A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

May 12, 2010

Disclaimer: I’ve seen reviews of this book on several blogs I enjoy.  I haven’t read them.  At first I didn’t read them because I didn’t want to risk a spoiler.  Later I didn’t read them because I knew I was going to do some nit picking here. I expect some of the nits I pick will be things other readers particularly liked about this book.  I wanted to be sure you know: I’m not responding to your reviews contrary-wise.  Just being my nit picky self.

Turner neophytes: No spoilers.  Read with confidence.

Greenwillow, 2010

Finished: late April

Genre: YA fantasy that reads like historical fiction

On the Scales: middleweight

Inside the room, opposite the glass doors, were carved wooden ones that remained closed in all my visits.  I had no idea what might be beyond them, probably because I had no interest.  Everything I desired was in the room with me.  Between these doors, and on  every other space of wall, were shelves for books and scrolls and packets of papers and every kind of writing you can imagine, even tablets impressed with minute scratches that I not only knew were writing but could read, by the magic of dreams.

You may be shocked to learn how badly things have gone for Sophos since we saw him in The Thief.  A quest for a magic talisman is just the thing to set a boy on track, isn’t it?  And he’s still got the Magus, hasn’t he?  But as so often happens after adventures, Sophos’ home is still what it was when he left it.  Life remains a series of humiliations for the worst-case-scenario back-up heir of a petty king.  Now in his late teens, with the Magus’ excellent education under his belt, is it any surprise that Sophos’ coldly reasoned self-knowledge has hobbled his spirit?  Failure is so inevitable he hardly bothers about it anymore.  Sophos is a poet and thinker rather than a bully.  In Sounis, bullies make good rulers.  Sophos father and uncle are bullies.  Their noblemen are bullies who have to be bullied to be kept in check.  Sophos’ sword master is a bully, too.  He is surrounded by them.  He suffers them in shamed silence.

Ah ha!  But in Megan Whalen Turner’s world, rulers must rule whether they are suited to the job or not!  This is what creates the dramatic tension in her books.  For the kings and queens who maintain the delicate balance of power between the Classical Greek-themed kingdoms of Sounis, Attolia, and Eddis–with the Medes looming on one side and the occidental kingdoms on the other–the personal and the political are always intertwined.

As soon A Conspiracy of Kings began, I could it was going to take a big jolt to shake Sophos out of his rut.  In fact, it took slavery and a third of the book.

This was the third of the book I enjoyed.

Now, in the eyes of Ochto, sitting on a stool by the door, slurping his own soup, I was no different than any of the men around me.  My freedom was like my missing tooth, a hole where something had been that was now gone.  I worried at the idea of it, just as I slid my tongue back and forth across the already healing hole in my gum.  I tasted the last bloody spot and tried to remember the feel of the tooth that had been there.  I had been a free man.  Now I was not.

To explain why this novel disappointed me so, I will have to explain why I think Megan Whalen Turner’s skills and sensibilities as a writer are on a par with Ursula Le Guin or Katherine Paterson–far exceeding (with the exception of Elizabeth Wein) any other American author of her generation whose books are marketed for children and young adults.

So here goes.

Imagine a mystery in which no crime was committed and no detective solves it.  There are no red herrings.  In fact, the author leaves no clues.  The characters leave them instead.  I say the characters rather than the author because–unlike a mystery novelist–there is no catching them out, no learning their game. They aren’t playing one.  They’re living their lives as they find them.

Until you learn to track these characters’ emotions and motivations like wild animals in a forest, you will feel like you are just reading a “normal” fantasy adventure–a children’s story.  The scenes and pacing will be familiar.  You will recognize the cast at a glance: impatient scholar, bluff soldier, haughty noble son, weakling.  Amazon.  Trickster.

I was lying when I said the characters aren’t playing a game.  They are playing Turner’s game!  By submerging her construction so completely in her characters and setting, Turner plays the deepest game of all.  Chances are you won’t even see it until the story is over and the book is shut.  If you are lucky, you’ll be left with a strange, rubbing-your-eyes feeling that you missed something because . . . you did.  Everything was a clue to a deeper emotional reality.  Every choice of words, every gesture, every odd detail you just put down to atmosphere was part of the overall construction.  Then, as though a ruined temple had just risen out of the sea, you will begin to see Turner’s genius.  You will marvel that she was able to build this huge thing, and at the same deploy her characters so confidently and compassionately to do all the work of hiding it: secret agents in stock-character disguise.

