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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner, Greenwillow Books, 2017, $17.99, hc.

In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon Publications, 2017, $19.95, hc.

A Face Like Glass, by Frances Hardinge, Amulet Books, 2017, $19.95, hc.

 
MEGAN Whalen Turner has written several books in her series about Eugenides, the first of which is The Thief. When I read that book several years ago, I enjoyed it. I did not love it, but I was sick in bed at the time; just well enough to be both fretful and bored, but not nearly well enough to be productive. I had been given all of the novels in the series that had been published at the time, and started reading The Queen of Attolia. It picks up where the first book left off—but it was a more complex work in all ways, and I loved it. When I finished the third book, The King of Attolia, I immediately shut it and opened it again—at page one; it is one of my favorite novels, ever.

Since that day, Turner has written two more novels involving—directly or indirectly—Eugenides, the Queen's Thief.

There is a noise I make when I'm excited about a book that has been announced but has not yet been published. It is not particularly quiet, and it goes on, losing syllables as it gains excitement. All this to say, 2017 includes a new Megan Whalen Turner book: Thick as Thieves.

The book does not start in Attolia; nor is it written from the viewpoint of any of the characters with whom we're familiar. No, it starts with a minor character first introduced in the second novel: Kamet, a slave from the Mede Empire. The greatest threat to the sovereignty of Attolia is the Medes; the Mede Empire has expanded at an astonishing rate, absorbing small countries and civilizing them in the process, for a value of civilization which is not at all appealing to those who have been civilized.

Kamet is a slave. His master is a powerful man; he is nephew to the Emperor, and brother to the man the Emperor has chosen as his heir. Kamet has been educated; he can read multiple languages; he can handle the financial affairs of his master—both within the palace and beyond it, across his master's various estates and holdings. He has far more power than most free men, and he has plans: He is intended to be a gift to the man who will become Emperor. He is valued for his knowledge and his competence, and he is valuable.

A chance encounter with an Attolian gives him brief pause for concern; the Attolian offers him freedom. Kamet finds the prospect hilarious. "It was like being lectured by an earnest, oversized child."

He finds it vastly less hilarious moments later, when another of his master's slaves approaches him with news that their mutual master is dead. If there are advantages to being the slave of a rich, powerful man, there are disadvantages as well, the largest of which is that Kamet will die when his master does, if there is any evidence of foul play, and likely even if there isn't. What seemed a hilarious proposition shifts dramatically in light of this information, and Kamet does the unthinkable: He chooses to accept.

He knows that once word of his master's death becomes public, he is a dead man walking. But he reasons that perhaps the other slaves will not be tortured to death for a confession that will mean nothing if he runs away; the powers that be will assume that Kamet is the killer. He does not inform the guard of his master's death; he doesn't intend to go to Attolia with the guard. But he does intend to make use of him until they are far enough away from the capital that he can slip away unnoticed.

Thus begins Thick as Thieves.

The Attolian is a guard, competent with a sword, but otherwise alarmingly straightforward and, as Kamet noticed upon first meeting, earnest.

Readers who are not new to these books will guess almost immediately who he is, although his actual name is not used until much later into the book. Kamet and the Attolian must now travel through the Empire, on the roads and off, as they attempt to escape to Attolia.

In many ways the book is a travelogue; it reminds me most of the first book in structure. Kamet keeps the secret of his master's death from his companion.

His companion is confused when the elite Imperial guards begin hunting for Kamet; Kamet is not. But he's afraid that he'll be abandoned—in fury—if he lets the truth slip. And as they travel through a countryside made more and more dangerous by hunting parties, Kamet begins to understand that his companion is earnest but not stupid; that he is clever, but not cunning in the way of the politically powerful men Kamet has observed in close quarters all his life. Kamet's life is in the hands of a man who has faith in his King—the King of Attolia, a man universally despised for his frivolity and vanity.

The heart of this book is the friendship that grows between Kamet and his companion. There is the obvious culture shock; Kamet is very well educated, can speak the Attolian's native tongue better than the Attolian himself, and can certainly read and write it with far more grace; he understands politics, political games, people of power and places of power. He has lived for almost all of his life in exalted circles, and the time he spent in Attolia was jaw-grindingly frustrating to him.

