I just counted, and it turns out I am 50 books in the hole.  Never fear.  I’m determined to philosophize at you every bit as oppressively as a garlic-eating professor in a small academic office for at least two more posts, but I’m kind of stuck at the end of my next post about death–you know, the part where I’m supposed to draw conclusions?  So I will take a break from that and tell you about a strange book I read, and make it 49.  It was a fantasy.  It was kind of good, it was kind of not, but I liked it.

The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

Orbit 2010, first published in Ireland 2008

read early March

This book puzzled me on so many fronts.  Once upon a time there were two delectable, expressive, agonized, sensitive-yet-warlike boys, both of them friends to a beautiful, artistic and exquisitely tenderhearted yet tough and politically savvy girl who is clearly going to get her choice of chocolate or vanilla sooner or later.  That was part of the point of the book, but I’m not sure what else was.  There was no physical throne.  There was a torture device shaped like a chair in the dungeons, but nobody said it was poisonous, and it didn’t cary enough dramatic weight to be The Throne of the title.  The atmosphere around the monarchy in Kiernan’s world was so oppressive that for a long time I believed she was planting clues toward something supernaturally evil attached to the kingship, poisoning the minds and morals of rulers.  By the time the book ended, though, I wasn’t so sure.

The most noticeable feature of The Poison Throne was the way every character was turned up to their full emotional volume all the time.  This was probably meant to reflect the unbearable tension of the situation in which they found themselves clear through the book.  In terms of pacing, picture this novel as wind sprint.  After five years roaming the world (why?), a skilled carpenter father and his apprentice carpenter daughter (predictably fetching in boys’ togs) who are also noble folk (noble carpenters?–not explained) return to their home kingdom only to find that the king (who is old friends with papa carpenter) is Being Bad and taking the whole kingdom with him.  Racial prejudice, gallows at the crossroads, all that.  Plus he’s disowned his teenaged son.  No one really talks about why this happened until quite late in the book.  By then you’d think it’s some terribly exotic crime, but no; it’s mostly just that the crown prince got rebellious and ran off with his uncle who objected to the king’s badness, reasonably enough.  So now the king wants to make his bastard son his heir, but his bastard son, who is a physician (though no less young and delectable for this), is loyal to his half brother.  So the king blackmails the bastard into doing his will by inflicting pain on his (the bastard’s) sexually-venturesome maimed gypsy best friend and horse-trainer who may or may not also be his lover.  PSYCHIC AGONY FOR THE BASTARD PHYSICIAN AND HIS FRIENDS!  ESPECIALLY THE GIRL!  WHO HATED THE SEXY GYPSY FOR A LITTLE WHILE WHEN SHE FIRST MET HIM BUT MAY ACTUALLY BE FALLING FOR HIM NOW!

Plus, papa carpenter is sick with a weak heart from rheumatic fever or something.  A surprising lot of the book is devoted to painful descriptions of him dragging himself around the castle trying to look normal because of fraught-but-vague political undercurrents, then collapsing, and the daughter and boys expecting him to die any minute.  In the very midst of their grief and worry and they must keep up appearances and go off and politick among the hostile nobles and bullying king.  More psychic agony.

The best things about The Poison Throne–though I know you won’t believe me when I say so–were the ghosts and the talking cats.  One of the baddest ways the king went bad was to *slight spoiler* kill the cats and make ghosts illegal.  The ghosts are a little bit like the ones in A Tale of Time City, except that they are semi-corporeal and can (if not too upset) converse intelligently.  Since the king can’t kill the ghosts, his subjects have to pretend they don’t exist–ignore them when they speak.  This paranoid fellow doesn’t like talking cats and ghosts because he thinks they will tell his secrets.

What’s the king’s secret?  I’m not sure.  I mean, there is one, but it’s still all mysterious at the end of the book.  Good thing there are two more volumes in the Moorhawke Trilogy to clear everything up.

Another question you may ask:  Why did I not hate this book?  Well, it was overwrought, but the emotions were real–unconvincing only in quantity, not quality.  Likewise, even as it wallowed in minutiae through every description of the boys’ bodies and expressions and injuries and gestures (all in a way to emphasize their hotness), and in its descriptions of the girl’s feelings, the story remained unforced.  Here is an author whose heart is whole and who believes in her world wholeheartedly and has thrown her whole self into it.  I love that; a lot of high fantasy lacks conviction.  I may be one of those people who finds emotion more potent when it’s contained in a mold of poetic restraint, but far more important that it’s there.

