Fuse #8

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Review of the Day: The King of Attolia

To be perfectly honest with you, I don't want to post this review. I really enjoyed this book and I don't know if this review is a fair critcism of what Turner's done with her material. I'm reluctant to ever post any review I don't think is the clearest cut view I have of the text sitting in front of me. On the other hand, having not read the first two books in the Attolia series, I'm at a loss. So I'll post my thoughts on the book here, but I want you to know that I can't say that I'm a fair judge of the series as a whole. If you want a better rounded review, seek elsewhere. This is just a bit of writing for people who, like myself, haven't read any of the author's previous books and began with this one. Odd as that may sound.

Oh boy. Oh boy oh boy. It’s been a long time since I’ve actively avoided reviewing a book I liked. For about a week now “The King of Attolia” has been sitting on my To Be Reviewed pile, staring balefully at me like it was some kind of neglected kitten. You may ask, why would I want to avoid reviewing it if I found it a great read. How do I explain? Have you ever met a Megan Whalen Turner fan? I mean, a real fan? It’s an experience like no other. There are people in this world who have devoured Turner’s, “The Thief” and “The Queen of Attolia” and have been salivating over the prospect of consuming this, her latest work. These are the people I fear. Because, you see, in their eyes I did it all wrong. Up until this novel, I’d never read a single work of fiction by Ms. Turner. It just never came up. Now, however, I wanted to see just how well this “King of Attolia” stood on its own merits. I knew that I was going to enter in to a complex world with its own set of rules and meticulously hammered out details. What I wanted to find out was whether or not a person could hand this book to a twelve-year-old child who had not read the prior books and expect them to a) enjoy it and b) understand it. Believe me, I thought this novel was extraordinary. A bit of genius for young ‘uns, of a particular mindset, to savor. But I take my life in my hands when I tell you that you better given them the first two books in the series to read before this one. It’s great. I just wish I’d been introduced to Turner’s world properly. My bad.

Recap time. Eugenides has married the Queen of Attolia and is, at this point in time, king. It’s not going as well as had been hoped. His attendants think him a backwards dunce. His guards may or may not end up protecting him from suspected enemies. He’s far from home, has only one hand, and to cap it all off one of the royal guardsman clocked him in a moment of particularly inappropriate rage. The guard goes by the name of Costis and it comes as an odd surprise to him to find that his only punishment is to remain at the king’s beck and call. As Costis falls into his newfound role, forces are swirling about the new ruler. Assassination plots, unlawful dealings with the barons of the land, impending war, kidnappings, divine intervention, and enough sword fighting to satisfy even the bloodthirstiest of souls. At the heart of it all, Costis learns that there may be more to his king than he suspected.

I’m rereading my summary and it seems… paltry. I usually like to summarize a book when I write its review in the hope that maybe I’ll be able to explain to myself what I liked about the title in the first place. Yet there are so many levels and depths to Turner’s tale that boiling it all down to a meager “guardsman learns to trust king” summary is irresponsible. Let’s see how other reviewers have gone about synthesizing this plot. Hrm. The KLIATT review may say it best when they mention that, “This third book is about the subtle ways Gen uses his shrewdness, skill, and strength to win over his opponents and earn their respect and loyalty”. But this doesn’t convey the undercurrent of intelligence that holds the book together. Better to look at the book in terms of its smarts and intrigue.

And I certainly hope to howdy your kids like court intrigue! This puppy could easily be renamed, “Court Intrigue: The Book”, and I doubt very much that anyone could reasonably object. Still, Turner is smart as a whip and, because of her, Gen. First of all, it’s great to read a book of this sort with a sense of humor. Gen has a supposedly easy air that makes his every move and countermove come across as particularly lackadaisical. He seems to be at his most cunning when he’s at his most relaxed. If he lazily suggests that the solution to a problem is to build a bridge, it may well turn out that such an answer is most intelligent way to handle a problem. I also liked how Turner would work into her story real world figures, like Aristophanes, in a humorous way. The Author’s Note at the end that explains how much of her world is and is not real was particularly useful as well.

