series where the general consensus is that one book is the strongest. In this series, you could make a case for each book, which says something about the quality of the series.

    And speaking of narration, another thing I love is how the point of view changes with every book. Keeps things fresh.

  11. Keishon
    Jul 10, 2007 @ 21:45:11

    I admit to being baffled by the beginning of The King of Attolia, Jorrie, but then the plot came together and I was captivated till the finish.

  12. Larissa
    Jul 10, 2007 @ 23:45:22

    Although I enjoyed this book, I liked the Queen of Attolia a lot more and it is one of my favorites. There’s also a lot more romance in that one :) I think the Thief did start out a bit slowly but it became more intersting as you went along and the ending had a good enough twist to it. The whole series is rather good. Would also recommend reading Libba Bray, if you liked this one.

  13. Janine
    Jul 11, 2007 @ 09:50:56

    Thanks, Larissa. I will put Libba Bray on my mental “to buy” list, although the TBR pile has gotten so huge that I’m trying not to buy much right now. One of the boons of reviewing is all the ARCs we get, but it’s hard to keep up with them!

  14. Brigid
    Dec 28, 2007 @ 01:08:28

    I love this trilogy – it’s definitely one of my favorites.

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  17. Moth
    Feb 19, 2009 @ 13:45:21

    Can I jsut second the recommendation on Holly Black’s Tithe? It is excellent.

  18. MA
    Mar 01, 2009 @ 07:21:38

    Stumbled on your spoiler warnings for the latest book in this series, found it intriguing and decided to start at the beginning… I read this book in 24 hours and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for the recommendation!

  19. Katherine
    Mar 28, 2009 @ 23:04:19

    Enjoyed reading the above comments…. I “found” this series by running into the 3rd book on a YA recommended readings shelf at the library. I picked up the books one and two thinking I’d like to get the “back story” 1st. I must admit I kept asking myself while reading “The Thief,” “Why am I still reading this? It is so boring.” To be honest, it was perfect for putting me to sleep several nights in a row. However, as has been noted, once the story takes off, you can’t put it down. Once I finished “The Thief,” I was very happy I had both #2 & #3 to read right away!

    Now that I’ve ordered books 1-3 from Amazon, I’m wondering about a sequel. I’ve checked Ms. Turner’s website and the information on the greenwillow books site, but can’t see any official info about a book four. I saw a rumor somewhere that a sequel should be out in 2010. Anyone heard anything more specific?

    Also, Shannon Hale has a great interview (email exchange actually) with Megan Whalen Turner on her website Squeetus (?sp) that I would recommend.

  20. Janine
    Mar 29, 2009 @ 01:00:17

    Katherine, if I recall correctly, there’s a Wikipedia page on Megan Whalen Turner that mentions a fourth book coming out in 2010. Other than that, I don’t know anything more.

  21. REVIEW: A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary
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  23. Sasha
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 16:03:40

    I read this book when I was younger and loved it and I still do but the ending seemed odd at the time

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