The Attolian has never been a slave; he considers slaves to be people who are entirely in need of liberation—something that Kamet did not want.

They have the assumptions they've derived from their culture, their upbringing, and their experience—but they've never had the experience of each other before.

Attolia and its surrounding countries are not magical in any obvious way; the book is absent almost all fantasy elements. But when those elements come into play, however briefly, they have a weight and a momentary wonder that they would otherwise lack. In the world of Kamet, the gods are real. So, too, the people whom the gods watch over.

I highly recommend this series, and to those who stopped at the end of book one—who, like me, enjoyed it but did not love it—I urge you to keep reading.

 

*   *   *

 

Peter S. Beagle's beloved The Last Unicorn is the work for which the author is best known; if someone has only read one Beagle novel, it's almost certain to be that one.

There are also, as the cover suggests, unicorns in Beagle's latest, In Calabria. The book itself is short—a long novella, rather than a traditional novel—and the unicorns here are not the unicorns of Beagle's The Last Unicorn.

As was the case in Beagle's previous outing, Summerlong, the magic is quiet, as is the unicorn; no words are exchanged between the mythical creature and the man who finds her on his isolated farm in Italy. Claudio Bianchi is that man. He lives in silence with his animals—cows, cats, dogs, and a particularly cantankerous goat. He farms, following the consistent routines he knows well, and he dreams of nothing.

His weekly social contact is the mailman, a breezy young man who likes to tease Bianchi; Bianchi never looks pleased to see him, and Romano weathers his annoyance with ease and humor. Aside from Romano, he is alone. Alone with his words, his farm animals, and his privacy. He does not regret it. He is certain he does not regret it.

In the quiet of Bianchi's life, the pages come to life with his interior thoughts, the small dreams, the small gifts of words; Bianchi is a poet without an audience, a man to whom words come as they will. He writes to catch them, because in doing so, he might look at the thought and understand it, and therefore himself, better.

And into that stillness, on a typical day, treads the unicorn; he sees her, and he knows what she is. Impossible is not a word that comes to him; he almost doesn't try to disbelieve. There is magic in the world, and in its quietest corners. She vanishes the first time he sees her and attempts to approach her.

He wants to know why she's there and what she wants of him.

But even his curiosity is eclipsed by his desire for the quiet magic of her, of her presence; he lives alone, and she is the hush of held breath at the sight of something that cannot be truly captured in either cages or words. What can be captured is what she evokes in him, but even then, he struggles with it, as all writers must.

So much of the daily life of Bianchi is so well captured, so down to earth, that the longing for something that does not and cannot be part of it is rendered perfectly and quietly on the page.

Beagle's magic is not the magic of systems that make of magic something predictable and utilitarian. It is precisely because the quiet of the very ordinary, the very small, is captured so gently that the fantastic feels magical; it's in the contrast between what is known and what is not that Beagle approaches both the reader and the unicorn.

This is not the world of The Last Unicorn; there are no quests, no explicit communication, no magical companionship.

But this is nonetheless a quietly, gorgeously beautiful book.

 

*   *   *

 

I've never read Frances Hardinge before, so when A Face Like Glass crossed my desk, I decided to try. I had no real expectations going in, but several of my friends admire her work—which I've learned in the past doesn't mean I'll necessarily love it.

This time, I did.

The book opens with Grandible, a grand cheesemaster, who was once well-regarded and even sought after in the court of the Grand Steward. He became disillusioned with court life, and retreated to his well-fortified home, where he continued the pursuit of cheesemaking. Over time, the various court factions have come to accept that Grandible has no interest whatsoever in the Great Game; he will not takes sides, will not join political causes, and will not, in fact, have anything to do with anyone who has.

He therefore leads a solitary life. The only thing that is, at this late stage, a threat to his peace of mind are the rodents that sometimes sneak into his home to eat his cheese. A particularly clever rodent appears to be eluding his traps, but he finally catches the culprit in a vat of cheese; were it not for that, he would have spoiled cheese and a dead thief.

