The Thief (1996) by Megan Whalen Turner (Find it on Bookshop.)
Megan Whalen Turner is one of my favorite authors. She has been since my mom procured an Advance Reader Copy of The Queen of Attolia in 2000. I devoured that book, loving every minute of it. Years later, when I began my library career, I discovered that the book was second in a series, something I had not known before. Of course, as soon as I knew about The Thief I had to read it.
Published in 1996, The Thief was selected as a Newberry Honor Book in 1997 (had the winning book been different for that year, I’d say Megan Whalen Turner had been robbed, but I hold a special place in my heart for E. L. Konigsburg’s The View From Saturday so I can’t say that). One website gives this explanation of the award: “A medal presented annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in the United States in the preceding year. The recipients must be citizens or residents of the United States.” That hopefully illustrates how big a deal it is to any readers unfamiliar with such awards.
Whalen’s second novel, The Thief is set in a world that Turner likens to ancient Byzantium in later volumes (Byzantines > Greeks). In this one, however, she acknowledeges similarities to ancient Greece. The story follows a man named Eugenides who, at the beginning of the novel, finds himself locked in the king’s prison of a foreign land.
Quietly biding his time, Gen occupies himself by marking days and practicing cat-like movements around his cell. The achingly monotonous routine is broken when the king’s scholar, the magus, recruits Gen for a hunt of sorts. The magus knows the site of an ancient and valuable treasure that would be of great value to his king. But despite his vast learning, the magus cannot get the treasure alone. He needs a skillful thief. And before his arrest, Gen “had bragged without shame about [his] skills in every wine store in the city” before his arrest outside of still another wine shop.
Given his choices, Gen unsurprisingly agrees to accompany the magus on the quest. As their party traverses the countryside on their way to this elusive treasure, it becomes clear that more is at stake than riches. This novel (and its two subsequent sequels) center around three kingdoms–Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia–whose fates, readers soon realize, are bound together more intricately than anyone might have initially thought.
Some novels are adventures, some are character-driven. The Thief is, for the most part, a quest novel although it does feature several twists and more than a little intrigue. However, without Turner’s wonderfully evocative characters none of that would matter. Eugenides is, in many ways, a star. And he knows it. Nonetheless, affection for this character is contagious–he is unbelievably sympathetic and extremely original. And clever. By the end of the novel it becomes obvious that Gen is always at least five steps ahead of everyone else and always holding all of the cards.
Told in the first person, this novel is the first I ever saw where a character said something acidly. (“That,” I said acidly, “is the way my mother told it to me.”) It seems silly to talk about one sentence from a piece of dialogue, but that kind of writing is why I love Megan Whalen Turner’s books.
In fact, if I was being completely honest, I cherish these books. Working in a library, I sifted through discards for years to acquire the complete trilogy. The books are old and dingy with processing marks aplenty, but none of that really matters because they’re also all mine.
Although it was a Newberry Honor Book for children’s literature, I’ve seen this novel categorized as YA. It’s also the kind of book that could easily appeal to boys and girls–fans of historical fiction and fantasy. In other words, this is a book for everyone.
If you enjoy The Thief, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Queen of Attolia (2001) and The King of Attolia (2006).
Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater