Wednesday, Apr 14, 2010: Kids' Maximum Shelf: A Conspiracy of Kings

Greenwillow Books: A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

Greenwillow Books: A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

Greenwillow Books: A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

Editors' Note

A Conspiracy of Kings

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner, which went on sale April 1 and debuted at #6 on the New York Times bestseller list. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, has helped support the issue.

Greenwillow Books: Watch The Thief video

Books & Authors

The First Three Books

The Thief (1996)
After the queen of Eddis turns down the marriage proposal by the king of Sounis, the king's magus (scholar) comes up with an alternate plan, which requires an expert thief. The magus believes that if he can steal Hamiathes's Gift (an ancient stone that conferred power on its owner to reign as rightful ruler of Eddis), the magus can thus gain the kingdom of Eddis for Sounis. He frees a thief (Gen), imprisoned for attempting to steal the king's royal seal, to aid him on his quest. Gen travels with the magus and his two apprentices, Ambiades and Sophos (whom Gen nicknames "Useless the Elder" and "Useless the Younger"), as well as Pol, the captain of Sophos's father's guard. Turner takes readers into the Hephestial Mountains that divide Sounis and Attolia, where Eddis provides a narrow mountain pass between them. Readers also meet the king of Sounis, the queen of Attolia and the queen of Eddis. The brilliance of the book (and its famous twist) comes to light through charming and cunning Gen's first-person narrative.

The Queen of Attolia (2000)
Having escaped the queen of Attolia in the past (as related in The Thief), Gen is not so lucky in this episode. The queen is determined not to let him get away again, and when she does catch him, she metes out a devastating punishment and sends him back to Eddis. (And that's by chapter three.) In retaliation, the queen of Eddis, for whom Gen serves as thief, parcels out her own series of punishments to Attolia, resulting in war between the two countries. Eddis also plays Sounis and Attolia against each other, drawing Sounis into the conflict--along with the magus first met in The Thief. When Gen proclaims his love for the queen of Attolia, readers are left to wonder if his love is true (recall that devastating punishment) or just a means of peacemaking.

The King of Attolia (2006)
The Attolians believe the Thief of Eddis has stolen their queen--and the throne. Gen wants the queen but not the crown, yet he sets out to earn the respect of the Attolians. While the previous books dealt with movement among the countries (and all of the conflicts that are in play in A Conspiracy of Kings are set simmering in this book--including reports of the disappearance of Sophos, heir to the king of Sounis), this one takes place primarily within the palace walls, and court intrigue includes a plot to kill the king of Attolia.



Read Megan Whalen Turner's blog posts on the Greenwillow Books birthday blog

Attracting New Fans and Keeping the Old

In a two-pronged effort to attract new fans to the series and also to reward Megan Whalen Turner's dedicated followers, HarperCollins has created book trailers for The Thief and for A Conspiracy of Kings. Both links are on Megan Whalen Turner's web site.

On Awesome Adventure! readers can see a video interview with the author, listen to a podcast, play a game and take a quiz; an online guide discusses all four books in the series. Turner will appear on the ALAN program at NCTE in November in Orlando, Fla.

Megan Whalen Turner: Testing the Conventional

In the very first chapter of The Thief, you explain the geography of the kingdoms that have figured in all four novels. Were you conscious of laying out the foundation for a series from the start?

That's a hard question to answer when you put it that way. Everything I've since written about that world was there when I wrote The Thief. Mede, the Continent, the larger conflicts, all the other characters existed in my head as I was writing The Thief. I didn't intend to write more than The Thief at the time.

The rest of the series is all Barbara Barstow's fault. She was at the Cuyahoga County Library in Ohio. When Susan Hirschman [then Turner's editor] called to congratulate me on the Newbery Honor, she said, "Barbara Barstow has a question for you: 'Where's the next book?' " I folded up what I was working on at the time and started work on The Queen of Attolia instead. 

How are you able to ground readers in a sense of place the way you do, using all five senses?

