Of all the many books that have stuck with me since childhood, none have influenced my actual writer’s voice as much as The Thief. After the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and arguably J.K. Rowling, Megan Whalen Turner’s little book-turned-series has been the biggest player in my writing life.
Like The Hobbit, I used to reread The Thief almost every year, right up until I went to college. I read the sequels, too, but since they came later, I never developed the same kind of religious devotion to them. The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings and whatever else Turner’s got up her sleeve are undeniably better books, with more fluid prose and better character development, but The Thief has always been number one in my heart.
But over the last few years, I’ve felt myself undergo a transition in my preferred reading material. Plot holes and tropes I used to gloss over or miss entirely now stand out glaringly to me, and books I once adored now seem paltry in some cases and downright offensive in others. For this reason, I think, I was afraid to reread The Thief. I loved the protagonist Eugenides and his witty narration so much I worried about going back and finding out my adulation was just a product of naiveté and too much fangirling. Until this week, I hadn’t touched the book in the last eight years or so.
But, despite my avoidance, as I plotted and wrote Woodwalker, it became undeniably clear what a tremendous impact Megan Whalen Turner has had on my writing and on my concept of a captivating story and a clever protagonist. Turner’s unreliable first-person narrator was my first experience with such a character, and I relished going back and rereading her first book over and over again, picking up on all of Gen’s hints and slips. My copy of the book is riddled with little handwritten “ha!”s and “that’s what YOU think!”s anytime this twist is particularly clear.
Partway through my first draft of Woodwalker, I realized with trepidation that there were so many unintentional similarities, I was afraid someone would immediately slam me for copyright infringement. This was coming at the tail-end of grad school, where it was imperative to only write work that was entirely my own, and to maniacally cite any work that had even a whisper of another author. It scared me so much I actually stopped writing Woodwalker for a while, but I was too nervous to pick The Thief back up. I was afraid that if I read it again, it would confirm all my suspicions, and I’d have no choice but to throw my now-beloved manuscript out on the street.
Fortunately, this break in writing forced me to read more. I started a “YA Reconnaissance” bookshelf on Goodreads and began to work my way through many of that year’s top Young Adult fantasies. And you know what? I came to the delightful, liberating realization that nothing I write is original. Everything in Woodwalker has been done before, from the plot to the setting to the characters’ names and personalities. I can’t even describe how refreshing this was. I wasn’t going to get charged with plagiarism and kicked out of grad school for having the same story arc as another book. I have the same story arc as a thousand other books (likely more). Freed from this burden, I picked my manuscript back up and forged ahead, buoyed by my new discernment between imitation and inspiration.
Now, with Woodwalker on the verge of publication and its sequel in its final rounds of editing, I felt it was time to revisit Eugenides and face my fears that I’ve grown into a cranky and cynical literary snob. And I came away relieved. Yes, I pick up on more inconsistencies. The plot twist has become rather obvious, and there are several awkward turns of phrase. Characters say and do things that conflict with their personalities. I grate on the ingrained gender segregation that I didn’t care about before. Fully two-thirds of the book is taken up by eventless travel, something I just griped about in my latest Goodreads review on Rachel Hartman’s novel Shadow Scale.
But Gen still has a hold on my heart. I still laugh at his wit; I still admire his skills. I love his expert concealment of his true motivation and his willingness to sacrifice himself for his companions and his queen. I love Helen, my earliest heroine who is blatantly described as ugly. I love Pol’s perceptiveness and Sophos’ awkwardness. I love the Grecian setting and political intrigue. Call it stubbornness or retrograde admiration—I’m just happy that, after shaking my cane at dozens of YA novels and shouting at them to get off my lawn, I haven’t totally transformed into a ruined old crone.
Thanks, Megan Whalen Turner, for this enduring piece of my childhood, and for laying such a solid foundation for my own writing.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator