This particular book won Newbery Honors back in 1996, I believe, but I almost didn’t stick with it long enough to find out why. The story is, in essence, a quest. One that starts out slowly, with not much going on except characterization. Which is excellent. I just wasn’t sure where it all was going and considered ditching. I’m glad I didn’t.
Our hero, Gen, is a common pickpocket without enough brains to keep his skills a secret. His bragging landed him in jail, where we first encounter him. But lucky for Gen, the king of Sounis finds himself in need of a thief.
So Gen, the king’s magus, a soldier, and two other boys set off on a journey. And not much happens as they sneak over the mountains and into the neighboring country of Attolia. But don’t stop reading! And pay attention as you go. Because everything becomes crucially important a few chapters later. As the characters interact, you’ll be treated to some history between the countries, the backgrounds of all three boys, and a good deal about the gods of this made-up country. Believe me, you want to keep going.
Let me sidetrack a moment to describe the setting. It feels like it could be a real time and place in history, but I spent the entire story trying to figure it out. The names were very Greek, the mountainous terrain and abundant olive trees could be anywhere near the Mediterranean. The pantheon of gods sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place them (although ancient Greek and Roman mythology is not my strong point). Several actual names from history appear (like Archimedes). And finally, the whole thing has a medieval feel, but guns are referenced. I was quite confused. Finally, in the note at the end of the book, the author set my mind at rest. The setting is strongly influenced by her love of all things Greek, but it’s all made up. No wonder I couldn’t place it!
Anyway, we soon find out our hero has been requisitioned to steal a stone of immortality that has been influential in the line of succession for another neighboring country of Eddis. If the king shows up with their stone, the queen of Eddis must marry him. The problem? The stone has been missing for 500 years. The magus is certain it’s been hidden in an ancient temple in Attolia, but when they are betrayed, the Queen of Attolia isn’t keen on letting them go free.
This turned out to be a great read, but I don’t want to give anything away. Let’s just say I haven’t been surprised by a twist like this for a long time. Now I almost want to read through it again and find all the clues that were planted so cleverly throughout the story—all the way back to page one. You know, maybe I will!
I do want to register one complaint. The use of the word godsdamn is clever, considering the pantheon of gods, but it’s also too abundant, and it actually detracts from the setting. It felt too modern to even fit this story. Other than that, the book is entirely kid-friendly. I’d give this one a 10+ rating.