Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Megan Whalen Turner's Tales of Attolia

Yes of course I'm annoyed that they changed cover styles.  I LOVED the old ones.

There are some series I read long after their completion. Anne of Green Gables, the Chronicles of Narnia, and the Little House books were childhood favorites.  More recently, I've read through the trilogies that started with Poison Study, with Half Bad, with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Other series I discover towards the beginning, and then I have to wait for new books to come out--oh, the agony! The twin challenges of incomplete series are a) having to wait to find out what happens next, then b) having to remember what happened before so the new book has its full impact.

This is not quite the case with Megan Whalen Turner's fantasy series set in a place vaguely reminiscent of not-so-ancient Greece.  Her first novel, The Thief, came out in 1996.  My sister recommended it to me in 2008, since we both like a certain type of fantasy: light but not fluffy; magical yet grounded in humanity.  I enjoyed it, and went on to read the next two, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, in quick succession. Each story came to a resolution, but left the feeling that there could also be more to find out.

Three years later, we found out a fourth book, A Conspiracy of Kings, was coming out.  Since it had been so long, I re-read the first three before taking on the fourth.

SIX years later, this past spring, book five, Thick as Thieves, came out.  So I re-read the first book, skimmed the second, read the third, couldn't find the fourth so just reminded myself from reviews what the basic idea was, and dove into it.

Who knows when the sixth (and final?) book will be out.  I'll probably re-read the whole series at that point, making this the series I've re-read the most often since turning 12.

There are people who are passionate about these books.  As I did research for this post, I discovered a Livejournal dedicated to Whalen Turner's work.  But not enough people seem to know about her.  Heck, there are people blogging today who weren't alive when the first book came out.  So let me tell you why you should go pick up The Thief and start reading.

World Building

The spirit of these books reminds me of Six of Crows, of The Scorpio Races, of Graceling and The Girl of Fire and Thorns.  It calls to mind the worlds of Prydia, Narnia, even Camelot and the Forests of Arden.  (Why yes, I DID just list all of my favorite fantasy novels.)  What all of these have in common is the sense that this entire world exists far beyond the boundaries of the pages we're reading.  Geography, history, culture, language, social systems--you can tell it's all there, because enough of it is made clear.  The Thief was intended as a stand-alone, but when the author won the Newbery and an enthusiastic librarian asked her when the sequel was coming out, she realized she could actually use all that backstory and future results that she had developed in her head to give us more books.  The landscape is inspired by Greece, complete with olive groves and a large empire across the small sea, but it's not meant to BE Greece.  It's the world in which the tiny mountain kingdom of Attolia controls the only pass between the small kingdom of Sounis and the small kingdom of Eddis.  Two of these nations are ruled by young queens, one homely and beloved, the other beautiful and feared. The third is ruled by a middle aged king who plans to wed one of these queens and crush the third country with the combined military force.  He's not too particular about which country he gets by marriage and which by force.  Meanwhile, all three kingdoms are being eyed by the continental empire of Mede.  There are politics and military strategy involved, but it never overshadows the characters.  (Well, maybe a little bit in book 2, The Queen of Attolia, but that book also hosts some of the most shocking action and, well, shocking romance of the entire series.)

Snark and Humor

I can't stand huge epic fantasy series that take themselves way too seriously.  The Attolia books aren't comedy, but they are regularly and delightfully funny.  Unfortunately for this "review," much of the humor is contextual and I'd kill it by explaining what led up to this moment and why it's funny, but both the author and her characters are witty and sharp.  Gen, the eponymous thief of the first novel, is sarcastic, comically whiny, and far too smart for his own good.  Kamet, a Medean slave who narrates the latest novel, Thick as Thieves, has a sardonic wit as well.  

Narrative Voice

Here's where Whalen Turner's writing really shines.  The first book is told from a first person POV.  The narrator isn't unreliable, exactly, but he doesn't share all he knows.  The second book focuses on the same character, but from a third person POV that also shares what's going on with other characters from time to time.  Book three introduces a brand-new first person narrator.  WHAT?!?  It sounds insane, but book three remains my favorite of the entire series.  Book four jumps between a first and third person POV, and book five brings in ANOTHER first person POV, this one a minor character from an earlier book.  

All of this is not because the author is nuts, or can't decide what works for her, or gets bored easily.  Each story is told in the way it calls out to be told.  Her work sometimes feels "twisty," yet she never lies, instead choosing a method of narration that will give or withhold certain information in order to create a more compelling story.  

Role of Religion and History

The kingdoms have various pantheons of gods and goddesses.  Over centuries and the rise and fall of empires, different religious systems have been foisted on the people.  Everyone gives lip service to whatever local custom demands, but nobody is all that religious.

Except, occasionally, the gods walk among them.  The legends come to life.  (Gen gets particularly snarky over his god telling him things like "Go to bed," instead of grandiose proclamations of encouragement.)  I love how this is handled.  The people in the story are no pawns or play-things, but there is a certain sense of being grounded in their land, of being tied to their history.  

MWT's General Awesomeness

Some fun facts:
  • She mulls over the story in her head, then tells it out loud (to herself or others), then writes it down, then polishes it up.  I'm not entirely sure which part of this takes 5-7 years, but it's certainly a remarkable writing method.  
  • She avoids teasers and spoilers, because she thinks it's unfair given how slowly she writes.  She also is basically the opposite of J.K. Rowling in terms of weighing in on your head-canon.  "Not telling" is her literal answer to most questions people ask her about the books, even when it comes to pronouncing names.  She wants readers to come to their own understanding and interpretation, not rely on her to say "This is the correct way to look at my books."
  • Her husband is a Guggenheim recipient for something that sounds really intellectual.
  • She drops by her local bookstores and signs copies, so if you want a signed copy, you can always order them through those stores.  
  • There's a terrific two-way interview between her and Shannon Hale in which they commiserate on people who say, "Oh how cute, you write kids' books" without realizing that they are Newbery award winners translated into multiple languages, and they would sound like jerks if they explained all that, so it's just annoying.
  • There is one more book planned in the series!
  • Writing this post may have cured me of always typing "Margaret" instead of "Megan" when I'm writing her name.  Ha!  Whoops!  Check out the heading on the graphic on top!  I was going to fix it, but I decided to keep it real instead.  Sorry, Megan!

My sister was over a few days after I finished it, and I showed it to her.  "Well, YEAH," she said.  "I downloaded that onto my Kindle and read it the weekend it was released."  Further discussion revealed that our favorite and least favorite books in the series are flip-flopped.  Which just goes to show that even the "weaker" books in the series are still AMAZING.  Because as much as the political maneuvering of book 2 makes me restless, I still love that wild beginning and emotional ending.  And as much as she was disgruntled to find some NOBODY narrating book 3, she had to admit that it was great fun seeing our beloved characters win over more supporters.  

What are you waiting for?  GO FORTH AND READ! Then come back and tell me if you agree with me or my sister about which book is best.  


  1. You've sold me. I really want to give this series a try now!

  2. I actually think I own The Thief, but I didn't realize this was a long series. Definitely sounds like it's worth picking up, especially if the books can be treated kind of like standalones.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction


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