Questions I found myself wondering as I read through this book. #1: Why on earth are these people married? Are they sadists? #2: What is a “Thief” and why the importance? How could a Thief be cousin to a Queen? #3: Why is the heir of Sounis important? And then there were just the basic confusions that left me baffled. At one point the Queen’s most trusted advisor, Relius, is arrested and tortured. For what reason? I have absolutely no idea. When the whole incident arose I assumed that the nature of his crime would be patiently explained and parsed for those uninitiated into Attolia’s world. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent human being. Yet try as I might I still, to this day, cannot figure out why Relius was considered a threat to the empire. And though it may sound vain, I suspect that if a twenty-eight-year-old children’s librarian can’t figure this out, children may have a bit of a hard time as well. Teens really into Turner’s world, however, could probably explain to me word for word exactly what Relius’s unforgivable act was. If you happen to know of any, please put them in contact with me at their earliest convenience. Ditto the scene where Gen flips the queen for the kingdom. I have no idea what’s going on in that passage.

So not for kids, no. A teen book, yes. Plenty of references to the queen’s marriage bed is enough to confirm this. Ditto passages that read, “Since then, new courses had been laid to make the walls of a naos, provisionally roofed in canes. The rest of the foundation was open, as all that remained of the earlier building were the basal stones, in some places still covered by mosaics in tessellated patterns”.

It all comes down to this: You can’t understand this book if you don’t know why a man would fall in love with the woman who cut off his hand. Nuff said. I’ve read this thing cover to cover and I still can’t figure it out. But that’s all right. I understand that over the course of her series, Turner has created an incredibly real and full-blooded relationship. When the book says, “Costis was puzzling through the convolutions of human relationships, which were so unlike the neatly arranged patterns in a fireside story”, Turner might well be talking about her own audience itself. Add in the intrigue and characters that live and breathe like real people and you’ve got yourself a mighty fine showing. This is a remarkable book and one that makes me want to run out and read its fellows. It may not stand entirely on its own but if I were a teen librarian I’d be booktalking it to the high heavens above. Beautiful work.

Notes On the Cover: Greenwillow knows how to treat its beloved. The gilt alone is worth the price of admission. So too the scars on the king’s left hand and the queen’s hand resting on his shoulder in a simultaneous show of affection and ownership. Of course, the guy’s face looks about 15. I read this book without the cover because I didn’t want to hurt its pretty finish, and I imagined Gen for the whole book around the age of 38 with a full beard. Now I see he should have been the subject of a Tiger Beat article. How disturbing.

19 Comments:

At 10:47 AM , Anonymous Rebecca said...

I know you know this, but read The Thief. Then read The Queen. Then re-read this one. These books are joy in a wrapper.

And yes, Gen is pretty much a baby. That's why we all worry about him so much.

 
At 1:00 PM , Anonymous boydesigner said...

I believe HOMC #28 was partly responsibly for the design of the Attolia cover . . . just sayin.

 
At 1:58 PM , Blogger gail said...

I read all three books, and I couldn't figure out what was going on with Relius, either.

The Thief is a marvelously sophisticated and subtle book.

The Queen of Attolia has a s/m thing going over Gen's hand that just comes out of nowhere. If the genders had been reversed in this book, if Gen had been a woman and the Queen a King, I think people would have been outraged. The idea of a victim loving his victimizer is very uncomfortable. But perhaps my status as an aging feminist is showing.

To me The King is really falling into a romance category, like the later Lord Peter Wimsey books. Gen reminds me of Wimsey very much in this book--the brilliant, sophisticated mind passing itself off as a buffoon in order to resolve some situation. You have to really like Eugenides to enjoy reading this book. Which I do, and I did. Still, the book seems like just an excuse to use the character again. I think it's time for Turner to move on.

 
At 4:26 PM , Anonymous Rebecca said...

Just have to say that as for QUEEN, Gen did not fall in love with his abuser. He was in love with her already. He was in love with her in the first book, too. We just didn't know it.

 
At 7:02 PM , Blogger Elizabeth said...

Your comments are very interesting! I read the books in order, and I don't know what I would make of the world of Attolia if I hadn't read them first. In these books one must take a lot of things on faith, and wait for explanations to appear. To read without the buildup of clues that the previous books give us - I'm not sure that makes a huge difference. Turner's style is to throw us into unexplained and sometimes inexplicable conundrums and challenge us to sort it out to our own satisfaction.