Does anyone else remember that place in Daddy Long-legs when Jerusha Abbot has just read Wuthering Heights for the first time, and she cries from the heart: “How can there be a man like Heathcliff?”

I didn’t care for Heathcliff.  In fact, when I first read Wuthering Heights at age fifteen or so, I remember asking pretty much the same question in disgust.  Whatever floats your boat.  It’s just one of those things.  Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre.  Heathcliff, or Rochester.  A jar of Miracle Whip that has been left out in the sun for five hours, or fresh-whipped French egg mayonnaise made with real lemons.

Now that I’ve alienated half of you, I would like to bring up the delicate subject of CUTE SHY GUYS or perhaps, SULKY SMART GUYS WHO ARE SO COOL, or even NAKED WIZARDS IN THE BATHTUB in the fiction of Diana Wynne Jones.  I didn’t want to be the first, but . . .

I’m just going to assume that none of you (now that all the Wuthering Heights lovers have left the room; and at this point the straight men can go too, and anyone else so inclined) are so silly as to think I want to leave my my husband for 12-year-old enchanter in training.  What I’m talking about isn’t a fantasy roll in the hay, but personal magnetism.  Diana Wynne Jones does male mystique like no one else!

You will find very little overt romance or love in a typical Diana Wynne Jones novel.  Characters learn about each other, become friends, admire one another, understand one other (sometimes) and have adventures.  Then, rather abruptly from the reader’s perspective, they occasionally announce their engagement–or in the next book they happen to be married.  You could just say Jones doesn’t do lust and standard romantic conflict because her books are written for children who would say ick to those things.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I think she is simply inclined to hang her characters’ relationships on a more equivocal framework than “love story” because she finds that more interesting.

Writing about young people (and others whose lives are ruled by forces greater than themselves, like magic-users) gives Jones’ a lot of scope for this preference.  Some writers forget that not only are teenagers They of the Raging Hormones, but also They of the Raging Ideas, They of the Raging Anxiety As To How They Can Possibly Find A Place In The Adult World, Raging Creativity, Raging Independence, and the Raging Need Not To Turn Into Their Parents.  Most real teenagers aren’t looking around for a Prince or Princess Charming and a happy ending; they are too busy negotiating the relationships in front of them, doing battle with evil, and generally surviving.  These are the ones Jones writes about.

Teenagers!  All that raw energy going off in all directions!  A lot like magic.  As readers of fantasy know, unharnessed magic can be very dangerous.  It comes on you without warning.  You must learn to harness it.  You must learn how to live with it.  Remind you of anything else?  Despite the lack of overt romance and desire in her fiction, Jones’ books are not asexual.  Drama (good drama, not melodrama) is sexy.  The raw energy of adolescent self-definition is pure aphrodisiac.  Magic is hot.  Why?  Because like the best sex, each of these things creates a raised pitch of emotion, a sense of revelation, and a feeling of commonality.  A metaphor made in heaven.

I will not harp on the mallet-over-the-head trend to capitalize directly on this connection in certain popular fiction.  Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy characters are a different breed.  They are real people first and foremost; they weren’t created as vehicles for magical sexiness, and they never do the same song and dance twice.  Jones can write a novel that appeals to a third grader for its sly humor and inventive plot.  An adult can read the very same book and find deep wells of motivation, multi-faceted characters, scenes full of teasing undercurrents.  That is Jones’ virtuosity.

In her essay (from a 1992 lecture) on heroes, she remarks, “I do find, myself, that the Hero, the protagonist, is the story. This is not to say that the other people in it are of no importance. Before I can write about anyone, I have to consider them as my close personal friends, even the Baddies.”

The more I read Diana Wynne Jones, the more flattered I am by her good opinion of her readers.  Whatever our age, without fail she treats us as if we were smart enough to take as much as we like from her books, be whoever we like in them, and scratch under the surface as deeply as we please–trusting us to find the way (or one of the ways) she has laid out for us.  She repays our enthusiastic blundering by packing her stories with ideas and crafting them on multiple levels.  Reading her comment on submerged alter egos in the essay mentioned above, I suspect she would take it for granted that it is possible both to want to be an eccentric wizard and find him hot at the same time.

