About ten years ago, I encountered The Thief, the first volume in Megan Whalen Turner’s young adult fantasy series about the neighboring countries of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia (thus far comprised of The Thief, which won a Newbery Honor in 1997; The Queen of Attolia; The King of Attolia; and A Conspiracy of Kings, just published this past spring). The novel struck me at the time because of the author’s skill in withholding information from the reader while using a first-person narrator (not an entirely unreliable narrator, just one who doesn’t reveal things until the right moment). Authorial sleight-of-hand is one of Turner’s most notable characteristics, but so is the interweaving of myths that bear some resemblance to those of ancient Greece but have their own twists as well. Similarly—and this is the aspect I find most fascinating in the Attolia series—Turner includes a pantheon of gods and goddesses who turn out to be deeply involved in human events.
The three countries of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia share a common language, though with different regional accents, and all three were invaded at some time in the past by foreigners, who were ultimately driven away. Sounis and Attolia adopted the invaders’ gods, though, while Eddis retained the old pantheon. In Attolia, the new gods are mostly a formality; the Attolians “did not invest much belief in their religion. They dutifully attended temple festivals and used their gods for cursing and little else.” Eddis, a mountainous country viewed as backwards by its more civilized neighbors, clings to the old-time religion, yet even the more pious Eddisians do not expect their gods to be real and capable of personal encounter. They are far more comfortable relegating the gods to the realm of myth—in fact, for most of The Thief, the gods only surface in Eddisian myths interspersed with the narrative. (In the myths, the gods seem to behave as the Greek and Roman gods did, consorting with mortals and having human children—in the characters’ present-day reality, however, we only hear of the gods making (decidedly more ethereal) appearances to rulers or future rulers. I’m most curious about whether the gods do also appear to common people in Turner’s world, even if we don’t hear about it because the focus isn’t on those characters.)
In the author’s note at the end of each book in the series, Turner includes an explanation that the world she has created is not ancient Greece and points out that certain details—such as firearms and pocket watches—are more reminiscent of a Byzantine time period. Given that the historical Byzantine Empire was, after the conversion of Constantine, at least officially monotheist, the series’ echoes of older Greek polytheism are interesting. When interviewers ask any question about why the deities in her books are written the way they are, Turner generally responds, “I wanted it that way.” Fair enough. Though the gods of Eddis are many, they display some characteristics that strike me as powerfully evocative of God as revealed in the Old Testament as well, whether Turner wanted it that way or not.
To the novels’ characters, the gods most often appear in dreams, giving guidance or warning to the dreamer. One character, isolated and enslaved, dreams of a tutor who comes and instructs him, filling in all the gaps that his earthly tutors have left. He later learns this tutor’s divine identity. The gods even appear in dreams, it seems, to those of other nations who are unfamiliar with this particular pantheon, when the gods want to use foreigners to accomplish their purposes for Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia. To some individuals is given communication from the gods even during waking hours: in one of my favorite scenes from the entire series, one character clearly and distinctly overhears a god saying to another character, “Go to bed.” The recipient of this divine message complains of the gods’ dealings with him, saying, “No ‘Glory shall be your reward’ for me. Oh, no, for me, it is ‘Stop whining’ and ‘Go to bed.’ . . . Never call on them . . . if you don’t really want them to appear.”
At other times, the gods’ interventions are less humorous and more challenging. In fact, in the second volume of the series, The Queen of Attolia, there are some echoes of Job’s despair. A character who has, according to his perspective, lost everything that made his life worthwhile learns that direct intervention by the gods led to this loss. When this character demands to know why the gods have betrayed him, they, like God in Job, do deign to appear and admonish him, “Who are you to speak of rights to the gods?” Because The Queen of Attolia is fiction, the goddess Moira also then goes on to provide a more fulfilling resolution than we have in Job, granting the character a vision of the greater purpose for which he lost everything. (And by saying that it’s more satisfying than Job, I mean from a this-life human perspective: it’s partially because Job does not satisfy me that I believe it as truth. As poet W. H. Auden once said, “I believe because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.”)
The first time I read The Queen of Attolia, years ago, I was angry over what the author had chosen to do to this beloved character (and I’m apparently not alone here—Turner reports receiving hate mail over this decision). Now, going back and re-reading The Queen of Attolia in conjunction with its sequels, seeing more pieces of the final pattern for the series fall into place, this scene was so powerful that it reduced me to tears. Grasping the ultimate author’s design, the ultimate divine design, is something we’re so rarely granted in this life that it jars us with both pain and beauty when we encounter it in fiction. (I still question the believability of a romance that Turner introduces within the novel, but that too serves her purpose for the series—once you accept the end goal, you can appreciate the rationale for earlier authorial decisions, even if you wish they were a little more plausible in their development). Turner strikes me as a careful, perhaps even meticulous, writer, spending between three and six years on each volume of the series, and the novels are tightly and consistently plotted. She also credits her readers with sufficient intelligence to grasp the connections between events without being told repeatedly, and she seldom resorts to plot summary—which means that, if you’re reading the books as they are published, some re-reading of previous volumes will probably be necessary, unless you have a far better memory than I do.
When Turner first wrote The Thief, she had no plans for sequels, but it seems clear that, once she began writing The Queen of Attolia, the major details of at least the next two—and possibly the remaining two—books of the series were already in place. Within the novels, it’s clear that the gods’ involvement is intrinsically linked to the future course of events in Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia. I’m eager to see the role the gods continue to play in the remainder of the series, though it will probably be another decade before it’s completed—as in life, in this particular fiction series it takes patience to see the pattern resolved.