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book cover for The Thief showing a two hands cupping a stone amulet with a bright blue centre

'The king's scholar, the magus, believes he knows the site of an ancient treasure. To attain it for his king, he needs a skillful thief, and he selects Gen from the king's prison. The magus is interested only in the thief's abilities.

What Gen is interested in is anyone's guess. Their journey toward the treasure is both dangerous and difficult, lightened only imperceptibly by the tales they tell of the old gods and goddesses.' ( source)

As part of Long Awaited Reads month Ana and I read 'The Thief' by Megan Whalen Turner, the first book in 'The Queen's Thief' quartet. It was kind of lovely. And so short! Why you could read it over a few lunch breaks. *whistles innocently*

Just a note: as the author says at her website 'I'd like to think that finding out major plot points ahead of time won't ruin The Thief, but it will certainly change the experience.' We tend to get pretty into the meat of the books here at Lady Business, so please proceed with caution.

Jodie: Shall we start by talking about ships? :P

Ana: Yes, although I'll have to bite my tongue because there are SO many things about romance in this series that I want to squee about with you, only... spoilers :P I shall do my very best to erase the other books from my memory for the purpose of this conversation and focus on The Thief alone. You told me on Twitter that you shipped Gen and Pol, whereas I was more invested in Gen and Sophos' relationship. Now that you're done I can finally ask, were you very heartbroken? And what was it about Gen and Pol's dynamics that captured your imagination?

Jodie: 'Don't get invested in that soldier bloke, Jodie,' I told myself. 'You know it never ends well for the taciturn soldier bloke in these kinds of stories.' but I couldn't help it, I was swept away. So, yes I was sort of heartbroken, especially because the reader is only told about his death so it's hard to get any closure.

And the 'The Thief' not only literally killed my ship, it also reconfigured all that romantic subtext I thought I'd been seeing into hints that Pol knows about Gen's true status. On the one hand after the big reveal I was all 'Oh this very clever narrative diversion' and on the other I was like 'My ship has a huge, huge hole in it *sniff*'. I'm not sure if I would ship them if I re-read this novel and that makes me kind of sad, although I suppose I'll always have that time I did ship them to hold onto *clings*.

What really drew me to that relationship was a mix of personal boy preferences and all the concerned touching. I'll admit it, I was in it for the hurt/comfort/watching over element a lot of the time. Pol cares about Gen and seems to start to watch his back, while Gen appears to grow fond of Pol, partly because Pol helps him when he is hurt.

I also love the opposites set up of their relationship. Pol is quiet and follows the rules, often enforcing them. Gen is voluble and rebels against authority. They are both so different, but at the same time have one big and attractive similarity — they're both pretty confident without being dickishly cocky. I love personal confidence that isn't awful! And that mix of opposite and similar is kind of a personal favourite I guess, because it can create conflict and interplay but it also gives two people a common core that means they recognise something of themselves, or something they like, in each other.

I can totally see Gen and Sophos by the way. I liked the way he and Sophos were together, I was just really pushing for Pol and Gen. Tell me why you were really into Gen and Sophos — spill all the words :D

Ana: I know what you mean — The Thief is definitely one of those books that is never the same again after you've read it for the first time. Unless you manage to forget the ending completely, which isn't very likely :P

About Gen and Sophos, I liked how they brought out the best in each other. The fact that Sophos idolizes Ambiades makes him go along with stuff he probably wouldn't normally do (like leaving Gen on the river bank with his wrists tied too tight — ouch), and becoming more invested in Gen as a person gives him the encouragement he needed to listen to the part of himself that's saying, "this is the kind of thing a really sucky person would do". As for Gen, the fact that he can't help but like Sophos (and Pol too) helps him humanise the people he's travelling with, despite the unusual circumstances that threw them together. So the connection they begin to develop makes them both a little kinder, and I really liked that. Also, I love the fact that the big reveal at the end makes what began as a completely disinterested friendship have huge future implications — but they didn't know that, so they'll always have that time when they simply liked each other as people before they knew the other was an Important Person too.

Jodie: I love that way of looking at their friendship, like it inspires them both to change and grow in positive ways. I think narrative of any kind can be a useful tool to help people expand their empathetic reach (although I'm well aware that particular narratives can also help decrease people's interest in imagining people with sympathy and empathy). So, where better to see a subtle story line about how investing in people can lead to more human behaviour, than in a book?:) Are you shipping Gen and Sophos by the way, or do you see them as friends?

