Reposting my review from April 2006, which can be found here with comments. It’s a bit spoilerish in the end and there’s a mark where the spoilers start.
When my copy arrived from the library, I was a little dismayed at first, because the size and cover seemed a little juvenile. Yes, I read YA fiction, but I was worried that this might be a little bit too elementary for an adult. But no, I worried needlessly.
“I can steal anything.”
Because of his bragging – and his great skill – Gen lands in the King’s prison, shackled to the wall of his cell. After months of isolation, he is released by none other than the King’s scholar, the Magus, who believes he knows the site of an ancient treasure. The thief he needs for the long, dangerous journey is Gen. To the Magus, Gen is just a tool. But Gen has some ideas of his own.
The book opens in a prison in Sounis, where Gen has been incarcerated for winning a bet. It is not clear exactly how long he has been jailed, though. The reader learns later that he bet one of the magus’s agents that he could steal the seal of the king of Sounis. When he made good on the bet, he was tried and imprisoned. The magus offers Gen his freedom if in turn Gen will steal something for him. Exactly what he must steal is not revealed until later in the book, to both the reader and to Gen. Agreeing to the bargain, Gen sets of with the magus, a soldier (Pol), and two apprentices to the magus whom he dubs Useless the Elder (Ambiades) and Useless the Younger (Sophos).
The party travels through Sounis, then edges through Eddis, a neighboring country, into Attolia. As they travel, the magus continues to give lessons to his two apprentices; his lessons include tales of the Old Gods and how the rulers of Eddis, a neighboring kingdom, came to be chosen. They were chosen by Hiamathes Gift, a stone given by the goddess Hephestia to the man who saved her brother Eugenides, god of thieves, from the great fire that scorched the land. But the Gift isn’t just inherited or passed from king to king, it must be stolen from a secret place and given to the rightful ruler. The present queen of Eddis does not have possession of the stone; whoever has possession would have claim to the throne. Why is this important? Because the magus has located the hiding place of the Gift; using it, his king will be able to persuade the queen of Eddis to marry him. Why does the magus need Gen? Because all the others who attempted to find the Gift went on their own and never returned; the magus believes that a true thief must be the one to take the Gift from its hidden place and that all others will fail. Thus, Gen is another tool for the magus.
The interactions of the characters are fascinating, in part because it seems that everyone except Gen is hiding something. Why is the magus so desperate for his king to marry Eddis? Beyond general territorial greed, the answer isn’t revealed until nearly the end of the book. Gen and the magus do not trust each other. The magus expects Gen to run away at first opportunity, while Gen says more than once that he expects a knife in the back or another similar end if he cannot serve the magus’s purpose. Pol, an excellent man at arms, seems a bit too talented to be on this trip – it’s a bit beneath his skills. Why is he there? Ambiades is training to become a court mage, but really does not want to do so; his family has position but no money, so he has no choice. Sophos, the son and heir of a duke, seems to have more mage-like skills, but is unlikely to become one because of his family’s position. But he isn’t really needed for this journey, either, so why is he accompanying the mage?
SORT OF VAGUE SPOILERS HERE:
Upon reaching the general location of the hiding place, Gen must go on alone. While searching the physical location, Gen also is spoken to by the Old Gods in his dreams. His “meeting” of them is fascinating, because he’s so clearly uneasy about it and the gifts that accompany it. After taking the stone, the adventure is still only half finished, because now they must make it safely back to Sounis. To say any more would be spoilers that verge on ruination of the story. On the trip, though, Gen and the reader learn that beyond territorial expansion, the mage wants Sounis to marry Eddis because a threat looms over both countries: the Medes. They have been occupied fighting other wars, but soon the time will come when they turn their attention to Attolia, Eddis and Sounis, and the three countries will have to be united in order to survive.
OKAY, END OF SPOILERISH STUFF
Gen’s world is very similar to ancient Greece, especially in terms of geography, history, and language. The mythology was not Greek, but it was still very interesting and fairly well developed, including the creation of the sun, moon and sky as companion to earth, the birth of man, etc. The point of view is limited third person, nearly always via Gen rather than the others of the group but for a couple of spots when very important things occur offstage and must be recounted. The author does a very good job of giving hints of things to come, while keeping Gen a bit mysterious. He seems to be a straight-forward thief, but is not; upon rereading, all of the hints fairly screamed at me, but during the first read through they were simply good details included in the storytelling.
My grade: A.