Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Brooklyn Arden Rave: The Attolia Books by Megan Whalen Turner

(Some material cross-posted from my reviews on Goodreads, and lots o' spoilers below.)

Not long after I read the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last year, I thought, Well, there's one more thing off my Death List. The Death List, or "Bucket List," as the recent film with Jack Nicholson calls it, is the list of things one must complete before one dies; and if I had died before knowing how Harry, Ron, Hermione, et al.'s fates resolved, I would have been one seriously hacked-off corpse. This Death List thought was followed by the depressing realization that I didn't really have any more series books on the Death List. . . . I mean, I'm curious about The Book of Dust, certainly, but if I am out ice-fishing, say, and an angry polar bear attacks, I will not think Dammit, I don't know what happens to Lyra as it chases me across the ice.

Well, I am happy to say a literary reason to live has been restored to me, and he is named Eugenides. Eugenides is the hero of a trilogy of books written by Megan Whalen Turner, beginning with The Thief and continuing on in The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, and I adore him. In The Thief he first appears as a young idiot-braggart-criminal dragged through a vaguely Byzantine world on a mission to steal the national treasure of Eddis, with a fair number of excursions into the mythology and topography of that country. I admit I got halfway through this and asked Monica and Donna, "Eh, I'm feeling kind of bored, should I keep going?" The answers were resounding yesses, so I did. And I enjoyed the payoff to all the stories thoroughly, although the book also ends up doing that annoying Walk Two Moons trick where the reader doesn't get information the first-person narrator knows, solely because the author wants to keep it from you -- which makes me feel tricked by the narrator, which I dislike. However, I was impressed enough by the writing, the world-building, and the characterizations to go on and read the sequel, The Queen of Attolia . . .

And glory, I loved The Queen. It is written in third person, which removed my cause for annoyance in The Thief, as I don't mind third-person narrators (that is, the author) keeping information back from me until they deem appropriate, as long as they deploy said information intelligently. And the intelligence here! I felt like Ms. Turner was accomplishing the fictional equivalent of playing a perfect chess game or composing a Mozartian sonata, so carefully is each piece of information provided to the reader at precisely the right time and in precisely the right order. This incredible complexity is given emotional warmth and depth through the slowly developing love story between the Queen and Eugenides -- a romance at first impossible to believe* (she cuts off his hand in the opening pages), but one that pays off beautifully by the end. I especially recommend this to fans of Possession or Gaudy Night or Fire and Hemlock, as, while this isn't as self-conscious a literary romance as any of those, the Queen and Gen operate at a similar level of intelligence to the lovers in those novels. Fabulous, fabulous.

Then, finally, I loved The King of Attolia even more than The Queen. There's all the chess-game pleasure of the politics again, and the mystery of Eugenides's motives and behavior, which this time is seen entirely from the outside, and primarily through the perspective of a young Attolian guard named Costis, who finds it impossible to believe his Queen could love such an idiotic Eddisian. The emotional pleasure here derives from Costis's (and the entire court's) slowly growing respect and liking for him, the deep romantic satisfaction of seeing the Attolian royal marriage develop into all it promised, and Gen's own growth into the king he is meant to be. And as in the previous two books, Ms. Turner beautifully combines the ways of gods and man.

My guess is that the fourth book (and please please please let there be a fourth book) will focus on what happened to Sophos; why Eddis is the last Eddis as per the short story included with the King paperback (because surely that country must be combined with Attolia under Gen's rule, right?), and the coming war with the Medes. And then, perhaps, the birth of an heir to Attolia? Given the intricacy of Ms. Turner's plot construction, I understand why she has taken so long between books, but lord, I hope I don't have to wait four years for this next one. I could get chased by an angry polar bear before then, after all -- and then, dammit, I wouldn't know what happens to Eugenides! And Megan Whalen Turner does not want my icebound zombie stalking her house.

In other words, Ms. Turner: Write faster.

*A friend remarked that she experienced a bit of what I was feeling about The Thief's first-person narration in Eugenides's mid-book declaration of love -- that Turner had cheated with her use of POV and hadn't set up these feelings in his character -- but I think the book stays far enough out of his mind much of the time, allowing him his privacy, almost, that it's believable, especially considering the extreme intelligence and reserve of these two lovers/combatants. And I've reread all three books twice now, I think -- the first time in a long time I've finished a series and immediately gone right back to the beginning -- and the second time through, I picked up on a lot more of the extremely subtle clues to his feelings I missed on a first read. (And in fact, having written all this, I really want to read them all again.)