That being said, I agree with Rebecca that Gen loved the Queen before she cut off his hand.

Yes, Gen is young - anyone's guess as to exactly what his age is.

 
At 7:12 PM , Blogger gail said...

The word "abuser" is telling. Even if he already loved her, it is still a disturbing relationship. In fact, maybe even more so. It's romanticizing physical violence. Once again, imagine this situation if Gen were the female and the abuser were a male.

I read The Thief with an on-line group a few years back. The younger people thought that at that point Gen was in his mid-teens or even a little younger. Those of us who were older saw him as being right around 20. Very late teens, anyway. I believe in the first book there is a reference to him having done military service. Even if you think of this as a world of the past where people didn't live as long and matured earlier, there wasn't anything in the text to suggest that military service began at 12 or 13.

 
At 8:14 PM , Anonymous Rebecca said...

Gail, I really have to disagree -- I don't believe physical violence is romanticized in these books. She doesn't have anything nice to say about brutality at all. In fact, Gen hates fighting, defied his father's strong wish to have him in the army, etc.

I think the Queen's act tortures both of them, they are both forever changed by what happened, and not for the better.

(It's also worth noting that she cuts his hand off out of a misguided sense of national diplomacy -- she is alone, and feels she can show no weakness, ever, and in the end he teaches her better.)

 
At 9:01 AM , Blogger gail said...

I don't think physical violence is romanticized over all in those books, just that one act.

I do think that we may be talking about a generational issue here. The portrayal in movies and books of men roughing up women, of men victimizing women and then engaging in a love/sexual relationship with them that the women wanted was seen as extremely disturbing a couple of decades ago. The mutilization of Gen by the Queen and the two of them then becoming a willing couple seems like a role reversal of that cliche to me. And what's bad for the goose is also bad for the gander.

However, I am aware that today's readers just aren't seeing that scenario in this book. Some reviewers were disturbed by the mutilation, itself, but otherwise the situation was passed over.

I have a question about whose reading these books. The Thief definitely seemed like a book that would have appeal to either gender. What about the other two books? Any librarians out there seeing who's reading them?

 
At 9:03 AM , Blogger gail said...

Mutilization? Did I say that? Where's my copy editor!! Mutilation

 
At 9:06 AM , Blogger gail said...

Oh, my gosh. who's reading these books, not whose reading these books. Clearly I need to start using the preview option. Sorry.

 
At 11:11 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I do the same thing all the time. It's horrid that you're not allowed to edit comments after you post them.

I'm also, for the record, keeping out of this debate, if only because I've not read the earlier titles.

 
At 11:51 AM , Anonymous Avian said...

I read the first book in this series when I was only about 10, and I absolutly loved it. A few years later, I re-read it and realized how many subtle details and wonderful foreshadowings I had missed when I read it the first time. Since then, I have read the other books in the series and found that they just get better and better every time you re-read them. It's impossible not to love Gen, and it is much easier to understand his relationship with Attolia after reading the first two books in the series. I think King of Attolia could stand alone as a book outside of its series because the story would still make sense, but it's even better after reading the first two books and getting to know the characters. Now, I am in highschool and these are still some of my very favorite books. Yes, they are placed in the children's section of almost every bookstore, but these books are a treat for people of all ages.

I suppose I could be considered one of the feared Megan Whalen Turner fans :)

 
At 5:37 PM , Anonymous checkers said...

I'm a middle school librarian, and the teens who are reading these books in my library are the boys who love the action and the snarky character of Gen. But many of Turner's avid fans are teen girls who love the romance and the angst. And the snarky character of Gen.

 
At 7:24 PM , Anonymous Rowana said...

I'm an older teen who adores the books, and I've been reading (and re-reading) them since about the age of twelve. I think Gen's character is a large part of what draws us in, though this seemed to me more obvious in 'The Thief', but it's the subtle details and lovely twists that have really hooked so many of us onto the series, I think. I know rabid fans of the entire series, of both genders.

