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Thursday, August 07, 2014

A Sadly Vague Recommendation: The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Have you ever really wanted to recommend a book to someone, but you couldn't really explain why without massively spoiling the entire experience?

I have that problem with one of my very favorite books: Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief.  It's actually the first book in a series and it is a lot of fun, but I can't even really write a review for it.  I can't even really recommend the subsequent books because of that.

It's a pretty basic young adult story about a young thief in a pseudo ancient Greek setting who is yanked out of prison and conscripted into helping in a quest for a special religious artifact that would assist the king in conquering a neighbor kingdom.  It's cute and fun and has some interesting surprises.  

Really though, where it really triumphs is in the way the author uses the first person narrative structure to frame the story.  It isn't quite an unreliable narrator story, but there are many things that take on entirely different meanings in a second read through than they do in the first.  Everything fits together so solidly too.  Some books that try to surprise you are sloppy in execution: they pull things completely out of the blue.  They leave in messy contradictions, things that make no sense on reread.  This book doesn't do that at all.  A second read through makes as much sense and is as much fun as the first, in a different way.

Honestly, reading the book made me appreciate books.  As a medium, I mean.  I've always loved to read, but generally what I love is the story.  I enjoy wordplay, but in general, it's the plots and characters that I love.  It's the same way that I love a television show or a movie, though the advantage of a book is that you get so much more content for your buck that they could never fit on screen.  

But there's an interesting aspect to books that I've never really considered before.  I've always considered books more freeing, in a way, because you're not bound by someone else's vision.  We can read something about a crystal castle with delicate spires and all have a different idea about what that would mean.  When we watch a television show or movie, we are more constrained: the Starship Enterprise does not look like a Star Destroyer, and never will.

But at the same time, and this is the part that is a new idea to me: a book controls and limits your perspective so much more than a television show or movie ever could.  EVERY part of the experience comes directly from the author(s) mouth.  Or pen.  Whatever.  Our only source of information for sights and sounds are what we hear from the author.  

In a television show, we can disagree with the writers.  An episode might tell us one character is the most beautiful girl in school, but the viewer might think another character is more beautiful.  In a book, you can't do that.  If a character is described as the most beautiful character in a book, you have no real way to contradict them   You can generally think blonds are prettier than brunettes, but if a brunette is explicitly described as more beautiful than a blond, you have to go with it.  In this case, THIS particular brunette is more beautiful than THIS particular blond.  The author is the Voice of God.

Generally this doesn't make a big difference in the story itself.  Plenty of great books work just fine on television or as a movie.  But sometimes, it DOES make a difference.  Because the author controls everything we see or hear, she can lie to us.  She can distract us.  She can misdirect us.  The most beautiful girl in the room might be a cyclops among cyclopses for all we know.  If the narrative never mentioned eyes, we wouldn't even think about it!  The club might have been a giveaway, though.

So anyway, I definitely recommend the book.  I've probably gone too far here even in terms of spoiling, because now you know to keep an eye out for something.  But that's the way of it.


  • At August 22, 2014 2:37 PM, Blogger davelevine said…

    You make some interesting points about books and reading. I haven't read this one.

    Personally, I feel more constrained by movies and TV than I do by books. When I am reading I can control the pacing of the story to some degree, the same cannot be said when it comes to TV and movies. For some reason this means a lot to me. The only power I have as a viewer is to press play or pause or stop. I can't slow or speed up the story as I feel that I can by reading more slowly or more quickly.

    As far as the author being God goes my take on that is that sometimes I disagree or see things differently as they are explained in the text. I can't think of any examples but I know I've had the experience of creating my own running commentary in my head as I read a book to explain how things "really" are because the author or narrator is clearly mistaken or overlooking something.

  • At August 22, 2014 2:59 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I am generally of the same opinion as you, but it's books like this one that made me rethink it. At least in certain circumstances.

    I very much recommend giving the book a try. :-) It really is the best example of what I'm talking about. Also it's cute and fun.

  • At August 23, 2014 9:06 AM, Blogger davelevine said…

    Have you read the sequels? Is the first book more or less a self-contained story? Does it ens on a cliffhanger? I doubt that you have spoiled it too much. Part of the fun of reading a book or watching a movie is the journey, seeing how the author gets from A to Z.

  • At August 23, 2014 9:55 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    There are sequels. Each with its own interesting...twist is not the right word.

    It is self-contained though. No cliffhanger.

    The second book is a tad darker than the first, FYI.

  • At August 26, 2014 1:02 PM, Blogger davelevine said…

    Cool. Thank you for recommending and answering my questions. I think I'll have to give this book a try.


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