Your discovery will be all the more delightful if you realize that she has chosen to build her temple inside a young person’s novel not for the shock value of the contrast between big ideas and little heads, but because she truly respects the form.  She didn’t see its conventions as a handicap; they were a natural set of tools for her as a writer.  It didn’t seem at all strange to her to build her temple on Atlantis where it would sink beneath most grownups’ notice.

The problem with builder-architect type authors is that their work takes an enormous amount of energy and focus.  Contrast this with yarn-spinning authors, with the literary equivalent of amateur carpenters (there are a lot of these), or even authors who just sit around playing Sim City.  If an author sets out to hammer up a tool shed of a book and things go badly, chances are they’ll still end up with a tool shed.  It may be leaning sideways and there may be gaps between the boards, but it will keep the rain off their tools.  If an author runs short of focus or energy when she is trying to raise a temple out of quarried stone. . .

Four books take place in Turner’s world of The Thief.  The first two, The Thief and The Queen of Attolia were completed buildings, the second two, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings were construction sites.  Right now I’m trying to figure out how a writer for whom I have such profound respect could have written two books that never came together, when her first two books were all about things coming together.

In The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, quite apart from the hidden structure of the story and hidden depths of the characters, Turner handles the interplay between love, friendship and statecraft with a conjuror’s lightness.  Because this kind of close interplay is peculiar to the “time” she’s writing about in her fantasy world, pulling it off requires a firm–even academic–sense of history most fantasists lack.  In the both The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings the political situation is more settled.  The stories concentrate on the personal burden of rule and the social forces that determine the success or failure of a head of state.  I don’t think Turner’s history failed her in these recent books.  Rather, I think her careful creation of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis as realistic ancient kingdoms forced her kings and queens into such tight corners of royal responsibility, they had no more room to maneuver the plot.  Now the derring-do is done, how can they break out?  How can they surprise us?  How can they turn on a dime and change the whole story?

I see Turner trying to solve this problem with her naïve first-person narrators.  The young palace guard Costis watches events unfold in The King of Attolia, providing a sense of dramatic irony (we know something is up that he doesn’t; we just don’t know what it is), and in Conspiracy of Kings, there is Sophos.  It isn’t enough.  Sophos may be at the center of political events, but because of his deliberate intellect and morals, there is really never any question of what he’ll do, only what will happen to him–and by the second part of the book, we are no longer in much doubt about that.

Gen and Attolia were capable of anything.  Sophos is another breed.  That doesn’t make me like him any less, but it does make it necessary to write him as the hero a different kind of book, and that’s exactly what didn’t happen with A Conspiracy of Kings.  Turner’s trademarks are her reversal and her reveal.  Whole interpersonal crises turn out to be edifices of deceit.  Whole characters.  Whole strategies.  Whole relationships.  The two reveals in A Conspiracy of Kings–the contents of a heart, and the contents of a box–were quite small and forced.

The prologue in A Conspiracy of Kings hinted at the possibility a much greater reversal, like the ones in The Thief or The Queen of Attolia (think Judas kiss).  It would have booted Sophos off center stage, which seemed unfair after all he’d suffered, but halfway through the book, I was still trusting her to have something so amazing up her sleeve that it would make the odd switch from Sophos’ first-person narrative to an authorial third-person narrative worthwhile.  The third-person section takes place entirely in Attolia’s palace, and features cool, uninformative descriptions of political negotiations with a couple of cryptic forays into the Queen of Eddis’ head.  It was not compelling reading.  I couldn’t believe that Turner would mark time so awkwardly unless it was for a good reason.

The reversal never materialized.  Changing the narrator was a big mistake.  It had the same effect as ripping a microphone out of Sophos’ hands when he had just started telling his story.  It was an even bigger mistake to suddenly give it back to him for the last part of the book.  At that point we are shown how it was all part of the plan, but in my opinion the plan was too unformed to be worth the stylistic bumps.

Perhaps if Turner had taken this book through more drafts it would have turned out quite differently.  I can think of several versions encompassing the same characters and events.  For example, Sophos could have been a truly naive narrator–an imperiled pawn as he pleads his case in Attolia and the threat of the Mede slowly materializes on every side.  Or she could have focussed on the military campaign.  Instead of a book standing still it could have been a book in motion, with the rulers frantically massing their troops and acting out their personal dramas on the fly.

