Smooth, Smoother, Smoothest

thief-small.jpgI get sucked in very easily by books that are smooth on the surface. If a book has glossy enough writing and a well-paced storyline, then I’m almost always a sucker for it. But when a book also has something intriguing going on underneath the surface, then I feel like my optimism has been rewarded – and that’s when I really love a book. Enter Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief.

The Thief is a young adult novel from about a decade ago. It was Turner’s first novel, and kicked up some fuss, including a Newberry Honor. It’s ostensibly labelled fantasy, and you can easily read it that way. But it’s closer to Guy Gavriel Kay’s way of creating historical alternates than, say, Dungeons & Dragons. In this case, Turner models ancient Greek city-states, with a few anachronisms like guns, and a very subtle case of polytheism. That the gods are listening makes it a fantasy? I guess. There’s also a quest for a magic object.

Gen is in the king’s prison; he’s the thief of the title. The king’s advisor, the magus, will free Gen on one condition: that Gen helps him steal the aforementioned magic object. The magic doodad, Hamiathes’s Gift, will apparently guarantee the holder the kingship of a neighbouring country. The magus, Gen, and a few soldiers go on a trek, locate the hiding spot, then turn the success of the expedition over to Gen and his thieving ways. All along, they’ve been telling each other stories of their gods and goddesses.

The bits and pieces in my summary resemble a stereotypical fantasy novel much more so than when you’re reading the book. The difference is in the characterization I guess, since there are some remarkable moments along the way, and some puzzling aspects click together with resounding elegance at the end. It’s adventure, sure, but unexpectedly coherent and impressive.

The difference is also in the smooth writing. Turner’s style reminds me a great deal of Ursula K. Le Guin, who always stands in for smooth prose when I think about such things. The Thief is like a less gloomy version of The Tombs of Atuan, to be perhaps too precise.

Turner has written two sequels. I must say, though, that as much as I’m looking forward to those next two books, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, the delicious sense of anticipation – yes, the author has written some more books in the series! – is mingled with a large proportion of wariness. I’m jaded, but I’ve been burned too many times. It’s started to affect my enjoyment of a book, even if it stands alone.

thief-big.jpgA few examples to illustrate. My clearest example is always His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. I loved The Golden Compass, thought The Subtle Knife (book two) was ok, and hated the concluding book, The Amber Spyglass (I wrote about it here on the Gutter a few years back). But even if the follow-up books are not giant disappointments, they very seldom live up to the first book. I liked Garth Nix’s Sabriel quite a lot, but books two and three were simply… passable. In almost a direct parallel to my experience with The Thief, I had not read Nix’s sequels when I wrote about Sabriel.

Similarly, one of the reader reviews for The Thief on Amazon mentioned a similarity to Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori, which brought back a flood of memories for me. I had managed to block that series from my mind for years, so I went back and checked my notes. Sure enough, I loved the first book, but as it turns out, books two and three were awesome too – right up until the grand finale, which was hideous and random.

I had been burned by recommending The Golden Compass to a bunch of people before finishing the series myself, so I was holding off on doing the same for Hearn’s series. It looked so promising! And book three so good too, I was looking for boxed sets for gifts, the whole deal.

Will the same thing happen for Turner? I’m a weird mix of gloom and optimism, as I’ve mentioned: I would love to have an example to counter my reasons for despair. At this point, all I can say for sure is that I’m glad that The Thief is a relatively self-contained work, just like Sabriel by Nix. If the next two books are ho-hum, I’ll just have to come back and read the first one again.

(On a side note, I just gave a rave for a Timothy Zahn series featuring a thief, and I’m still seeing influences of the classic Looking Glass game, Thief: The Dark Project, in current games. I’m playing the otherwise ho-hum Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and enjoying the thiefsie touches).

* January 2009 update: A few words about the two Attolia sequels. Short version: it’s good news! *

4 replies »

  1. I’ve been thinking about the episodic mode a lot, esp as it relates to comics and tv. Behind a lot of discussions about episodic forms is the idea that money is the main motivator to keep something going forever. But I think it be otherwise motivated, like a jazz riff that can go on forever, entertainingly so if the musician is talented enough. But if the musician isn’t hugely creative and has only a handful of tricks up their sleeves, or simply only has the lung power for a certain length, then it’s pretty painful.


  2. I think money can be a negative influence on the artist’s side, but if I’m thinking from the fan’s point of view, I almost always want more of the “good stuff” (whatever that is). If it’s artistically dazzling, technically speaking, so much the better, since that means the creative person behind it is engaged and not just cranking it out.
    (On that note, it looks like Hearn has written a “20 years after” sequel to the Otori trilogy and has now put out a prequel. I dunno, I can’t get motivated to track those down – the reader reviews have been lukewarm on Amazon).
    I forgot to add to the article: thanks to Chris for the recommendation of The Thief! I see from the Bakka-Phoenix LiveJournal (link) that they’ve been selling it like mad from the store too!


  3. don’t forget publishers and terror as a motivation. publishers want something safe that will sell and it’s easy to pressure artists to repeat the same generic elements when starting a new piece is just plain terrifying.
    but sometimes i think money and greed are a shorthand way of dismissing disappointing or failed sequels and weak episodes. fans often have a conflicted desire for something totally new at the same time that they feel nostalgia for things they love. and then there’s the particular nostalgia for that time we saw or read something and it seemed like everything changed.


  4. No fears about QUEEN and KING, James. Seriously. I read, on average, 10 books a week, and QUEEN and KING were definitely the best things I read in 2007. Just astonishing. The plots are more challenging, and that smooth, smooth prose just gets better.


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