Relius's crime (by the way), so far as as I can remember with the help of a quick re-read, was to let something slip to a Mede spy, and then to lie to the Queen about it. 'The convolutions of human relationships' definitely does sum it up pretty well.

 
At 4:11 PM , Anonymous Willow said...

Wow, it looks like Sounis took a field trip over here...

I never got explicitly what Relius's crime was, but that didn't bother me, because it was an issue of Attolia trusting Gen to be right. I read it as some sort of treason-- that he actually had committed, wittingly or unwittingly-- not just an accusation, but the focus was on Attolia bowing to Gen's wishes to have Relius arrested.

About Gen and Irene's relationship, I see it was the power to forgive and heal, not romanticizing physical violence. Gen loves Irene, then she cuts off his hand and he is still able to love her. I think, if it were well-executed with the genders reversed, it wouldn't necessarily be creepy, but as someone else said, Irene's gender was one of the reasons she felt she had to be cruel, so it wouldn't be the same.

And I'm a teen reader too, by the way.

 
At 5:46 PM , Anonymous Rowana said...

I'm just seconding what Willow has said, and adding that I think that themes of forgiveness and love were dealt with very well at the end of the second book. I think that allowing the reader to see a very insecure and human side to Irene allowed the relationship to work without seeming like s/m.

The image of Gen and Irene's relationship - what the people of Attolia, and perhaps by extension what the readers make of the marriage of two people with such a history - was the focus of the third book, I guess. It seems to me that half the point of the third book was to show how Gen and Irene are on an equal footing in their relationship.

 
At 9:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

<.< This is about four years too late, but I got linked to this post from Fuse's Top 100 kid's books list, which I got linked to from Sounis (the lj group) and I Was Not Satisfied with the comments.

For one thing, nobody explained the "Gen flips the queen for the kingdom" passage for you. D= I admit I don't understand it as fully as I'd like to, but in my head the reason the coin keeps on landing lilies-up is that Gen's gods are meddling. Again. They're sending him a message: that he does, in fact, actually have to be king. Which bothers him. And him being bothered bothers ME.

This review was amazing, thank you. I would have been squeeing, but my mom gets a bit freaked out when I show sings of what an obsessive little fangirl I am. *blush* But yeah, your review was amusing and fresh and insightful and I loved it.

Mwt is actually very un-sadistic when it comes to violence. Bad things happen, but we don't often see them happening. In fact, Gen's amputation (a chapter the fans have come to called the "chopchop scene" o.O) is one of the few instances of this... we don't see Gen fight the assassins, we only hear about the pivotal fight at the end of TT from Gen and Sophos in hindsight, we don't see Costis hitting Gen, or Relius being tortured, the big battle in the Queen of Attolia is told from the perspective of a far-off observer and it's even lightly hinted that Gen was tortured after they cut off his hand, but we never EVER hear about it.

That being said, I expect epic action sequences in the next book. This being Megan Whalen Turner, however, I'll be thrilled just with vague hints that action in fact took place at some point.

-helen

 
At 12:21 AM , Blogger Han said...

Wow, awesome review! I'm going to have to have a look around.

*WARNING SPOILER*

Relius' crime was that a lady friend of his was actually a Mede spy
he didn't know it, but the fact is that he failed his queen which is a BIG deal, trust me
the queen didn't have much of a choice
the coin flippy scene shows how Gen really doesn't want to be king
but then, the gods intervene and send him a pretty straight message, which totally smacks him upside the head
and who wouldn't be FREAKED out from getting a message from the gods? Gen especially

*end spoilers*

ahh the chop chop scene
by the way, no S&M around here, as explained by mt fellows upstairs
I just love the subtly of MWT's writing, especially how the action and love are (wait...is? I'm having a grammar crisis here) carried out
and I sooo appreciate how MWT just goes for it and assumes that the reader has a brain

-gen (thesehnsucht)

 
At 1:24 AM , Blogger Han said...

We at Sounis had a discussion about Gen's age and we figured out (based on vague references and fleeting mention throughout the series (yes, we actually needed to use the entire series) found by our more perceptive members) that Gen was 15/16ish in The Thief, and is now around 20ish
I know, he seems so much older right?

correct me if I'm mistaken Sounis

 

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