But the thief is not a rodent. The thief appears to be a child of perhaps five years—a child with a face so disturbing he forces her to wear a mask whenever they have visitors, which is almost never. He is in need of an apprentice, and she is in need of a home, so he keeps her, although she has no memories of any life before the theft of cheeses.

And so, she learns to make cheese, and because she has no name that she remembers, he names her Neverfell.

Fast forward seven years. Neverfell's energy is topped only by her incessant curiosity (her questions frequently come in series of six, with no pause between questions for something as simple as, oh, answers). She is young, she is earnest, and she is painfully aware that there is something wrong with her face.

In Caverna, the children do not have facial expressions, and if they are not taught them, they never develop any. Those who are rich have hundreds of facial expression to choose from, and they put them on and take them off with the ease of practice; each expression has political weight. The drudges, the working underclass, have three expressions, no more.

Grandible has a huge catalog of faces, but can't be bothered to use any of them; he has one expression that seems to suit all of his needs—and it's not a particularly friendly one, either. When the Grand Steward orders a new cheese for a banquet, however, someone from court visits him. She is a Facesmith, and she desires a small sample of this new cheese; she has a very powerful client, and she wishes to craft the perfect expression for him to wear after he tastes it.

And Neverfell realizes that the Facesmith might be her salvation; that the Facesmith might be able to teach her expressions that would make her face less terribly ugly—because she's certain that it must be, else why the mask? And so, against Grandible's express command, she speaks to the Facesmith, and something about the Facesmith's adopted expression pulls at her, compels her: it feels familiar.

And so Neverfell takes some of the samples to give to the Facesmith, to help her.

This sets in motion a chain of events. First: Grandible's anger as he explains exactly what this means for both of them: The Facesmith is a politician, and by pulling on a single strand of the political web, Neverfell has rattled the whole web, and the spiders will come.

This is, of course, metaphorical—but Neverfell is twelve years old, and impulsive, and her desperate desire to rectify her error drops her into the maelstrom of the Great Game.

It is a dark and unforgiving game for an earnest twelve-year-old who doesn't actually understand that every face in Caverna is a mask. Every face but her own.

This is a fantasy novel, but the magic is unusual: It is done through food—cheese and wines, among other things. Normal, non-magical food does exist, but the great houses are those which possess grandmasters, men such as Grandible, whose ability to craft cheeses that have magical properties guarantees good fortune. The magic can be both beneficial and deadly, as Neverfell eventually discovers—but Neverfell is the herald of change, whether she knows it or not.

 

At one o'clock, the ever-logical right-eye Grand Steward woke up to discover that during his sleep his left-eyed counterpart had executed three of his advisors for treason, ordered the creation of a new carp pool, and banned limericks.

 

This is a perfect example of much of the book's writing. There's a whimsy to Hardinge's words, a kind of playfulness, which is at odds with the action itself; it is unexpected enough that I frequently found myself laughing out loud, which is slightly embarrassing when in a crowded, public space.

The plot moves; the various elements that sound slightly ridiculous become far less ridiculous when seen up close. The court is not a place where affection is either desired or wise; it is tolerated by the powerful because it is just another useful tool—like facial expressions. Everyone at court seeks to gain advantage; every powerful house has, for instance, food tasters. Everyone is, of course, friendly, but no one has friends. It is a world where appearances matter and where the smallest of mistakes—dropping a fig at a court dinner—can be fatal for entire families.

Neverfell was not raised to play the Great Game; she doesn't see it clearly, and can't understand what she does see. She is so impulsive I almost found her frustrating. Almost. I imagine some readers will. But she is earnest, and honest, and she tries to be responsible; she is generous and brave, and she never once attempts to blame anyone else for the mistakes she has made, even when someone else is actually to blame.

It's an odd combination of a variety of things; I can't think of another book quite like it. But it works, and it is well worth your time. I am gleefully looking forward to reading the rest of Hardinge's backlist.

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