Ana: Are you shipping Gen and Sophos by the way, or do you see them as friends? This is a difficult question for me to answer now that I've read the whole series (which i realise is totally my fault — I just couldn't resist when they were all there on my shelf, looking so reachable and tempting). I probably did ship them just after The Thief, but now it's difficult to isolate what I thought then from what I think now that I know all the things. As I told you before, romance plays a big role in the rest of the series, and it's possible that my head canon now includes a four way romance between Certain Characters. That's all I'm going to say about that :P

Jodie: Is it shallow of me if I want to talk about all the male touching before we move on from ships? I thought this book was really invested in showing men being much more casually physical with each other than is maybe common in fiction for young readers. Obvs, that made shipping the characters very easy for me, and I enjoyed seeing all the touching as an excuse to ship dudes together. But I thought it was a fab touch if all the characters were in canon platonic relationships, like 'The Thief' wanted to normalise the idea of men touching, for readers who live in a society which often encourages dudes who are friends to keep their distance.

Ana: I absolutely love your point about the series normalising touching between males — I hadn't thought of that at all and it's such a great observation. Do you think the setting made it easier for Megan Whalen Turner to incorporate that into the narrative so seamlessly? For readers unfamiliar with The Queen's Thief series, it takes place in a secondary fantasy world that's partially inspired by Ancient Greece. I don't want to suggest that a writer working on a contemporary YA novel couldn't or shouldn't have their male teen characters touch so much (they definitely should do it anyway, if you ask me), but I wonder if the knowledge that this is heavily policed in a homophobic society would affect how they write it — if they just included it in the text as an attempt to normalise it, would readers feel that an important issue (how touch between males is stigmatised and policed because of homophobia) was being ignored?

It's interesting to me how speculative fiction can maybe work around those questions by simply providing an alternative and going, "here's how the world could be". I remember thinking the same when, for example, I read Railsea and noticed that China MiĆ©ville had included a polyamorous family and women captains with no comment whatsoever — in his world that was possible and normalised, because why wouldn't it be? All this brings me to what you were saying recently about how you can resist sucky things by simply creating alternative spaces instead of having all your energy drained by confronting the same problems again and again. The fact that there aren't more speculative fiction novels that use their freedom to do this makes me sad, but on the other hand I get so excited when I find one that does.

Jodie: Ooo tricky! Once I worked out the book's world was partly inspired by ancient Greece, I had similar thoughts about a particular link between the ancient setting and the way Whalen Turner seems to have managed to make that touching just feel normal to her readers. I haven't seen any interviews that bring it up at least, no reviews questioning the reality of that aspect. People have certain ideas about m/m relationships in Ancient Greece (disclaimer: yo, I did not study this aspect of Ancient Greece, so can't speak to the accuracy of these ideas) and maybe those help readers to find all the physical contact normal. No idea.

Does the fantasy make it easier for the author to put that in the narrative without a reader outcry about reality? Again, I'm not sure. I've seen fantasy media set in places inspired by real life historical periods challenged for apparently not being strict enough about the "rules" of their "historical" setting (see the bizarre argument where people think it didn't make sense to cast a black actress as Guinevere in 'Merlin' because of the vaguely medieval setting, but were totally cool with the presence of dragons). And I can't think of a whole heap of contemporary novels I've read where dudes show platonic physical affection to their male friends, so I also can't think of any specific criticism which indicate contemporary settings make it harder to convince readers that straight men touching is commonplace. I think we've both probably seen critiques of 'Boy Meets Boy' by David Levithan which say that it presents a totally unrealistic utopia though, so maybe contemporary novels have a harder time challenging dominant ideas about reality, but I don't think I have enough data to come to conclusions.