When I'm imagining the story, all of my senses are active, so I'm imagining what the people are seeing and thinking and hearing and smelling. Sometimes I pick the one I'm best able to describe. I might not be able to adequately describe what the aroma is in the air, so I'll describe what they hear. Sometimes you just have writing fail. You have to go with what you can do (and do right), instead of what you want to write that continues to come out wrong when you try to get it onto the page.

How do you choose the narrative form for each tale?

Different things have gone into each of those decisions. When I was writing The Thief, I was really interested in the conventions that drive a first-person narrative. So often in the first-person narrative the hero wakes up and reflects on her life, then looks in the mirror. Of course it's artificial, but because it's conventional, we accept it without thinking. In The Thief I was more interested in the superficial thoughts of the narrator through the course of events in the story. I wanted to see how strong people's sense of conventions are, and the answer is: really really really strong. I feel that I gave away things over and over and over again, and the power of people's conventions were so strong that they were surprised at the end.

What has drawn you back to this world again and again?

After I started to work on The Queen of Attolia, I realized that there were more complete stories in my head for these people. When I have a brain full of random pieces of information, it is just a brain full of random pieces of information. Once I block out an entire story, it stays in my head until I get it written. I've tried several times to take a break and write short stories, and I realized I couldn't until I got these stories finished.

Does that mean that once you sit down to write, the stories are right there?

I tell myself that right up until I sit down in front of the computer. I have clearly fooled myself, that I'll just bang it out because, after all, I know the stories. But when you're putting it down on the page, you're taking something three-dimensional and making it two-dimensional. Which of the events will be carved into stone and put into the text?

Readers unpack it. They have a great deal of control over what's generated in their own heads by the text. It's one of the reasons I avoid telling readers how I pronounce the names of the characters. It's up to them to decide for themselves. Or explaining what's in the text. It's either in there or it isn't. I don't want to tell you what really happened on page 135. I want to leave autonomy for readers to make the story in their own heads. And therefore the story that comes out is not necessarily the same as the story in my head, nor does it have to be. People can read one of my books and come up with a completely different interpretation of events. If they're happy with it, I'm happy for them.

Is there another episode to come?

There are two more. Then I will have these stories, I hope, out of my head and I'll start writing something else.

[Spoiler Alert: If you haven't yet read The Thief or The Queen of Attolia, you may want to skip these next two answers.]

Do you think in part that people were startled by the ending of The Thief because they enjoy being surprised?

Part of it was people's reluctance to hint at the ending in reviews. Think about how controversy over spoilers has grown since The Thief was published, and discussions about "Is it okay to include spoilers or not?" I know that no one spoiled the ending for years. People went in not expecting to be tricked, and so they weren't looking for things. I'm one of those people who reads mysteries and never figures out the end because I don't want to know the end. Some do it for sport: "By what page did you know who the murderer was?" I'm more interested in being presented with a neat package at the end that's very satisfying.

What we expect from a narrative drives what we see in a narrative. Going back to the example of the first-person narrator recounting the story of her life in the first 10 pages--on the one hand, I know authors work hard to seamlessly integrate those things into their story; on the other hand, I know that readers, whether they're 12 or 25, will accept that set-up as natural even though it's artificial. It's artificial, but in a way that we accept--in the same way that a red octagonal sign means we stop, and we don't even think about it. There are rules in storytelling that we know, but we don't know that we know them. We can be played very easily by other people manipulating those rules.

How do you work with your editor?

I remember after The Thief, when I was writing Queen of Attolia, I didn't tell them anything about it and didn't send in the draft until I had it very close to being finished. I knew I was cutting the hand off my main character; it was only going to take one sideways look from Susan Hirschman and my nerve would have failed. I had to know that she had seen exactly what I had in mind before she said, "No, you can't do that." I didn't want to be left thinking, "Well, she didn't really understand how well it would've turned out when I cut off his hand." I knew I had to show her exactly what I wanted to do before she had any idea it was coming.

