In the middle of The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner crafted an intense, high-action page-turner of a scene. But there’s no fight, no adversaries, and no great stand-off. Just a single character, Gen, our protagonist and thief, in a cave. Why does it work?
Pacing, sensory details, verbs and sentence structure build and release tension. Detailed, creative setting that serves as the antagonist gives us a force to root against, and the emotional conflicts between the characters that precede the scene give us a backdrop against which to know there will be more story yet to come. Like the gem they’ve been sent to steal, this scene is a centerpiece.
The first half of the book is travel, building up stories, mythology, and a reasonably deep understanding of the characters. We know they are traveling to steal Hamiathes’s Gift, hidden for 500 years deep in a neighboring country’s territory, and the magus has taken Gen out of prison for this purpose.
When they arrive at the hidden temple, the Magus returns to Gen the “tools of his trade” and Pol, the bodyguard, supplies a lamp. Before Gen steps into the pool of water, he asks:
“Do you know if anyone has tried this before?”
“I believe that several attempts have been made,” [the magus] said.
“No one came back.”
“No one who has been inside has returned; no member of any party where someone went inside has returned either. I don’t know how it might happen, but if you fail, we are all lost together.” He smiled and waved one hand in a vague benediction.” (156)
Until now, we’ve only known Gen will attempt to steal a mythological stone. This exchange establishes the stakes. What follows are two and a half pages of sensory description of Gen’s entry into the temple. It begins: “I ran my hand up and down the smooth granite of a pillar. There were gentle undulations where the stone had once been fluted.” (156) We feel the structure with him, as we sense the passage of hundreds of years.
He slides his hand into the slots of the door and they are “wider than my hand, even at its narrow end.” (157) We feel the weight of water behind the doors as he pushes them open and water rushes out. When Gen is almost caught in a tunnel between two smooth doors, he leaps to grasp at an opening and we feel his fingers crushed in the gap. (160) He’s nearly trapped and escapes, making us wonder what other traps he will encounter.
Without light, we feel the floor beneath his feet, he stubs his toe, he lights a match and it burns down, leaving him to explore the walls of the interior maze with his fingers. There are bones in a deep pool of water, and Gen trails his fingers in the water and shudders at the cold (165). Finally, he observes a special kind of glass in the tunnel walls, and sees them “perfectly black and at the same time filled with the different colors of my lamplight. They were so much like windows into the stone walls that I laid my hand against the glass to block refractions and I tried to look through them, as if I could see into the walls beyond.” (165) This elaborate description , in the middle of dark tunnels and simpler scenery is notable.
Later, when Gen returns to realize that the obsidian with Hephestial glass actually is the doorway to the Gods, we will read an echo of this scene, but she won’t need to describe the room since it’s now firmly in mind.
Gen is standing before the rock when the river begins flowing again.
“I was standing there before it [the obsidian] when the panic came. The walls pressed in, and the water seeped through them. The flame in my lamp sputtered, and I remembered the passage of time. Pol had said there was six hours of oil…but I had wandered for a long time by matchlight…but some of the oil had spilled from the lamp when I dropped it. How much time did I have? How much oil? I sloshed the lamp from side to side as my feet began moving of their own volition toward the door of the maze.” (166)
Here, Turner ratchets up the pace again, the shorter sentences and questions punctuating the paragraph with worry. Gen says he won’t be careless but the panic grows stronger. He spills his tools. His hands shake. He steps in a fresh puddle. He pants with hast; the door he propped open has swung shut. “Frantically” he works the lock and the door leaps open (167). At the end, “With the strength that comes from terror, I pulled the door open, against the force of the water, then the water and I both rushed out over the threshold. The door slammed behind me with force enough to break bones.” (167)
The choice of verbs, the increasingly longer sentences, the physical motions of the water, sloshing, pooling, backing up, rushing out, match the thief’s motions, swung, pushed, dropped, waded, pulled, rushed, building up to this final sentence, tumbling everything out the door and onto the page where we land with Gen who realizes he had more time. “I could hardly have drowned in six inches of water.” (167)
We have been worried; we are relieved.
Megan Whalen Turner captures the imagination of the reader with the creative, detailed setting. She shows us the scope of Gen’s skills, which have been hinted at until now, but not fully revealed.
He has tools, a mission, and an antagonist: the setting.
For the first half of the book, we know Gen is a thief and held in low esteem by the others in his group. The traveling party’s conflicts are important, but the temple is the first antagonist against whom Gen’s character is brightly revealed.
Setting can be a cradle for a story, shaping and directing its arc, or it can be more. In The Thief, the setting is initially a low-level antagonist, presenting obstacles to the travelers such as open, barren lands, inhospitable mountains, and a sea of olive trees filling the vast country between them and their goal. In the temple, the setting condenses into a challenge. Each part of the cave is felt by the reader, unique, surprising, and potentially deadly.
Although each element – pacing, word choice, setting – is masterfully handled, it’s the combined effect when strategically placed in the center of the book that builds from the scenes of the first half, that makes the fourteen pages a compelling journey. We know Gen. We wonder what he’s capable of, and Megan Whalen Turner carries us through a roller coaster of emotions. We are excited, curious, fearful, wonder-struck, terrified, and then relieved. Were she to omit a layer, the scene would flatten and we’d skim. Instead, we read each sentence, not breathing, searching for the earned end of the chapter.
Then we turn the page.
Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1996.