fulfilling my 2021 goal to read one book each month by an author i have never read despite owning more than one of their books.
this is the first book in the queen’s thief series, which so many of my fantasy-loving friends have singled out as being the childhood books that turned them into readers. all of us booknerds have specific books like these, that shaped us—dog-eared beloveds we read and reread during our formative years that we still think of with fond nostalgia. these special few create a sort of undercrust that shapes our adult reading tastes, and it’s fascinating to little readers’ advisory geek me hearing other booknerds talk about their childhood favorites so i can trace that through line and see how their preferences developed and evolved over time.
i don’t have a strong fantasy background, and i’m low-key intimidated by all of the supersmart, confident, articulate fantasy readers i’ve met over the years whose frames of reference are completely out of my depth, so hearing these women (they were always women) speak of this series (that i am too old to have encountered in my own childhood) in such hushed, reverential tones, how could i not want to horn in on that?
so, i went out and bought all of them in one fell swoop because little old ladies ain’t got time for half-measures.
i’m not sure if these books were intended for a YA or a middle grade audience—before reading this one, i assumed they were middle grade, but now, judging by the pacing and the complexity of the plot, it seems better suited to an older audience.*
regarding the pacing, i recently rewatched the dark crystal (holy cow, is this lady ever going to talk about the book or is she just gonna keep sundowning into endless digressions?), and i was struck by how long it takes for anything to happen. there’s no dialogue for about 10 minutes—an eternity in child-time—just voiceover exposition over a static landscape before slowly panning over those skeksis k-holing around that dang crystal, and the mystics mournfully moaning and it’s visually intriguing, but for a kids’ movie, it’s striking that it takes so long to get anywhere, like those slow-ass mystics doing their slow-ass plod across an expanse of nothing.
i saw it in the theater back in 1982 when i was a tiny person, and i don’t remember being bored at all by it, but if it were to be made nowadays, an editor would have lopped off 75% of that opening sequence because kids are squirmy little adderall-filled buggers who need their stimulation right off the bat.
all of that prelude to say that this book came out in 1996 and it is a damn slow burn. even for me, an adult who primarily reads adult fiction, it seemed remarkably slow. not draggy and not boring, but deliberate and leisurely, in no hurry to ferry the reader to the narrative conflict.
the first 3/4 of the book is a journey/quest story, set in a fantasy-grecian realm where a young thief named gen is scooped out of the royal prison where he’s been languishing in a cell for months after a particularly cheeky bit of thievery. although he’s still technically a prisoner, he’s conscripted on a mission to use his skills to steal a Very Important Thing and allowed to free-range (chained and disdained), traveling alongside a magus, a soldier, and two young men close to gen’s age; one younger and one older, and the older one is a real jerk.
incidentally, i have no earthly idea how old gen is. because this is a book for younger readers, i started out thinking of him as maybe twelve, but the more i read, the older he seemed and i don’t know whether i missed the part where his age was specified or if it’s left up to the reader to fill in that gap.
gen is a grows-on-you kind of character—a sympathetic unreliable narrator whose mental wheels are always turning as he observes and plots, sussing everyone else out but divulging little of himself, entertaining himself with the light but enthusiastic pestering of a tiny puppy towards a much bigger dog.
he’s charming when he wants to be; not often to his companions but to the people they meet along the way, particularly when there’s a chance of him getting some extra food out of it. gen is so hungry. all the time.
although little seems to happen on the journey, there’s a lot of character development and worldbuilding going on, most notably the stories-within-the-story in which we learn a great deal about regional history and the subtle ways a tale can be framed.
the last quarter of the book picks up a lot of steam, becoming a sort of mashup of a heist plot and indiana jones (specifically the last crusade View Spoiler »
« Hide Spoiler, and like a classic heist story, all the small details that surfaced when not much seemed to be happening are revealed to have been very important, indeed. there’s some redemption, some grudging respect, and some surprises for these uncompanionable companions, View Spoiler »especially for ambiades, o noooooooooo « Hide Spoiler
i enjoyed this introduction to the series, and i’m keen on burning through the rest of them to see what adventures await for gen and his thiefways now that the things that have happened have happened. .
* although those madeleine l’engle books were middle grade and my memory of them is that they were highly complex and sophisticated in their themes and storytelling and i was probably seven or so when i read them. NB: “highly complex and sophisticated” were perhaps not the EXACT words i used to describe them when i was seven.