When Barbara Barstow asked me for another book, I started to think about exactly what would happen in Gen's future, and I quickly realized that I could produce a whole series of books with him getting into trouble and triumphing, and getting into trouble and triumphing, and getting into trouble and triumphing, and that would ultimately be very unsatisfying for me and for readers. The next significant thing in Gen's story was him getting into trouble and not getting out of it. The interesting thing is what happens when he gets caught. So I had to think for awhile about what would happen that wouldn't be fatal, and wouldn't be "Gen gets out of it again." Losing his hand is a compromise position. It didn't come out of nowhere. Probably the biggest influence on that story is The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, about a boy who has his whole life planned, and in a catastrophic moment of heroism he shatters his femur and cannot be a soldier anymore. What do you do with the whole rest of your life when your plans have been changed?


Behind the Scenes with Editor Virginia Duncan

When Virginia Duncan first read The Thief, she "hurled the book across the room in complete and utter disgust." She felt “tricked, cheated, fleeced” by the author and her thief. Duncan had just been hired by Susan Hirschman, founder of Greenwillow Books and editor of The Thief, and her assignment was to read her way through a box of books during the six-week vacation leading up to her start date. Luckily, Megan Whalen Turner's manuscripts no longer elicit that response. The day the manuscript for The Queen of Attolia arrived, she and Hirschman and Phyllis Larkin, Turner's copy editor on the first three books, all read it that day. "I remember being awestruck and I remember falling in total love with it, Gen and Megan," Duncan said. "And of course, I had to re-read The Thief."

The third book, The King of Attolia, inspired what Duncan called "the best thing that ever happened to me as an editor." Shortly before Hirschman's retirement, she and Duncan and Turner were together at a conference in California, sharing lunch outside on a beautiful day. They'd been waiting for the King of Attolia manuscript, but Turner didn't have it. She did, however, offer to "tell [them] the manuscript." Duncan said they sat for hours as Turner told them the entire novel, almost paragraph by paragraph. "If she hadn't worked something out--this is one of my favorite things about her--there would be a parenthetical statement like 'very funny scene here about Gen eating dinner,' " Duncan recalled. When, months later, Duncan received the manuscript (Hirschman had retired by then), she said, "I could hear [Megan's] voice in my head--it was almost verbatim." Duncan, now v-p and publisher of Greenwillow, publishes other series, including Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci books, but, she said, what makes Turner unique is the way each book in the series is told in such a different way. "I can't wait to see what she'll do with the next two books. Hurry up, Megan!" she added.

Book Brahmin: Megan Whalen Turner

On your nightstand now:

We're all sleeping on inflatable beds these days, while spending a sabbatical in San Diego. So what I have is a messy stack of stuff next to my head that spreads across the floor. I suppose that means I have a really big nightstand as I can always add more piles, but they are subject to raiding by family members and there's no knowing what's in them.

What's been stacked by the bed lately:

Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron; Ballad and Lament by Maggie Stiefvater; The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge (judging for School Library Journal's Battle of the Books); Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman (also for SLJ's Battle of the Books); Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset; The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker; Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson; and The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye by Nancy Springer and The Returning by Christine Hinwood (both ARCs).

I haven't started the Stiefvater yet. The Hinwood is an electronic ARC on my iPod Touch, which means it's probably safe as my raiders aren't interested in electronic books (yet). I went to check--both Cryptonomicon and Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet have disappeared.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis. I remember being disappointed by Caspian at first. I wanted more of Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy, but I came around quickly.

Your top five authors:

Joan Aiken, Diana Wynne Jones, Rosemary Sutcliff, Peter Dickinson and Dorothy Dunnett

Book you've faked reading:

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. I was supposed to read it for Betsy Hearne while I was at the University of Chicago. I think that both Roger Sutton and Deborah Stevenson were in the class on YA literature, so it was easy to skate through the discussion by nodding my head in agreement whenever they said anything.

