Review: The Thief



Details: Turner, Megan Whalen. (1996). The Thief. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.

Keywords: Thieves!, warring kingdoms, fantasy, old gods

It’s been a year, but I haven’t stopped reading so here is another riveting book review for y’all. And it’s, surprise surprise, a fantasy novel.

Megan Whelan Turner’s Queen’s Thief series has been on my radar for a long time. It comes up constantly on booklists I look at, and I have several friends who have read and loved it.

There’s also the fact that it was originally published in 1996, which was around the time I was moving away from The Babysitters Club and into more fantastical fare. I keep asking myself how the hell I missed this one going into my teens. A fantasy novel about a contrary thief and a curmudgeonly mage on a suicide mission? THIS IS MY CATNIP.

Well, I finally read it, gentle reader. And I must say it lived up to the hype, but not quite in the way that I was expecting.

A small summary: Eugenidies (is that not the best name?), a self-proclaimed master thief, is dragged from the cell where he has been imprisoned for bragging that he will steal the king’s seal. The Magus, the right hand man to the Kings of Sounis, wants Gen’s help in stealing Hamaithes’s Gift, a magic stone that guarantees a king or queen’s succession.

Aaand I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot.

But Rachel, you might be saying, that sounds down right simple as a plot.

Gentle reader, you are correct! It is a very simple plot, and the book itself is a rather gentle fantasy.  While there is some intrigue and definitely danger, reading it was like curling up with a warm cup of cocoa on a snowy day. It was also a pretty fast read. The prose was modern as well, and did not feel like it was written twenty years ago.

And I absolutely loved it.

This book kind of stumped me, especially as to why I liked it so much. It felt breezy and fast on some levels, which is not a bad thing, but not something I would necessarily look for in a favorite book. But I finished it and was kind of bowled over by its wit and the breadth of what happens in such a short timeframe. Turner also sets up some excellent intrigues to be explored in future books, but not by sacrificing the integrity of this story, if that makes any sense.

I think Turner’s talents as a writer are one reason. Eugenides is an extremely likable character for all his foibles, so the reader is eager to follow him on his adventure, mostly just to see how he’ll get out of all his scrapes. He’s a character that fits into a trope I particularly enjoy, which is one who plays the fool but is actually quite brilliant. He is also literally favored by the gods so it is great fun to watch him squeeze out of rather impossible situations.

I also think that while I described the book as gentle, the plot turns out to have a lot of humor and pathos combined with a little political intrigue with tight writing that doesn’t waste a lot on the navel-gazing that some high fantasy falls into.

My particular favorite portion of the book was when Gen is in the temple where Hamaithes’s Gift is kept. You learn a lot about his character and get insights into how the magic of the world works. It’s also one of the most atmospheric portions of the book.

I wish I could say more about the other characters and how the end sets up to the next book in the series, but I think it’s better to just read it and find out. This book holds some nice surprises, and it was one of the pleasures of reading it.

So basically if you’re looking for some fast paced, well written, fun fantasy with a little bit of an edge, this is your book. I’ve already started the second one, and whoo boy, Turner does not let up on her characters. But more about that later.

Excitement Level: Five Stars!

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.




Review: Scarlett Undercover

Teenage girl in red hooded sweatshirt.
She’s more Veronica Mars than Nancy Drew…

Title: Latham, Jennifer. (2015). Scarlett Undercover. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books.

Keywords: Mystery, young adult, Muslim-American, thriller, suicide

Scarlett Undercover features a Muslim-American Veronica Mars who does not wear a hijab, or observe all haraam practices, in the fictional city of Las Almas. Jennifer Latham’s debut work adopts the gumshoe patter of the mystery genre, and sprinkles the novel with literary or historical allusions, such as the Baker Street Bridge (Sherlock Holmes) or the librarian named Melvin (likely a reference to the founder of the Dewey Decimal System, Melvil Dewey). Hired by a young child to investigate her brother’s strange behavior after his friend’s suicide, amateur detective Scarlett (a teenaged orphan who graduated high school early and lives with her medical resident sister Reem) probes the suicide and the brother’s behavior, and of course, discovers more than she bargained for.

Scarlett is tough, confident, smart, knows the martial art of Muy Thai, and is surrounded by a truly diverse cast of supporting characters. In addition to having a parental older sister and a detective friend on the local police force, she also has a (somewhat forced) romance with a hot Jewish love interest

Oy yeah.

At different moments throughout the novel, I discovered instances of “…too much______.” For example: Some of the dialogue was too pat; Scarlett was rendered too tough; and the surrounding environs too gentle for their purported level of scary. These instances broke my suspension of disbelief long enough to register the disruption. That being said, the story was engaging and sheer fun. I sped through it.

While this novel undoubtedly belongs in the YA genre, I wasn’t sure if the novel was a young adult mystery novel – or a young adult fantasy novel. I’d be fine with either, or both at the same time. But the introduction of jinn and demons halfway through the novel felt like a potential turn aside from what was promised to the reader at the outset. The fantastical elements were voided, in the end, by rational skepticism: “I remain unconvinced.” Furthermore, the novel (with its very rich backstory) felt like a second novel within a series rather than a debut. The pacing came across as though all of these characters had been established in a prior novel. While I do understand the purpose of in medias res, I would have appreciated exploring Scarlett’s origin story in more detail.

Scarlett Undercover, which features a Muslim-American teenager of Sudanese descent in a contemporary setting, is written by a white, middle-aged woman. Rather than get into the nuanced and complicated debate about whether white people should write characters of color (for which I do not have a satisfactory answer), I do want acknowledge that Latham obviously did her research on Islam and on the contemporary Muslim-American experience. Furthermore, in the afterword, Latham writes that she reached out to a friend and colleague with more knowledge than she to assess the novel for misrepresentations or inaccuracies. Whether it’s “right” or “wrong” for white authors to write characters of color, I appreciate the effort and the thoughtfulness she employed in ensuring that she wrote a nuanced and accurate character.

Excitement Level: Half a Maltese Falcon. Or, three solid stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own impetus.