Because it does not revolve around wanting a guy to ask you to the prom or turn you into a vampire, the sexiness in a Diana Wynne Jones novel not does not depend on your identifying with one character and desiring a different one.  (Readers aren’t known for their compliance in this department, but still.)  The sexy intensity is embedded in the story and everything that comes together to make it.  When the story is the hero, and the story is sexy, that makes the hero sexy too.

I can only speak from where I’m standing, so you will notice all of the following characters are male.  I don’t doubt there are readers crushing on Mig and Polly, but Jones happens to have a particularly fine hand with men and boys (for reasons that may become clearer if you read the essay I mentioned above), and she has written a lot of them.

So get comfortable and channel your inner fourteen-year-old.  Without further ado I bring you an incomplete list of–

The Hotties of Diana Wynne Jones

Jamie:  An intelligent urchin who gets handed the rawest of raw deals and turns out to have a backbone of steel and a heart of gold.  Triumphs over the odds then gives up his winnings.

Tom Lynn:  Shadowy, prickly professor who refuses to pull his intellectual punches, never condescends to youth, and still knows how to enter unabashedly into the delights of a pretend game.  The man with a secret sorrow.

Nick Mallory:  Here is a cocky trickster who, as a teenager, is willing to dance an impromptu witchy dance in public with his older girl cousin.  Astoundingly healthy self-image, clear goals, good sense, and no illusions about his mother!

Howl:  Gorgeous, mercurial, preening wizard who shelters his shrinking heart behind a multiplicity of just-barely-self-conciously humorous personae, and conceals his virtues from everyone, including himself.  The most powerful sorcerer, but off-handed with it.  Surprisingly good with kids.

Sirius:  Dispossessed angel.  Kindness perfected through suffering.  The empathetic sweetheart.  The otherworldly, perceptive male.  And sometimes is a dog.

Chrestomanci:  Ah, Chrestomanci!  (If I said it a third time I’d be in trouble.)  I am rendered nigh speechless.  Frock coat, I blurt.  Dressing gown.  Tangled mess all better.  Will recklessly risk his life(s) and his impeccable dignity in the pursuit of Sweet Magical Reason.  The steady hand on the pull-rope of the Deus Ex Machina.  The Maestro.  If you find competence sexy . . .  (Unfortunately also a married man.)

Conrad:  Harried, responsible teenager.  The underdog.  The good guy.  The unwilling rebel trying not to get taken for a ride.  Everyman.  With good hair.  In footman’s togs.

Dagner:  Unreliable artist.  The young tragedian with the fatal flaw.  If you ever went through your parents’ or older sibling’s record collection, found an old album with the face of a long-haired young man, played it, and suddenly understood that you were grown up and that the world was a sad place and poetry was its only hope . . .

Moril:  Down-to-earth mystic.  The worried, hardworking soul who attracts the Profoundest Magic.  A boy with his own concerns who tries, but will never quite be able, to give you his whole attention.  The craftsman.  The humble Lancelot.

The Ghost in Aunt Maria:  Harlequin.  Refracted personality.  A self-abnegating jester who knows all the tricks and tries to do what good he can, under the radar.  The martyr.

Charles Morgan:  Mastermind.  Cipher.  The Cold Face of Vengeance. . . and he wears glasses with the same threatening air as a shoulder-holster!

Rupert Venables:  My most recent addition.  I re-read Deep Secret a few months ago.  This time I was struck by his capacity for accurate self-assessment.  A bit of a stuffed shirt, but he knows it.  Prejudiced against tiresome people, but owns up to it as prejudice, and is willing to have his mind changed.  Proud of his magical ability, but justifiably so, and equally aware of his limitations.  I had no idea this quality could be so endearing!

So now my big question is: Who is your top Diana Wynne Jones heartthrob?  Is he on the list?  Did I miss one?

And one last:

How can there be an enchanter like Chrestomanci?

