Fantasy with an ancient flavor
This trilogy offers myth, imagination, fine writing, and a hero other than Harry Potter.
Costis is having a very bad day. You see, the guard has just punched out the king he's supposed to be protecting, and he and the rest of his squad are expecting him to be hanged as a traitor. In fairness to Costis, the king in question is Eugenides, former thief and newly crowned king of Attolia, and he could probably drive even Mr. Rogers to violence if he put his mind to it.
Instead of having Costis executed, Eugenides spares him and installs him in the castle, where the king seems to delight in humiliating Costis on a daily basis. And yet, as his unwilling service continues, Costis finds himself reluctantly sympathizing with, and even admiring, his capricious savior.
In a world where many fantasy authors are trying to hop aboard the Harry Potter gravy train, it's a true pleasure to find an author whose work doesn't have even a whiff of Hogwarts. Megan Whalen Turner instead draws on the myths and landscapes of ancient Greece to create her fully realized world: the pocket-sized kingdoms of Sounis, Attolia, and Eddis, which are in danger of being swallowed up by the empire of the Medes.
Every book in the trilogy opens with Eugenides completely trapped. When we first meet him in The Thief, the boy is shackled to the wall of the prison in Sounis, where he's languished for months after bragging that he could steal anything. The king's magus takes him up on his boast, springing him from prison to steal a mystical amulet.
"The Thief" has it all: a memorable hero, intricate plotting, its own mythology, and a knockout twist at the end. How it lost the Newbery Medal to "The View From Saturday," I will never understand. (And I say this as a huge E.L. Konigsberg fan.)
In the second book in the series, The Queen of Attolia, Eugenides has been set on by dogs and captured by the titular queen, who has his right hand chopped off as punishment for embarrassing her.
Parents take note: While the rest of the novel showcases plenty of Turner's trademark brilliance as Eugenides tries – literally single-handedly – to keep his beloved homeland from being overrun, that chapter is so harrowing it pushes the bounds of the Young Adult label.
In fairness to Turner, the genre has gotten continually more graphic in recent years. Harry Potter also has a ritual maiming, as well as magical torture, and the Alex Rider and Artemis Fowl series feature far more violence overall. But I probably am not the only parent who was completely beguiled by "The Thief," and who felt sucker-punched by the sequel.
Thankfully, there's nothing as graphic in The King of Attolia, but I still wouldn't recommend it for anyone under 12. While most of the violence occurs off the page, the Attolian court is a dangerous place to learn statecraft.
And in some ways, Eugenides probably had an easier time back in Sounis's prison. As the novel opens, he has just married the woman who had his hand cut off, thereby trapping himself for life in a job he never desired. The loss of freedom is particularly hard on someone used to wandering rooftops at night.
Now, Eugenides can't even go for a walk without four attendants and a guard trailing after him.
For their part, the Attolians are distinctly unenthused about their undersized, crippled boy-king. His attendants sneak snakes into his bed, dump ink on his clothes, and put sand in his soup.
Then there are the assassination attempts.Turner shrewdly lets readers see Eugenides' early months as king only through Costis's eyes. So even though we know the thief isn't the whining incompetent his subjects believe him to be, when Turner reveals the full scope of Eugenides's intrigues, the surprise is still a delight.
There wasn't enough of their relationship in "The Queen of Attolia" to make me believe that Eugenides could really love the woman who maimed him, but Turner has more time here to forge a believable union between two incredibly tricky personalities.
And Irene seems to have taken to heart the advice Eugenides's cousin, the queen of Eddis, gave her at the end of the second book. When Irene asks if he's ever lied to Eddis, her response is unequivocal: " 'Constantly. He lies to himself. If Eugenides talked in his sleep, he'd lie then, too.' "
But, she goes on in a rather prophetic manner, " 'You have to believe him, because he's going to have your entire palace up in arms and your court in chaos and every member of it from the barons to the boot cleaners coming to you for his blood, and you are going to have to deal with it.' Attolia smiled. 'You make him sound like more trouble than he is worth.' 'No,' said Eddis thoughtfully. 'Never more than he is worth.' "
As for the gods, who take a more than occasional interest in Eugenides's career, they seem to operate strictly by the motto, "Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth." "I am beginning to sense a certain amount of fraud in the reports of poets," Eugenides dryly remarks after another heavenly visitation. "No 'Glory shall be your reward' for me. Oh no, for me, it is, 'Stop whining' and 'Go to bed.' "
Turner leaves the door open for at least one more sequel: One of Eugenides's companions from "The Thief" has been kidnapped and is presumed dead. Someone is going to have to find out what has happened to him. And those pesky Medes are still out there, biding their time.