Book you are an evangelist for:

The Sunbird by Elizabeth E. Wein. Wein writes historical fiction with a sense of adventure and I love The Sunbird. It reminds me of Sutcliff in its range--from the historical Arthur in Britain to the Aksumite Empire in Africa during the fifth century AD. It's the story of a young prince named Telemakos risking life and limb to gather information for his emperor.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I can't think that I have ever bought a book solely for the cover, but I guess I came closest with Pompeii: The Day a City Died by Robert Etienne. It is one of the Abrams Discoveries Series and the sort of arty book you find in the shop at the Met (where I bought it). The cover is beautiful, but it was the heft of the book that made up my mind. A neat trim size and heavy paper made it surprisingly dense, and I think that's really why I wanted it.

Book that changed your life:

It's a toss-up between Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones, which a friend gave me when I was 16 (he thought he was loaning it to me, but I never gave it back) and The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, which I read as a freshman in college. Without Diana, I might not have been published. Without Thucydides, I don't know what I'd be writing.

Favorite line from a book:

From Notes for Echo Lake by the poet Michael Palmer: "There is a certain distance." It may not seem like much, but it has an amazing effect as the last line of the poem "Notes for Echo Lake #8." It gets me every time I read it.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston. I was in college, working part-time as a nanny and I picked the book off the shelf while the baby was asleep, mostly because of the cover art, now that I think of it. I'll always be glad that I read it on my own, and not as an assignment. Reading it for class would have kept me at a distance from the story and I wouldn't have had the same experience at all.

Illustration by Deven Graves

Book Review

Review: A Conspiracy of Kings

A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner (Greenwillow Books, $16.99 Hardcover, 9780061870934, April 2010)

It's quite possible that one could enter the world that Megan Whalen Turner first created in The Thief (a 1997 Newbery Honor book) via A Conspiracy of Kings and still have a wholly satisfying experience. The author's finely honed gifts for character development, circuitous routes (both geographically and plotwise), dialogue and narrative voice (plus her sense of pacing and humor) make this book a page-turning experience in its own right. But to start there would be to miss the benefit of cumulative jokes and the building of layers of relationships among the characters in the kingdoms of Attolia, Eddis and Sounis (with interlopers from outlying Mede and elsewhere). Why not steal a few hours and start with The Thief?

This is the story of Sophos, first met in The Thief as heir to the king of Sounis, and apprenticed to the king's magus, or scholar. The prologue places two shabbily dressed men in the country of Attolia among a crowd of spectators who await a procession of their king and queen. The older man hands the younger man a tube. The younger man shoots a pea through the tube and hits the king of Attolia squarely on the cheek. And that is how Sophos, now king of Sounis, and his magus land in a prison cell but also gain an audience with the king of Attolia, whom they first knew as Gen (short for Eugenides), the Thief of Eddis. The first 12 chapters, narrated by Sophos, describe how he came to be in Attolia, shabbily dressed with a scarred lip and broken nose. As the action continues from there, the narrative shifts to third-person, back to Sophos's narration, and once again to third-person--each switch remarkably unobtrusive to the flow of the story and essential to the tale's revelations. With the barons of Sounis looking out only for their self-interests, the country is in peril and ripe for possession by Mede or Melenze--countries looking for a strategic stronghold near Attolia and Eddis. Sophos needs Attolia as an ally, but after making his case to the king and queen, he thinks, "It was impossible to know whose influence would prevail and if Gen would grow more like his wife, or his wife more like her king." Learning whom he can trust, both in the royal courts and also among his own countrymen, forms the crux of Sophos's journey—which comes to a gratifying close.

Those who started with Eugenides in The Thief, where he joins with Sophos and the magus to attempt their mission, will see that Turner lays much of the groundwork for the books to follow. She explains the topography and geography of the area and how they influence the politics (one of the magus's history lessons to Gen about the Medes foreshadows the events of Conspiracy), depicts the shifting dynamics of the group, and establishes their personalities. Readers will recall that Teleus, who sees the two Sounis prisoners to their cell, also escorted the captured thief in The Queen of Attolia to his. Sophos's dreams of a woman in white peplos here echo Gen's in The Thief. Whatever the reader's entry point, these books will appeal to a wide audience--boys who like battle strategies; girls who like a hint of romance; those who like strong characters and action-packed scenes; lovers of the mot juste. There is something enjoyable here for everyone.

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