The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, 280 pp, RL: Middle Grade

With The Thief, published in 1996 and winner of the Newbery Honor the following year, Megan Whalen Turner began a quartet of books that she has just completed.  The Thief is a book that has been a constant on the shelves almost as long as I have been a bookseller and it has bounced back and forth between being shelved in the children's and teen sections often.  Currently, although there are both "children's" and "teen" editions of this book series (the only differences being the size of the book itself) my store only stocks the teen edition.  I am always interested how these decisions are made by the higher ups.  There are plenty of books in the children's section that I think, not because of content but because of complexities of the stories, should be in the teen section.  So, The Thief intrigued me for more than the obvious reasons.

Should it be in the teen section?  I think yes, but not for the usual reasons that get a book shelved in the teen section (violence, sex, drugs.)  The Thief is an intricate, layered story with a genuine twist at the end that will have you flipping back and re-reading pages to make sure you know what's going on.  Actually, I found myself doing this in more than one spot in the book.  Because of the plot twist and the brilliance of the story and the writing, I'm only going to give you a bare bones summary of the plot and hope that I can make it enticing enough that you will be inspired to read it or pass it on to a young reader.  I went into this book knowing nothing about it beyond the blurb on the back and I think that that is actually the best way to do it.

The setting for The Thief unfolds with the plot itself, widening as the narrator Gen's world expands.  When we first meet him, Gen is in prison in the country of Sounis for stealing the King's Seal.  He was foolish enough to brag about this theft in wine shops all over the city.  Starved, chained, filthy and lice ridden, Gen is biding his time until he can escape.  However, the chance never comes and he doesn't need it.  The magus, the King's scholar, releases Gen from prison to serve a different kind of term.  Gen is cleaned up, fed a bit and put in a saddle along with the magus, Pol, a soldier, and two youths, Sophos and Ambiades, whom Gen takes to calling Useless the Elder and Useless the Younger, or even just The Uselesses.  The four head out on their journey, Gen complaining and subtly belligerent all the way.  After a few days the four have left their horses behind and are climbing a mountain range and Gen realizes where they are going and why.  As Turner say's in her author's notes, the landscape for her story mirrors that of Greece, something I only began to realize for sure when the characters started eating olives and yogurt.  The historical time frame for this story is a bit fuzzy as well, as Turner also admits in her author's notes.  While obviously taking place long ago, there is mention of guns and some houses have glass windows.  Whatever the era or setting, though, Turner's story and characters are so compelling that you will not feel the need to know the specifics.

The first half of the book is almost entirely dialogue that explains the history of the countries   involved in the story and occurs as the group is traveling.  Sounis and Attolia are separated by the neutral country of Eddis that allows the other two to travel and trade across their borders.  However, invasion from a fourth country seems imminent and the magus is anxious to forge a union between countries with a marriage between the King of Sounis and the Queen of Attolia or the Queen of Eddis.  To assure a marriage, the magus is searching for a rumored, possibly mythological item that, when stolen by one person and given to another, assures the right to rule Eddis and imbues the holder with immortality.  The stone in question, Hamiathes' Gift, was originally given to the river god Hamiathes by Hephestia, Queen of all the gods except her parents, The Sky and The Earth, when he rescued her brother, Eugenides, the god of thieves.  Eventually, Hamiathes' Gift was passed from the god to a mortal king named Hamiathes, who became immortal as long as he was in possession of the stone.  However, the king, at the end of his normal life, chose to pass the stone on to his son and a tradition began, the stone passing from ruler to chosen inheritor of the throne of Eddis, ensuring immortality and signifying the right to rule.  Over time, the stone disappeared and the position of ruler (and Royal Thief) was passed down through families.  With this stone, the king of Sounis can claim the kingdom of Eddis without having to marry the queen and the person who retrieves the stone can claim the title of Royal Thief.

The group also shares the old stories of the gods, Gen and the magus taking turns telling them, as the group travels to its destination.  These passages are distinct from the rest of the book and very well conceived by Megan Whalen Turner.  She does a superb job creating a mythology with the Earth, a feminine figure, as the original deity who creates all other deities which also correspond with geographical features, such as the Sky, rivers and lakes.  Turner mirrors the themes of Greek mythology while shaping her own tales that serve to explain the existence of the Sounis, Eddis and Attolia and their landscapes.  And, in turn, the characters in The Thief.  The action in the book begins when the group reaches the place that the magus believes holds the stone.  Hidden behind a waterfall, the entrance to which is revealed once a year for about six hours a night over the course of four days when a damn upstream keeps the water from flowing for a brief time.  The magus gives Gen the tools he will need and sends him into the Temple of Hephestia that is carved into the mountain.  The temple is a maze of winding corridors and locked doors that Gen has to navigate over and over again each night with the knowledge that all other seekers of Hamiathes' Gift perished in their search.  These scenes are amazing and intense, as is the climax.

This quest alone could make this book, but Turner's story is only half over at this point.  And, at this point, anything else I tell you will rob you of the opportunity to discover it on your own.  I can tell you this, though:  Megan Whalen Turner's book is a compelling mix of ancient alternative history and intrigue combined with rich, complex characters that reveal themselves over the course of the story and are so compelling that, although I often say I only ever have time to read the first book in any series now that I am reading for review, I fully intend to read the next three books in this series as soon as I can and have no doubt that I will be as satisfied as I was with The Thief, in which we get glimpses of characters who are sure to prove fascinating as their stories unravel over the next three books in the series, The King of Attolia, The Queen of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings.

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