I found this book in part because of bookshelves of doom's review of the sequel. When I ordered The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, I didn't know that it had been honored with a Newbery. Which should indicate how good it is.
Plot: Gen (male) is a thief--a good one. A good one who stole the king's magus's seal ring. A good one who got caught and is languishing in jail. In walks in the magus with a plan: if Gen helps him steal an ancient artifact--a task that has led to the deaths of better men than him--then Gen can have his freedom back. The artifact is part of a tradition so important to the people it's tied to their mythology: a thief who steals the artifact and gives it to someone else will make the recipient the ruler of the land Eddis. The king wants the artifact so he can claim Eddis--and the hand of the current Queen of Eddis.
But that's just the beginning.
Writer's Review: So what can we, as writers, learn from The Thief?
1. World-building: Turner reveals in the author's note at the end that Ancient Greece is her rough inspiration for the world of The Thief, but it's a very loose adaptation. True, I thought of Greece in her world description--lots of olives and rocky soil were involved. And some of the gods reminded me of Greece (i.e. Mother Earth, Father Sky, Hephestia). But it was, really, a loose adaptation.
Turner truly created a whole new world for her characters. It's in depth. There are myths--perfectly done myths that sound as if they are thousands of years old and developed by word of mouth. There are landscapes so distinct that I could tell whether the characters were in Sounis, Eddis, or Attolia just by the descriptions of the land. People had distinct racial and cultural backgrounds. If you want to know what an entire new world looks like from the ground up, read this book.
2. Voice: This is another good example of a great first person point of view with a distinctive voice. The story's told from Gen's point of view, and he's got a very distinctive voice--a cynical, snarky voice that fits his character perfectly.
3. Plot Twist: You know O. Henry's awesome plot twists. Yeah, this was O. Henry worthy. If you wanna know the twist, highlight the text below. If you don't--and if you haven't read the book, don't ruin it for yourself--just know that this book had a twist that I didn't see coming a mile away. It was really good, very surprising...but so well done that by the end of the reveal, I was just smiling and saying, Well, of course.
The book starts with Gen in jail because he's stolen the magus's seal ring. 90% of the book, you think he's just this great thief who got caught once. Then, in the last two chapters, you find out that Gen himself--the narrator whose story is told in first person point of view--arranged to botch the original theft of the ring so he could end up in jail and be the thief selected for the journey because he was working for the Queen of Eddis. Wow. The guy who is telling the story totally dupes the readers.
And one last thing: This book was, according to Amazon, intended for ages 10-14 or grades 6+, depending on the review. So I guess, technically, upper MG. It's written brilliantly--no punches held in style, voice, or plot. I'm 26 and I didn't figure out the ending. This makes me feel much better about maybe having my book be upper MG...and is one more book to make me realize how skewed an idea I had of MG previously.