  1. Hm, I think I agree with your friend about Queen, actually. I loved the way we didn't know who Gen really was until the end of Thief--I thought it played out brilliantly, actually--but in matters of the heart I do need to see something before being convinced. Which meant that I wanted to feel the romance in Queen but didn't. But strangely, despite the much more distant narration of King, I *really* sensed the romance there. It was believable to me in a way it wasn't in Queen.

    Thief is an awesome read-aloud to midgraders (okay, I realize most midgraders read for themselves, but my son who can down thousands of pages on his own without a hiccup does also love to be read to--which delights me, because there is nothing better than walking into your favorite literary world with someone you care about.) For obvious reasons, Queen is best not read aloud (being YA, and then there's the whole hand-chopping bit that um, I was content not to bring to life in the living room.)

    I need to find the paperback copy of King! I didn't know there was stuff in the back. Sigh. It's hard living in a non-English-speaking country.


    I felt exactly the way you did about all three books (including the boredom mid-way through Thief, although I didn't think Gen was cheating not to tell us; the clues were there in retrospect, and anyway I like being tricked). And I, too, cannot wait for another one.

    There is an active and enthusiastic LiveJournal community devoted to the Gen books, for those interested in such things: it's Sounis.

  3. "A literary reason to live" - amen to that!

  4. I am so happy you enjoyed the books! They have been my absolute favorite books since I first picked up The Thief at the age of 12 and it tickles me pink everytime I find someone who agrees with me...

    And all the other MWT-lovers over at Sounis are thrilled as well! =p

  5. When I saw The King of Attolia on your reading list, I hoped you would comment on it because there's nothing I like more than reading what an intelligent, thoughtful reader has to say about a book I love. So I'm thrilled with your post. Never would I have thought to compare Gaudy Night with The Queen of Attolia, but immediately you said it, I saw the connection. The Attolia books (like Gaudy Night) are dangerous, though: how many times have I read The King of A and then found myself (without quite realizing it until I'm a quarter of the way in) reading it AGAIN. And then having to go back to The Thief or The Queen, just to make sure I remember some point correctly (ha), and then there I am reading the entire trilogy all over again.

    One of my favorite things about The King of A is the introduction of Costis. As much as I love Gen, I also love Costis--whose hot head and unwavering sense of honor and struggles with self-honesty are so delightfully portrayed. I particularly like his friendship with Aris, and his slowly developing relationship with Gen. (Not to mention the Queen's slowly coming to appreciate Costis after she has told Gen he will NOT rehabilitate Costis with her).

  6. I didn't read this whole post because I haven't read these books yet -- I just ordered The Thief and I'm waiting for it to come. I've heard so many good things!

  7. I posted about this ( and GraceAnne commented that Queen and King seemed beyond the Newbery age range. Do you think so? I would have thought that they'd appeal to 12-14 year-olds.

  8. I think Eddis will stay Eddis, unless the Queen of Eddis marries Sophos.

  9. Monica-
    I think you're right, QoA and KoA are good for 12-14 yr olds (not to mention everyone older than that...) I first read them when I was about 13, and immediately introduced my brother to them- he was 11. I think younger readers might not catch all of the things that are just hinted at, but they'll still enjoy the books.

    And I totally agree! I would hate to die without knowing what happens next!

  10. And yes, this is a perfect series for 12-14 (and the thief is fine for elementary schoolers) because I am that age and adore (nay, am besotted with) the series.
    Actually, I first read the thief when I was in third grade. My mum brought it home from the library discard sale (although why anyone would discard it I don't know) and for years had no clue that there even was a sequel. Then I discovered the queen of attolia in my sixth grade library, and (shockingly) didn't pursue the idea that it 'could be a series' any further. In fact, I think I had failed to link the thief to QoA, which is surprising. i found the third one in our eighth grade book swap, and ONLY THEN realized that it was related to the other two, and that a series (and a chance of a fourth book) existed.
    I have read them so many times since: QoA (which is the only paperback) is falling apart. The other two have water- and jelly- and grass-stains all over them. I respectfully disagree with the statement that younger readers cannot understand all the nuances of the series. My younger sister and I have long, in-depth discussions about them. They are truly THE BEST books that I have ever read (me? biased? noooo.) and that's saying a lot. I read thousands of books.
    I keep failing to convince my friends to read them, which is very galling. It's lovely to find people who think as highly of the books as I do.