My vote would have been to trust Sophos’ voice, trust him to carry the book, and let him spend most of it as a slave.  There’s no reason he couldn’t have stepped up to his responsibilities while he was still in captivity (or later pretending to be, as at the Baron’s banquet).  A slave moved to another household, perhaps?  Taken along on a trip?  This would have been a good way to put Sophos’ inner transformation at the center of the story and add a little much-needed intrigue.  I believe the other characters could have fallen in line with the slightly altered plot, and perhaps grown in some surprising ways themselves as a result.

The strongest conventional fantasy element in Turner’s books are her gods.  They are subtle: just a whisper of the supernatural that raise the moral stakes and clarify the inner lives of her characters.  Sophos dreams of the library in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this review.  With his past life buried in days of mind-numbing labor, Sophos’ intelligence bursts out in vivid dreams where he argues with his new “tutor” amid the books of the library.

She was amused by my interest in the system of natural categorization that the magus had taught me.  I explained the importance of understanding how things are connected.

She only smiled at my earnestness and said, “Everything is connected, Bunny, to everything else.  If a man tries to transcribe each connection, thread by thread, he will only make a copy of the world and be no closer to understanding it.”

I am afraid Turner got a little lost in her own connecting threads.  The dream-tutor is a beautiful concept she used only briefly, for a specific purpose, before racing on to other things.  Sophos could have learned more from his tutor.  Their talks could have been the mortar that stuck the story together and let it stand whole.

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10 Responses to “A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner”

  1. VERY interesting thoughts on CofK and the series as a whole–thanks! (Although I liked KofA a great deal more than you did, I do see what you mean.) I sometimes wonder if, taken as an epic narrative arc, some stories find themselves curtailed in certain stretches by the kinds of things that are happening right about then, as your remarks about “tight corners of royal responsibility” might suggest. I’m thinking of another example: Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel and Court Duel (previously 2 books) ran into a similar problem–the first was about a revolution, while the second was largely about court intrigue after the revolution had been won. Their pacing was quite different by necessity.

    • trapunto said

      Yes, for all my complaining, I’m already longing to see what happens in Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis in the the next books. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. zibilee said

    I have a copy of The Thief on my shelf, and I am looking forward to getting started with this series, but it does sound as though this book can be a little unwieldy at times. I am particularly thinking of your comments that the narrative and things from Sophos’ point of view were awkward and felt somewhat forced. I thought that this was in incredibly penetrating review, and I am planning on reading it again after I finish this book to see if our thoughts on it intersect at all. I think you have amazing talent as a writer, by the way.

    • trapunto said

      Unwieldy is just the word. I love how other people think of the words I never think of. Now that I have read some more reviews of this book, I’ve noticed that a lot of other people thought the change of narrative voice was brilliant. I’ll be interested to see what you think!

  3. Jenny said

    For a not-that-thrilled review, this is one of the most persuasive reviews for Megan Whalen Turner (beloved of the blogosphere and subject of many extremely persuasive reviews) that I’ve seen so far. You make her sound exciting!

  4. Jeanne said

    I think you’re right–if she had been able to write this last one as a book in motion, it would have been more compelling. I have to wonder if she’s suffering from that most fatal of all successful writer’s maladies, lack of a good editor.

    • trapunto said

      You may be right. I think a lot of authors are suffering from that malady. What’s happened to the editors? Like so many important things, you only notice them when they start to disappear. When they are doing their job, they are simply invisible. Like superheros. Their only reward is the satisfaction they get from the knowledge that Gotham is safer town for prose.

  5. Bethany said

    I finished this book a few weeks after it came out but just got around to reviewing it on my blog. After posting I decided to look around and see how many stars and other sort of reviews it had gotten…

    Wow! I really appreciate your review! I think you really hit the nail on the head.
    I’m glad I found someone who had relatively the same opinions on her and her knew book and can express them way more effectively.

    Thanks for the great review.
    Enjoyed your blog.

    Miss Pickwickian

    • trapunto said

      I like your name, Miss Pickwickian!

      Thanks for dropping by. I did the same thing after writing this, looking around for other reviews that had a similar take. I only found one: The Book Aunt’s. I was surprised how different people’s complaints were, and how many people had none. In a way, I enjoy books less when there’s *nothing* at all I could wish the author had done differently. I guess I’m looking for the ideal ratio of perfection to flaws.

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