1 December, 2022

LitStack Recs: Blue Highways & The Thief


The Thiefthief
Megan Whalen Turner

Some time ago, a friend of mine whose artistic sensibilities I deeply admire and whose opinion I greatly value had posted on Facebook that she was thoroughly enjoying The Thief, a novel by Megan Whalen Turner.  I didn’t need any more prompting to pick up this book for myself, and sure enough, her judgment proved sound.  (Thanks, Michelle!)

The Thief introduces us to young Gen as he wakes up in a jail cell after stealing the king’s seal and then indiscreetly bragging about it in the wineshops of Sounis.  Gen is brash, young and cocky – but he certainly isn’t arrogant, for his reputation bears him out.  He has asserted that he can steal anything – including “stealing” himself out of the king’s prison – and given the amount of precautions taken to keep him secured, it seems that even the authorities believe his claim.

Gen is surprised, however, when a visitor comes to his cell – none other than the magus who is the King of Sounis’ most trusted advisor.  Apparently a very delicate political operation is afoot, and the best tools are to be deployed, including the skills of the most talented thief available.  Within hours, Gen has been freed from prison and is on his way, along with the magus, two young apprentices (who Gen dubs “Useless the Elder” and “Useless the Younger”) and a veteran soldier, to the border of Sounis on a mission who’s destination and objectives are unknown.

To say much more would be to skirt at the edge of spoiling the story, so I won’t.  But of course, it goes without saying that appearances are not always as they seem, and that anytime there is intrigue involved in a tale (especially when the main character and highly valued resource is a thief), it’s a pretty safe bet that there are going to be some unexpected twists and turns along the way.  What I really appreciated with Turner’s writing is that even though we fully expect the twist and turns, she still manages to surprise us, not in a “gotcha” way, but in an “ahhh, yes!” way.

Turner’s writing is clean, yet rich.  She gives just enough detail to paint a lucid picture while allowing room for the reader to use their own imagination.  Gen does not speak much, but he listens a lot, as would be expected from someone who makes his living as a thief.  Yet this is Gen’s story, so we do “hear” what’s in his head, which often has an element of the smart-aleck in it.  Turner has created a character who can size up a situation quickly, and yet knows to sit back and let that situation develop rather than always driving it forward.

Like most fantasy fiction, landscape plays an important role, and in The Thief the landscape impacts the travelers, both directly during their journey and indirectly, in dictating geographical and political boundaries.  Turner uses Greece as the inspiration for the kingdoms of Sourin, Eeddis and Attolia, within whose borders the story unfolds.  There are nods to Greece’s topography, mythology and the development of their society in The Thief, but it is clear that Turner does this more in homage than in direct imitation.  We learn about the people of Sounis (and the bordering kingdoms) through stories of gods and creation, spoken around campfires and during the long ride that makes up the clandestine journey, evidencing a well thought out and imaginative pantheon that ends up playing a very pivotal role in the characters’ lives and in the actions of the story.  Thus, we as readers are drawn into this semi-familiar world, effortlessly and with a historic authenticity.

I should probably mention that Megan Whalen Turner’s works are considered “young adult” or children’s literature, rather than adult novels.  But they are children’s books in the same way as The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter books or the works of Jules Verne (who Turner admires) are.  The story may be simplified – devoid of voyeurism and overtly intricate manipulations – but it certainly is not simplistic.  We recognize from the onset that there are layers involved in this story, many that will unfold as the action unfolds, but they are not forced or sensationalized.  There are quirks in the characters that tip us off that another facet of their story will be coming to light, but rarely are these divulgences done with high drama or smirking.

Although The Thief could stand on its own, there are other books that continue to follow Gen on his adventures: The Thief is the first, but there is also The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings, which dig deeper (and tend to get a bit darker) as time progresses.  If, however, you’re looking for an engaging story that is deceptively easy to read and very hard to put down, then check out The Thief… and fight the urge to check for your wallet after each chapter break.

—Sharon Browning