Greenwillow, 2010

Finished July 23, 2010

Genre: children’s fantasy with magic in the real world

I liked the cover design for this book with the magic spilling from the skylight as rainbow streamers, especially the way the designer took a blown-up portion of the illustration and wrapped it around the back cover and the flaps.  While I had the book open to read it, rainbows peeped out at me all around the pages.  (A further note on the cover–it looks to me like something is spilling from Aidan’s nose.  I know it is only magic sparkles coming from the glasses he is holding in front of his face.  Still, every time I glanced at it…)

This is worth mentioning, because streaming rainbows and chirping bluebirds of happiness is what it feels like to hold a NEW Diana Wynne Jones novel in my sweaty little hands.  Enchanted Glass doesn’t offer the complex plotting of some of her works that are geared for older readers (though in part that’s moot; all Diana Wynne Jones’ books have something for everyone), and there are a few loose ends, but I enjoyed the homey setting.  Books about people who inherit old, magical country houses full of old, magical stuff in English villages always make me jealous.  There should be more rich old magicians in the world, naming obscure distant relatives as heirs.

Andrew inherits Melstone House from the grandfather with whom he spent summers as a boy.  This means he can retire from his university teaching job and finally write the history that’s been on his back burner.  The book Andrew means to write is one of those loose ends I was talking about; because really, though Andrew is slow to realize it, Melstone isn’t just an inherited house, it’s an inherited post.

I had a couple of different favorite things about Enchanted Glass, and one of them was how the magic comes slowly on Andrew.  Diana Wynne Jones perfectly conveys the way you can forget things from childhood without really forgetting them; the feeling of things you remember without exactly remembering.  Sorry that is vague, but if you want to know what I’m talking about you should read the book!

Andrew is both admirably businesslike (no stagey skepticism, which I hate) and sweetly surprised as he rediscovers the magic around Melstone House.  A sense of wonder for grownups, in a book for kids that is also about about a grownup growing up–don’t you just love that?  And what other writer could pull it off so well?

I suppose his age is why I find Andrew more interesting than Aidan, the orphaned boy who shows up on Melstone House’s doorstep with magical peril on his heels.  The simple fact that I am no longer 12 (or 16, or 20, or even 30) means I can sympathize with a middle-aged professor more than a kid.  Aidan is nice, and it’s easy to get into his head, but he is definitely more of a children’s-literature-style protagonist than a young adult one.  He’s reflective, but not complicated.  His problems are pretty straightforward.

Which brings me to my other favorite thing about this book.  Melstone is what’s referred to as a “field-of-care.”  When Aidan and Andrew go out to walk the boundary (borders and boundaries are a theme in lots of Jone’s work, if anyone wants to jump in and discuss), we get Aiden’s kid-like take on it:

When there were no cars coming either way, Andrew led the way down the bank, to cross the road just beside the dip where the ghost had been.  Going as slowly as he dared, in case someone was speeding, he wove up and down the slight rise in the road, until he had fixed in his mind what the boundary felt like.  The side where the field-of-care was felt like what he now thought of as normal: deep and slightly exciting.  The other side–

“Oh!” Aidan exclaimed.  “It’s all boring and dangerous on this side!  Like standing on a runway in the path of an airplane.  Flat, but you’re lucky you’re not dead.”

This passage, and others, had me in raptures.  In giving us the magician’s perspective on the magical vs. the non-magical, Jones is also giving us a perfect metaphor for literature vs. real life.  Entering the world of a fantasy novel as fine as Diana Wynne Jones’, whether writing it or reading it, is much like entering a field-of-care where everything is “deep and slightly exciting.”  Take it that way, and he dry humor in “flat, but you’re lucky your not dead,” as an assessment of real life: priceless.  And Jones all over!

If all this sounds good to you so far, and you can get behind the idea of cauliflower casserole as a tool of revenge, a giant zucchini as a deadly weapon, giant vegetables (and giants in general), I’m sure you will enjoy this book.

Viking, 2008

Finished: April-ish 2010

Source: checking library catalog

Genre: YA fantasy with a moral and several Issues

On the Scales: welterweight

Don’t read this book.  If you haven’t read any other Graham Joyce novels, skip it and read Dark Sister or The Limits of Enchantment.  Then, if you are brave and have a strong stomach and stronger nerves, read Indigo.  Chase it with The Facts of Life so you can get to sleep that night.

Joyce writes what they were calling interstitial fiction a while back–a term designed to repel all boarders if ever there was one.  It applies to Mr. Joyce because (this frustrates me so much!) he is the sort of uncategorizable writer who keeps getting swept into the cracks.

