I like surprises, including novels with plots that surprise me, so this week I’m recommending a book by an author who is better known in the USA than the UK – Megan Whalen Turner.  `The Thief’ (published by Greenwillow in 1996) is the first in a trilogy set in a world inspired by Ancient Greece.  This novel, and its sequel `The Queen of Attolia’, were sent to me by an exceedingly well-read friend, Susan Ang, whose judgement I always  trust (except about opera).  A summary of the plot makes `The Thief’ sound deceptively like a conventional quest story.  A magus, his two apprentices, a warrior and a teenage thief called Gen go on a dangerous journey to search for the fabled  Gift of Hamiathes, a stone that grants the power to rule. The magus intends to bring back the stone for his master, the brutal king of Sounis, to aid him in his plan to take over the queendoms of Eddis and Attolia. According to legend, only a master-thief can steal the stone from its hiding place. Gen has been freed from prison to take part in the quest but if he fails to obtain Hamiathes’ Gift, the king will have him hunted to death. If you think you know exactly where this story is going, think again. The thief has his own secret agenda  and the cleverness of the plot only becomes apparent in the final chapter.

Another warning – if you mainly enjoy Fantasy that is action-packed and faster-than-the-speed-of-light paced, `The Thief’ is probably not for you. This is a character-driven story that develops in a leisurely way. Almost too leisurely. There is a lot of wandering around in the mountains while we get to know the characters and learn about the history of Gen’s world and its deities.  Be patient and there are rich rewards.  Whalen Turner doesn’t  deal in stereotypes. She creates flawed and interesting  individuals, such as the magus, a humane man working for a bad leader, and his contrasting apprentices, shy incompetent Sophos and cruel and bitter Ambiades.  Most fascinating of all is Gen, the boy set on becoming the greatest thief in history.  The relationships between the leading characters change dramatically  as the others slowly realise that Gen is not the cowardly ignorant guttersnipe  he originally appeared to be.

If you want someone to be mysterious, you don’t normally make them a viewpoint character but Whalen Turner daringly lets Gen tell the entire story. His lively narrative voice, bolshy, cynical, opinionated, grabs attention from the very first sentence, `I didn’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison..’ Gen  is refreashingly rude and funny about the physical discomforts of going on a quest and he tells the truth in a way which ensures that no-one believes him. As you read, pay very careful attention to what this unreliable narrator does and doesn’t say.  Gen is soon revealed as a story-teller who can relate entertaining myths about the adventures of the God of Thieves, Eugenides.  The gods are a powerful force in Gen’s world and he has a spine-tingling encounter with the Great Goddess which may, or may not, be an hallucination. After the stone is retrieved and then lost in an ambush, the story takes a dark and tragic turn and trickster Gen is forced to play the hero for a while.

Only in the final chapter do Gen’s true purpose and identity become clear. The first thing I did  after finishing `The Thief’ was to go back to the beginning and read it again to see if the author had played fair. I think she has. The second thing I did was to read `The Queen of Attolia’ to find out what Gen did next. I really wanted to know and I hope that you will too. Until next week