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.