It’s also worth mentioning that he’s British, because more than most, his sensibility for 20th century British cultural history is a big part of what makes his books so great.

Points In Favor of Graham Joyce

1.  Atmosphere:  Local, complex, and pregnant.

2. Characters:  Lively and believable, especially when he takes you inside their heads.

3.  Plotting and Pacing:  Flawless, tight.

4.  Description:  Concise.  Almost magically evocative.  Rich visual details never bore or overwhelm the reader.  And he does macro and micro equally well.

5.  Dialog:  Wry, charged, and individually tailored to the character.  Often very funny when juxtaposed with characters’ thoughts (see 2).

6.  Ideas:  Diabolical.  Moving.  Mythic.  Weird.  Feminist.  Fantastical.  Reassuring.

Points Against Graham Joyce

Just one–he shouldn’t be using the YA template.  Joyce’s YA novels are exceptional.  You won’t find better “issues” books.  With coming-of-age themes evident in so much of his work, he’s a natural candidate for the current crop of suspense/magical realist YA writers…it’s just not what he does best.  Which we all know is what every author ought to be doing.  Chain him to his desk and crack the whip.

Entertain, minon!

Joyce allows himself the frayed children’s lit device of a magical object that teaches a lesson.  That’s okay; he’s one of the few authors who could pull it off.  The real problem with The Exchange was that it was too short.  There simply wasn’t enough time for him to give Caz and her magic bracelet his usual treatment.  Aside from Caz and a couple of classmates, all the charachers are loosely sketched grownups–not looking too closely at the inner workings of grownups (ick!) being a YA tradition.  I enjoyed them anyway: lovelorn tatooist, bossy old lady, depressed mom, painfully nerdy male teacher.  Joyce couldn’t help help making them real.

For example:

The next day in school, Caz is called to see Mrs Crabb, the Head.  Mrs Crabb is a kindly old stick, but she takes no nonsense.  She reeks of cigarette smoke because outside of lesson times she is a chain smoker.  The fingertips of her right hand are the colour of acorns because of the nicotine, and her teeth look like a mouthful of autumn leaves.  Aside from that, the kids like her, and Caz does, too.

She has a “study,” which is actually just a stockroom piled high with dusty old books from the 1960s.  There’s a small desk and two chairs.  Even though no smoking is allowed inside the school, Caz thinks the “study” smells like a pub ashtray.

Caz and her friend get underage jobs bussing tables at a bar.  I especially liked this walk-on part for a amatuer rock singer:

It’s a strange night at the pub.  The band playing that evening are spectacularly bad– so awful that people drift away–and by ten o’clock only a handful of drinkers are left.   The sound less like a rock band than a group of road diggers in hard helmets.  Caz hears Frank Swear.  “That’s it!” he shouts above the industrial din.  He marches to the side of the stage and suddenly the guitars go dead.  The drummer plays on regardless.  He’s in his own world, drumming with his eyes closed.  The singer, a guy with eyebrows that join in the middle and a ratty fringe hanging in his eyes, bellows away for a few moments until he catches the sound of his own miserable wailing.  He looks astonished at how bad his voice is, as if he’s never heard it before.  Then the drummer opens his eyes and drops one of his drumsticks.

The band all turn and look at each other.  Then they all look at Frank.  He’s holding the main supply plug high up in the air for them to see.  The entire pub goes quiet, as do Caz, Lucy, and the rest of the bar staff.  The silence is broken by someone who claps and cheers Franks intervention.

“You’ll thank me for this one day,” Frank says.

“What?” spits the singer.

“Every young band needs to be told the truth of how bad they are if they’re to get better.  That’s why I say you’ll thank me when I tell you that you are the biggest pile of garbage ever to stand on that stage.  And believe me we’ve had some crap here at The Black Dog.”

“I’ll second that!” shouts one of the stalwart drinkers.

I just got the papercut of my life.  Shirt cardboard.  Between writing the above and coming back to the computer to post it, I went to start a load of wash, and I wanted to put a new T-shirt in the load.  It was wrapped in plastic, folded on a piece of cardboard.

I ripped it open, and it ripped me open.

I pulled the full length of the long edge of the cardboard through my pinky.  Ow, ow, ow!  I always forget how much these things hurt.

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.