Ana: I should start by saying that I also didn't study Ancient Greece in any amount of detail, so yes, it's very possible that this popular perception of what was allowed in m/m interactions is in fact incorrect. But I couldn't help but wonder if it had affected me as a reader anyway. You're right; without proper data we can't do more than speculate here, and although I thought the question was interesting it's not necessarily very useful. I think you're probably onto something when you say that it will happen anyway, or not, depending on the reader's disposition — it's possible that the kind of reader who'll dismiss anything that doesn't replicate our current real world power structures (and all their problems) as "inaccurate" will do it regardless of whether the setting is contemporary, historical, or secondary world (some of the discussions around A Game of Thrones we've seen in the last few years come to mind). On the other hand, there are some valid argument to be made and interesting discussions to be had about certain pieces of fiction ignoring problems, as well as about carving the space for fiction to represent problems in a subtle way without readers assuming it's condoning them (very easy for me to get sidetracked and go on about my eternal love for Margo Lanagan's work here, but I'll stay strong). As with so many other things, it's complicated. Shall we go back to the actual book? :D

Jodie: *focused* Maybe we should talk about Gen as 'The Thief' is his story? Also I am mad in love with Gen!

Ana: Yes! Jodie, hopefully you'll be the one person who understands me when I say this: did Gen remind you of a young Patrician of Ankh-Morpork? There was just something about the way he was scarily smart and also easy to underestimate (deliberately so) that put me in mind of PTerry and the way he writes some of his characters. Also, how wonderful is Gen's narrative voice? The humour in the book really surprised me, as somehow it's not something I was expecting.

Jodie: A little bit, yes! What a good comparison :) He's less scary than Vetinari and I can't imagine him growing into exactly the same character, like for example I can't imagine Gen having that very disturbing, inquisitive conversation with Leonard in 'Jingo'. And Gen values life more highly than Vetinari, with his vow not to take up a knife. But the smartness and the way his plan turns out to have been running right from the beginning of the novel is typical of the Patrician. Everyone else always thinks they're in control and that they're only serving their own ends, but they rarely are.

And Gen's narrative voice is fab — so light, fun and above all else confident. I suppose that confidence makes more sense once you know where he comes from, the backing of power and all that, but still I found it delightful. I loved how he clearly knew his own worth whatever anyone else might say and that he was well pleased with himself, but again he wasn't a huge cock about it. There's no unnecessary bragging with Gen, which I suppose should have set the bells ringing considering that he's caught because of bragging.

I was a bit surprised by how fun the book was too. Somehow I'd imagined it as a very high, solemn fantasy, but it's so easy and pleasant to read. Fancy quoting a favourite part?

Ana: Yes, Vetinari is definitely a darker sort of character, although... argh, I shall say no more — only that I reaaaaally look forward to your thoughts on how Gen develops as a character when you get around to reading the rest of the series :D

This — there's no unnecessary bragging with Gen, which I suppose should have set the bells ringing considering that he's caught because of bragging — is such an excellent point. I suppose it's one of those things that are easy to miss when you're reading the book for the first time but that seem really obvious in retrospect. I'm really looking forward to rereading this book someday, because I'm sure I'll develop a whole new level of appreciation for Megan Whalen Turner's clues and brilliant narrative sleight of hand.

Jodie: Just butting in, but this is exactly how I felt when I reread part of Sarah Waters 'The Night Watch' so I recommend re-reading tricksey books :D

Ana: As for favourite quotes, here's one that I liked:

The magus was as smug as a cat the next day. Pol made breakfast, and then we packed up, careful to leave no sign of our presence beside the trail. Sophos and Ambiades collected pine needles to cover the burnt space of our cooking fire. By noon we had reached the other side of the mountain ridge and were looking at our descent.

"I am not going down that until I've had lunch," I announced. "I have no intention of dying on an empty stomach." I was flip but perfectly serious, and when the magus tried to force me, I balked. He cuffed me on the head with his seal ring, but I wouldn't budge. I was going to rest before I started down a shale slope where I would need not only my balance but all the strength that the king's prison had left in my legs. I dug in my heels and wouldn't move. We had lunch.

This is only a small moment, but I like how it illustrates several things about Gen in that subtle way MWT excels at. First, there's the confidence you talked about: Gen knows what he wants and he can be quite stubborn about getting it. But on the other hand, he never uses that ability to get what he wants in ways that are unreasonable or inconsiderate of others. Here he wants to stop and have his lunch so that he can descend the slope more safely; later, when all the food disappeared when they were crossing a desert area, I just knew it couldn't have been Gen. Yes, he complains loudly about being hungry and asks for more food several times throughout the journey, but he would never just take other people's rations and risk them all starving to satisfy a whim. He's a much better (and smarter) person than that.

