There are only a handful of writers whose work I admire with near-slavish devotion, and Megan Whalen Turner is one of them. So I awaited Book 4 of The Queen's Thief series with vast anticipation. And yep, Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, Horn Book, and Publishers Weekly all gave A Conspiracy of Kings starred reviews. That's practically unheard of: Five. Starred. Reviews. In case you haven't been following the adventures of trickster Gen (Eugenides), I will attempt to explain why.
But first, an introduction to the plot. In Book 3, the marvelous The King of Attolia, we were told in passing that Sophos was missing and feared to be dead. Sophos, nephew of the tyrannical king of Sounis, first appeared in The Thief (Book 1). Despite being heir to the throne, Sophos was basically a wimp. He was also a sweet kid who developed a crush on the queen of Eddis.
Now we backtrack to find out where Sophos has been. He barely survives a kidnapping and escapes, but only in part. He ends up being a slave on a great estate, working outdoors as a digger. Here Turner brings up questions about destiny: what if you're supposed to become a king, but you'd really rather just keep your head down? But events—and gods—conspire to bring Sophos out of hiding, and he must begin to make still more difficult choices.
One such decision is how to deal with Gen, who is being aloof for reasons everyone but Sophos seems to understand. Turner doesn't explain this to readers, either. The grandmaster of "Show, don't tell," she lets us draw our own conclusions.
Eventually, our low-key hero takes action, and events play out in surprising, satisfying ways. If anything, A Conspiracy of Kings is Sophos's coming-of-age story, in which he figures out who he is and what he wants. We get another one of Turner's refreshing romances, too, where people don't just follow a Barbie/Cinderella pattern, but act in real and awkward ways, compelled by an array of motives.
One of the key lessons of this book is, "You can't be a king and be a softie." This may sound like egotism, but it's really just Turner being a shrewd pragmatist, like her trickster hero, Gen. However, Turner tops this off by teaching Gen a rather startling lesson about friendship. In Book 3, Gen pointed out to Attolia's spymaster that even the strongest person needs to be able to trust someone. Now Gen himself is on the receiving end, reminded that while power may be the currency of kingship, trust is the currency of humanity. And hey, who trusts a trickster—rightly? What effect does it have on a trickster to be so trusted? Turner raises more intriguing questions about human nature in one scene than most authors raise in an entire book. And she respects her readers enough to expect them to truly think about these things, staunchly resisting the ever-present authorial temptation to hand out easy answers.
For example, Spiderman may have told us that "With great power comes great responsibility," but Megan Whalen Turner shows us what that really means!
Rich characterization, intricate plotting, thought-provoking explorations of human dilemmas, and finely tuned craftsmanship are this writer's hallmarks, the reason why, not just fantasy readers, but other fantasy authors look up to her (e.g., most of the folks at The Enchanted Inkpot). It should also explain why Turner takes more than a year to write each book! Then again, this sounds like a literature lesson: it doesn't begin to explain the appeal of these stories, and especially of the vain, obnoxious, tender-hearted, and ruthlessly clever Gen.
I will say I liked Book 3 better than this one, but that's basically because Book 4 focuses on Sophos rather than on the inimitable Gen. Other Gen fans will probably feel the same, but still—just the chance to visit this world and experience Turner's writing again is well worth the read. It's one of those situations where you should spend your time reading this author's "A" book instead of whining that it isn't an "A+," when you consider that most books out there are in the B, C, and even D range. (We Megan Whalen Turner fans are a spoiled bunch!) Of course, if you haven't already done so, what you really need to do is read all four books in order. I strongly recommend against reading A Conspiracy of Kings without reading its predecessors.
And by the way, I'm not the only person who thinks The King of Attolia should have won the 2008 Newbery Award.
Although the publisher says the Queen's Thief books are for readers ages 9-12, Booklist wisely recommends them for readers in grades 7-10. There is a complexity to the thinking in this series that transcends the adventures and makes them a better fit for more sophisticated readers, including adults.
I was pleased to see that A Conspiracy of Kings is dedicated to Diana Wynne Jones, another of my favorite fantasy writers and the person who "discovered" Megan Whalen Turner, recommending her to an editor at Greenwillow. I was even more pleased to learn that Megan Whalen Turner has plans for two more Queen's Thief books.
Here is a delightful interview with the author at Hip Writer Mama, including a list of Turner's numerous book awards. (When HWM asks, "What is your writing routine?" MWT replies, "Routinely, I wish I had one.") You can also visit the author's website. A new interview with Megan Whalen Turner has been posted at The Enchanted Inkpot. Another interview appears on Literary Life Notes. And one more at Damsels in Regress. There's a review I really like at Book Smugglers, too--take a look!
Update [with Spoiler!]--Some of MWT's fans over at Amazon have been concerned about the way Gen makes himself king over all three of these small kingdoms. Here's my response, posted in an Amazon review:
For those of you who worry that Gen is exploiting Sophos and Eddis, I refer you to the title, A Conspiracy of Kings. Gen and Eddis are already conspiring when the book starts, and they push Sophos to grow up so that he can conspire with them. Because the mountain really is going to fall down on Eddis, and the Medes really are going to invade these three smaller countries one of these days. Is Gen the king of kings here? Well, yeah--but we were told about that on the last few pages of The King of Attolia. (And Sophos would have been killed by a Mede or one of his barons in about five minutes if he'd tried to take the throne of Sounis without Gen as an ally/mentor.)
Update #2: This book ended up having SIX starred reviews! I think #6 was VOYA.