I picked this up because someone – maybe Tansy? – was appalled that I’d never read any Megan Whalen Turner. So here we go. (Slightly spoiler-y but not very.)
This is definitely aimed at a YA audience (ish), and I think I would have adored it if I’ve read it a little younger. That said, I enjoyed it more than the first couple of pages suggested I might.
The book opens with a thief, Gen, in prison. He’s pulled out of his cell and taken for an interview with the king’s magus – head scholar, not magician, so an interesting choice of words there – because the magus wants to use his particular talents for a very specific mission. It’s a rahter intriguing beginning because it’s unclear how the reader should feel about Gen: clearly he’s a thief, so that’s bad; but he’s an engaging narrator, which is ambivalence-making; the magus isn’t that nice and the king is a bully, so that makes Gen look good. There’s also a question over Gen’s abilities, since lots of people are taunting him for the boasts he made before his capture, and clearly he’s been in jail for ages, so does that make him a bad thief? On the other hand, the fact that he’s going to be used by the magus is an indication of his skill, so… yeh, lots of ambivalence here. I like well-constructed ambivalence.
Turner keeps Gen an engaging character for the length of the novel. Various bits and pieces come out about his past, and his sense of self, and all of these go to construct an intriguing and likeable man. I had to stop after the first chapter or two and re-read some sections because I half-wondered whether Gen was going to turn out to be female… that would have been really awesome, but alas no. (There’s only two female characters, I think, who get any real airtime, and that not much.) I was really, really impressed with the twist at the end… I had been fully expecting a fairly straightforward ending, and would have been fine with that – although quite what could have been done with Gen when they got back I don’t know, maybe just allowed to slip away? Anyway, the way such a major revelation actually worked in perfectly with what had gone before? Genius. The magus is a bit fickle, especially in his attitude towards Gen but also towards his two students, and I could never quite figure out whether he was meant to be thawing out over the course of the journey or if he was indeed this mercurial, sometimes-ill-sometimes-even tempered teacher that everyone had to be careful of. Overall not entirely convinced. Of the others on the journey – I don’t feel that they were quite rounded out enough for me to care that much. Interestingly, Gen is big enough to basically plug that lack. There are other characters here and there but none that are memorable.
The plot, obviously, is that of a quest – go find this ancient artefact which could have ramifications on… stuff. Along the way there’s politics and mythology and personality clashes, and a lot of walking and some adventures. It’s fun and well-paced – the walking doesn’t drag (heh), the discussions the characters have enliven things nicely, and the conclusion packs a really brilliant punch. I ploughed through this very easily and with great enthusiasm.
So I liked the characters, and the plot was fun. The world is another aspect that made me ambivalent. The author’s note vindicated my feeling from the opening chapters that this was definitely heavily influenced by Greece, and its ancient (and semi-mythologised) past. However I was weirded out by scrolls and books in the same library – which I know must have happened, but it’s still weird – and Turner only notes that Gutenberg did movable type in 1445 in the author’s note, just to give context I guess. So it’s kinda real-world ancient, kinda medieval, kinda… not. That aspect bugged me a little but when they got into the countryside it wasn’t such a problem. For the world itself – I was impressed to see the levels of the politics discussed, which makes me wonder actually at my tagging it YA although it did get to be a Newbery Honor Book. I liked the Canterbury Tales-esque aspect of telling stories to each other, although these were of mythology not everyday life, and that these myths were clearly inspired by Greek tales but made wholly Turner’s own by twists and details; there was some discussion about how much the gods affect everyday life, although not much. In all it was quite a comfortable world, I guess.
This is the beginning of a series; I will definitely be looking out for the rest of them. You can buy a shiny new copy over at Fishpond.