What about you? Any favourite moments you'd like to share?

Jodie: Yes! It absolutely could not have been Gen, he is too honourable about keeping his hardscrabble morals in place (ain't I sap?).

Well my absolute favourite moment has got to be when Gen gets a bath. Nrgh! I am hopeless and my ship is dead, as we have already established :( Moving on!

I also really enjoyed the part where Gen finds Hephestias gift. Side note: did I ever love that Hephestos inspires a goddess character in this novel — Hephestos is a wildly underrated mythological character and I was excited to find this sort of re imagining. I really enjoyed his puzzle solving time in the tunnels; a journey narrative and puzzle solving, oh really 'The Thief' you are spoiling me.

And his encounter with the gods in the chamber was so magical, in a way because it is cut through with just a little bit of a threatening feel. When he breaks the glass and then realises he's standing defenseless in front of real gods all of a sudden everything goes a bit tense:

'I wanted to touch the perfect skin but I didn't dare. I settled for brushing my fingers across the cloth of one robe. It had a pattern like running water woven in to it.


This was not an image carefully made of Hephestia, amid a statuary garden of the gods. This was the great Goddess and she was surrounded by her court. My extended hand began to shake. I closed my eyes as I heard the rustle of cloth behind me, wondering if it was the midnight blue gown with the water pattern as Oceanus checked to see if I'd left any dirt. I opened an eye and looked at the Great Goddess. She looked beyond me, impassive, distant, not unaware of my presence but unmoved by it.'

The combination of Gen's awe at what he thinks are perfect statues with his sudden fear when he realises the truth, approximates how I imagine the majority of us would feel if we ever encountering an all powerful being. No matter how wonderful and benevolent they might be, they could still technically crush you in an instant. So, to me that part feels very true and his emotions resonate through me as I read it.

Ana: Oh yes, I loved that scene too. It was powerful and really moving in an unexpected way — I especially loved how it made me feel like I was right there with Gen emotionally even though the concept of divinity is alien to my experiences. That's what great writing does, and Whalen Turner did a superb job.

So, do you think you'll get around to reading the rest of the series this year? No pressure or anything, but I would love to hear your thoughts :D

Jodie: I would like to read them this year, especially as [profile] chalia has me so curious about Attolia. I read the whole 'Newsflesh' trilogy in a year and it was great to be able to remember most of the details from previous books as I read on. And they're short, so it seems like they should be easy to fit in this year. Can you lend them to me? The library does not have :(

Ana: Of course :D Looking forward to your reaction to Attolia and everything else.

Jodie: I figure after 'Queen of Attolia' I can read your post about the whole series too, so extra motivation :D

Well this has been excellent, Ana. Moar co-reviews in 2013 is already working out super well. I look forward to our next project together.

Date: 2013-02-15 02:42 am (UTC)
chaila: Elizabeth Bennet reading a book, from the 2005 movie. (austen - lizzie/books)
From: [personal profile] chaila
This was a really interesting read! Especially as I enjoyed the first book, but was not In Love until the second. It's interesting how much I love how the gods are handled in this series, since that's really not something I typically enjoy in books, or in my own life. I just flat-out enjoy reading these books, for the prose and plotting. This post makes me want to go back and reread the first one (and then the second. Because ATTOLIA. Because I'm awesome like this, this post that is not-at-all about Attolia gave me Attolia feelings. *stuffs socks in mouth so as not to spoil* :D)

*does not even use spoilery icon*

Date: 2013-02-15 08:26 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I'm so looking forward to Attolia and to the rest of the series. They are just the kind of job roundly well done books that breed excitment.

Date: 2013-02-15 08:48 pm (UTC)
nemonclature: Daria looking unamused (Default)
From: [personal profile] nemonclature
Oh my God I adore these books, I rec them to high heaven. I think 3 is my favourite for all the politicking and secrets. I can't wait for her to publish the next one!

Date: 2013-02-17 05:53 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I'm so excited to read the next one (and now three after this comment). Everyone I know who has read them really liked them.

Date: 2013-02-20 08:14 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Guess what my library has. >.>

Date: 2013-02-25 02:37 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
How did I miss this comment? Are you reading them?!


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