Friday, January 30, 2015

Blackstone FSF: The Thief

On Monday the Blackstone Library Fantasy & Science Fiction book club discussed Megan Whalen Turner's "The Thief" (1996), a Newberry Honor book. A fun read, good discussion! Serious, definite spoilers after the jump:

So "The Thief" was pitched as "not really YA", but in fact most of us would go further and classify it as "children's"; apparently, the Newberry committee agrees. However, for me at least, that's not necessarily a strike against. "The Thief" is written simply but a well, and ducked some YA-ishness just by virtue of that simplicity.

The story takes place in a difficult-to-categorize fantasy setting; there are definitely extant supernatural gods, but there doesn't seem to be any supernatural forces at work outside of that. The cultures draw heavily on Grecian influences, perhaps Peloponnesian period, but the technology includes things like crossbows, guns, and pocket-watches (we got into this aspect quite a bit at group). Also, we don't get much of a survey of the three civilizations--Sounis & Attolia, with Eddis in between.

It's a first-person narrative of one Gen, a thief who has been caught and imprisoned after stealing the King's seal, only to be freed by a powerful (and never-named) magus in order to help steal a holy relic. The big twist comes very late in the book, when it is revealed that we've had an unreliable narrator the entire time, who is not in fact who he purported to be. Leaving aside the vexing stylistic issue of who exactly Gen was deceiving (given that it's an internal narrative), the twist is quite effective. Unfortunately, it feels like a one-shot, Shyamalan kinda technique, in my opinion at least.

My strongest quibbles with the book were just issues of world-building. I had issues with the technology, a point we argued back and forth about a lot at group--my main point being that I expect a certain kind of industrial base to allow things like guns and pocketwatches to be reasonably widespread, and that doesn't jive with the otherwise sword-and-sandal vibe I get off the novel (sword drills seemingly constituting the main military training despite the existence of guns, for example). That aside,  the only thing that really threw me was Turner's use of a few actual Greek proper names--particularly using "Hephaestus" for a major goddess, when the name is already taken by the Greek god of smithing etc. It frankly seems like sloppy writing/research.

The general consensus was that we liked the story; a few of us found the first two thirds or so rather dull. It's the very definition of a picaresque story, as I think Sandy pointed out, with fairly repetitive travel sequences until the action picks up towards the very end. I think I would have quite enjoyed this as a young reader ("The Hobbit" and "Chronicles of Narnia" are points of comparison), and I didn't mind it even now.

We all really enjoyed the section where Gen is actually trying to solve the maze and steal the Stone; I was reminded of the traumatic Water Temple in Zelda (Ocarina of Time), and I think it was at this point that we started making a lot of D&D comparisons. Gen's in the dark for much of the maze, feeling his way around and figuring out its dimensions, which worked very well and also seemed like the kind of verbal description one would use in D&D.

RPG-ish tropes came up at a few different points of discussion, with Sally wondering if Turner was reading/playing a lot while writing it. It didn't ruin the experience for me or anything, but I suffer major suspension-of-disbelief failure when for instance "thief" is apparently a valid career. Ugh. Gen comes from a family of thieves? Really? Like, your mom would come home from a long day of thieving? Whether or not there's a god of thieves, a "queen's thief" (which seems more like a black ops agent), I can't realistically imagine a culture that just tolerates essentially petty thieves. Kind of a face-palmer for me.

Kim mentioned that she was disappointed that there was no romance or other subplot to flesh out the characters and give us more to  read about; we spent a while talking about all the characters without deciding how well Turner actually does at creating them. Outside of Gen, everyone's pretty thin, to be honest. We were all a little surprised/confused by Pol's off-screen self-sacrifice: the novel feels very light, not like the dangers are particularly fatal except perhaps if Gen gets trapped in the water-maze, and then all the sudden there's a bunch of deadly violence, running-through-with-swords, pushing-off-cliffs right at the very end. The character of the magus had us a bit conflicted, too; he feels like an effed-up father figure, starting out distant/abusive and then seeming to be very close to and caring about Gen by the end without that transition really making sense. Jacqueline pointed out that bringing the royal heir, Sophos, on this cloak-and-dagger mission seems really hard to justify, as for that matter does the entire expedition when we really thought about it.

Still, a fun read, and we all liked it. Reportedly, the sequels get much more mature in tone very quickly, verging even on "kinky".

The Blackstone Fantasy & Science Fiction Club's next selections are:
Monday 2/23: "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman
Monday 3/30" "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss.

We also talked about some upcoming events--the club may be featured in the Chicago Tribune's bookclub section, and quite a few members will be attending Capricon in a few weeks.

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