I first heard about Elizabeth Wein from Sounis. I was thrilled when I discovered that her books are locally available, read The Sunbird and labeled Telemakos, the main character, as Gen-in-Africa. Elizabeth Wein is an under-the-radar author who deserves to get more attention. Seriously, I don’t understand why readers aren’t picking up her books, even Megan Whalen Turner herself recommends them. Code Name Verity, her latest novel about two Women’s Auxiliary Air Force girls set during World War II, has already been released in the UK and will be released in the US this May. Check out what Elizabeth Wein has to say about the similarities and differences between Telemakos and Eugenides.
Looking Together in the Same Direction
(fairly spoiler free except for the great big obvious ones!)
I first heard of The Thief through a review—a very good one—in The Horn Book Magazine. Since I moved to the UK, The Horn Book has been my number one source of new good reading in the North American children’s book scene, and the summary of The Thief pushed all my buttons. I knew I’d like it.
And I did. What I really loved about it was the way that after you’d finished, you had to go back and read it a second time because now you had a different point of view about everything—you saw how Gen had planned all the things you thought had happened by accident—you noticed how important the little things were, and you watched for them. His bad manners were no longer simply annoying or funny, his long hair was no longer simply a vanity; now you knew it was all part of his arsenal.
This is really my favourite kind of book, where everything looks different on the second reading (most of my own books are constructed this way, in the hope that someone will be tempted to give them a second reading!). You can read a book like this more than once without even feeling self-indulgent, because you are reading a different book the second time around. One of the moments of great genius of The Queen of Attolia is near the beginning, where Moira, the servant of the goddess Hephestia, visits the Queen and advises her. The first time you read it, you don’t realize it is not a human advisor. Yet knowing it is Moira changes the entire significance of the terrible thing that is about to happen to Gen. It isn’t just his destiny: it is the right destiny for him, whether he likes it or not.
My admiration for Megan Whalen Turner’s books stems from my own personal preferences in plot structure and setting, and our books have often been compared—Chachic herself promotes my books to MWT fans by trying to package them as ‘Gen-in-Africa’. It’s true that my character Telemakos shares some of Gen’s characteristics—he is a tricky, highly-connected brat raised in a messed-up but loving aristocratic family with royal connections. Telemakos, like Gen, is rather more highly-connected than most people realize. And both characters inhabit a rather exotic fantasy world based on our own ancient civilizations. Having said that, Telemakos is Telemakos and Gen is Gen. Their situations are alike, but I don’t think their characters are much alike. Telemakos lacks Gen’s vanity, for one thing, and probably Gen’s ambition as well. He has his own set of flaws and strengths.
I wrote The Sunbird about 5 years after reading The Thief, and I was very conscious that the two books had similar premises and that readers might be likely to compare them (in The Sunbird, 11-year-old Telemakos is enlisted as a child spy). So I made sure that whatever other sneaky things he did, Telemakos would not be a thief. He even says so, rather coldly, at one point when his emperor suggests he consider sleight-of-hand as a means of proof. This all falls apart at the end of The Empty Kingdom when he does steal something rather important. But there is a cultural precedent which I did not make up that leads him to this action, and a whole lot of backstory set up to make it the obvious thing for him to do. When he comes face to face with the king he has cheated—not the same one as in The Sunbird—he gets instantly accused, ‘You told me once that you are not a thief!’
Megan Whalen Turner was one of the first readers for The Sunbird—Sharyn November, my editor, is a friend of MWT’s and sent her a copy of the manuscript. She made a few small editorial suggestions and I decided against following them because they seemed to me things that were characteristic of Megan Whalen Turner’s writing, but not of Elizabeth Wein’s. So we maintained a cordial but very distant relationship, all our communication brokered by a third party! She was busy with her writing and her young family, and I was busy with mine.
(spoiler warning for The Queen of Attolia and The Lion Hunter)
Halfway through writing The Lion Hunter, I read The Horn Book review of The Queen of Attolia. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Megan Whalen Turner had a new book out, a sequel to The Thief, and in it her hero got his hand cut off.
I’d just spent about six months adjusting to the fact that my own young hero Telemakos had just lost an arm.
It made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It was such a ridiculous coincidence, that we’d both disable our heroes in the same way. (end of spoilers) And of course, since MWT had done it first, it was going to look like I got the idea from her. And also of course, I knew I was going to love this book, too. It took me a while to decide whether or not I’d read it right away—I didn’t want to be influenced by it. But after only a week or two I knew I wouldn’t be able to wait till I’d finished writing my own book before I read the new one by MWT.
So I did. And I was glad I did. Because I knew now that our superficially similar heroes were going in their own directions, following their own terrible destinies, and living their own action-packed and exhausting lives.
I confess that I haven’t read A Conspiracy of Kings, and the reason for that is exactly the same reason I dithered over picking up The Queen of Attolia. I am worried that once again our creative intrigue is going to overlap. Lleu, the legitimate heir to my own quasi-historical kingdom, has been installed as a slave in a hedge-lord’s court since the publication of a short story called ‘Fire’ in 1993 in Writers of the Future Vol. IX. The story of how Telemakos finds him and restores him to his kingdom… Well, I have no doubt it won’t resemble the search for Sophos. But I’d just as soon keep myself in blissful ignorance until my own manuscript is safely in the hands of a reliable editor.
Megan Whalen Turner is my hero and my advocate. She has championed my own books, in print and on line, without ever having met me or spoken to me; our body of written work runs nearly parallel in terms of output. Apparently we both procrastinate with knitting needles. It’s a pleasure to join this celebration of her exquisitely crafted novels!
I’ll finish off with a reading recommendation that I haven’t seen here yet, and which anyone who is a committed fan of MWT ought to consider must-reads: the books of Mary Renault. Specifically, to begin with, I’d recommend The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, which are about the Greek hero Theseus, his defeat of the Minotaur and his doomed marriage to Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons (or King, as her courtiers call her). Seriously, you guys WILL LOVE these books. The King Must Die in particular is a gripping tale of not-quite-doomed youth fighting against a corrupt older generation and winning. The writing is beautiful and if Telemakos is Gen-in-Africa, then Theseus is, well, Gen-in-Ancient-Greece.
Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy—about the life of Alexander the Great—would probably also appeal. These titles are Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games. Fire from Heaven, about Alexander’s childhood, is probably my favourite. It has the bonus appeal of featuring Hephaestion, Alexander’s lifelong friend and soulmate.
Thank you for the guest post and the recommendations, EWein! I am mighty curious about this Gen-in-Ancient-Greece character that you speak of. I suspect several Sounisians have already read Elizabeth Wein’s novels. If you haven’t picked them up, what are you waiting for? Are there any other characters out there that remind you of our favorite Thief? I know Tiegirl from Sounis calls Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan as Gen-in-Space.