Conspiracy Revisited Again
Plot is the arrangement of the events in the story, and here Turner has again given us her signature twists and turns with lots of tension and suspense. The book has some great adrenaline moments–the abduction of Sophos, escaping from the traitorous baron Hanaktos, solidifying power at Elisa, Attolian troops arriving at the eleventh hour–but these are tempered with quieter, reflective moments–his two periods of captivity and his elaborate diplomatic dances in Attolia. The reader gradually and patiently comes to appreciate the complex, intricate plot of A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS; it clearly lays claim to being the most distinguished plot. I do admire the constant flashbacks in KEEPER (a very different kind of book), but the pacing of that one drags just a wee bit for me; it’s a close second. None of the other commonly mentioned contenders really stand out to me in terms of plot.
Is there a character in children’s literature this year that undergoes a more dramatic transformation than Sophos? No, there is not. His character development, as he changes from a reluctant, bookish heir into a ruthless, but principled king is definitely most distinguished. Additionally, the characterization (i.e. how well characters think and act and feel in a genuine manner) of Sophos, in particular, and a dozen secondary characters, in general, is also handled extremely well. Turner is able to communicate so much with so little. Explaining that Eugenides wisely left Attolia in charge of the daily operation of the government, Eddis says, “He hasn’t the temperament. He gets angry too often, while she only ever gets angry at him.” You’ll remember from yesterday that the outside world questions the romantic connection between the king and queen of Attolia, but these little details reveal the truth of the matter to Sophos, while providing a wonderful snapshot of their individual characters. The book has many such telling details. To me, the characters in this book are most distinguished, but I’ll admit that there are many books this year with distinguished characters and there are probably half a dozen other books that you could make a convincing argument for.
I’m teaching world history this year and one thing we emphasize to our students is that when we’re studying an empire whether it’s Islam, West Africa, China, Japan, or Rome (this semester, for example) the things you need to learn about each civilization are the culture, economy, geography, politics, religion, and society. If you can learn those six things, then you can be very successful in class. The world-building in A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS is distinguished because it incorporates all of these elements, providing a three-dimensional effect. There are many books this year with a distinguished setting, and some few of them may be at this level (KEEPER, perhaps FORGE, some other fantasy books), but none of them are better.
Yesterday, we talked about some fleeting literary allusions to previous books, and Martha mentioned she found them confusing. I would argue that there are lots of things in this book that have the potential to confuse, and that the literary allusions are probably the least of them. Take the names, for example, the task of keeping everbody straight (i.e. Eugenides=Gen=Attolis=Thief of Eddis=the king of Attolia).
Or take the numerous conversations that we join without any contextual information. In the following conversation (p. 285-286), Sophos is talking to his body servant from his second period of captivity. The man is obviously remorseful for his traitorous behavior. His question–Will you keep me locked up forever?–is answered, but never explicitly asked. It requires the reader to infer what the two men are discussing.
“Please,” he said with obvious reluctance. “I hadn’t meant to ask, but is it . . . forever?” His tears made streaks through the dirt on his face.
I said, “No. It isn’t forever, but it’s going to be some time.
“When I have other things dealt with, I will deal with you,” I promised him.
Eugenides has paused in conversation with his cousin Eddis (p. 307) before Sophos quietly, but unbeknownst to Gen, steps in to continue it, but we are not sure of this at the moment we are dropped into the conversation.
“Have you convinced him?” he asked.
“Gen,” said Sounis.
In this moment we are aware that Eugenides appears to be expecting somebody else, and based on what has transpired recently in the novel, the careful reader can infer that he is asking Eddis whether she has convinced Sophos to marry her. But, again, Turner gives you the tip and makes you find the damn iceberg yourself. She is the queen of subtext. Harold Pinter won a Nobel Prize for it. Is it too much to ask for a Newbery Medal?
Here’s a final example from page 6.
I should have been glad that it might mean peace among our three countries, but my pleasure was more selfish. My uncle had given up his pursuit of Eddis. He would marry someone else and might soon produce an heir. My mother warned me not to put faith in rumors, but I was quite filled with hope.”
The reader initially thinks that his selfish pleasure is that with the emergence of an heir Sophos will be free to pursue his intellectual hobbies. It’s only on the second reading that it becomes clear that, while, yes, that may be true, the thing of far greater significance here is that he had given up pursuit of Eddis, his own love interest. Multiple readings of this book continue to yield a rich appreciation of the text. Turner demands that her audience works hard to understand the story, a risky move that pays big dividends.
And humor and wit and wisdom–these are all here in spades. So, in spite of the fact that I’m not crazy about first person, I find the prose style of the writing to be distinguished. What could be better? Maybe KEEPER.
I already mentioned the coming of age theme earlier, but since there are some pretty high profile books with war themes this year (MOCKINGJAY, MONSTERS OF MEN, THE WAR TO END ALL WARS, THINGS A BROTHER KNOWS), I want to mention how much I appreciate this understated, but no less powerful treatment. Consider these few snippets.
On page 131, Eugenides rudely awakens Sophos to the political reality that complicates their friendship.
“The simplest way to end a war is to admit you have lost it.”
On page 256, Sophos reluctantly embraces violence as a means to prevent further violence.
With my right hand, I reached to the other pocket. I had known as soon as I lifted the false bottom in the gun case and looked underneath what it meant. I had tried without ceasing to find some alternative to Attolia’s ruthless advice and I had failed. Gen’s gift told me that I had not failed for lack of trying. I’d lifted out the matching gun and read its archaic inscription. Realisa onum. Not “The queen made me,” but “I can make the king.”
And finally on page 293.
“Sophos,” said Eddis sadly. “I sent my Thief to Attolia, and when she maimed him, and knowing the risk, I sent him back. I have started a war of my own, sent my cousins to die, taken food from the mouths of widows and children to feed my army.” She took his hand. “We are not philosphers; we are sovereigns. The rules that govern our behavior are not the rules for other men, and our honor, I think, is a different thing entirely, difficult for anyone but the historians and the gods to judge.”
So the themes too are rich and powerful and distinguished, perhaps even most distinguished.
I really believe that if the Newbery committee can get past the baggage outlined in the previous post and examine the literary elements and the Newbery criteria then they can clearly see that this is one a small handful of books that qualifies as being the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. I do not think consensus will be easy to build around this title, and thus I’m somewhat pessimistic about its chances, but I remain firm in my belief that this deserves a sticker on its cover come January.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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