|A Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whalen Turner
Green Willow Books/HarperCollins
by Deborah Wiles
I should begin with the admission that this was never really a fair fight. When these books arrived in my mailbox, despite the old adage about how one should never do so, I confess that I judged them by their covers. One was clearly right up my alley. The other, not so much. But I swore to keep an open mind, and a blind eye to my predispositions, as I started to read.
Anybody who pays attention to such things can’t help but have heard wonderful things about both A Conspiracy of Kings and Countdown, so I was thrilled to have the occasion and purpose to dive right in.
Now I will tell you what happened when I did.
If this were a novel instead of an essay, I’d insert the surprise twist here. I’d tell you that the book I thought I’d favor turned out to engage me less than the one I thought I’d have a hard time settling into.
I’d give the win to the underdog.
But that isn’t what happened. What happened was precisely what I thought would happen when I first opened my mailbox. The most likely to succeed did indeed succeed.
Since you probably don’t anything about the kind of reader I am and what sorts of books I gravitate toward, I’ll end the suspense here and tell you that my vote goes to Countdown.
For one thing, I’m a sucker for the 1960’s, and Countdown not only tells of one young girl’s coming of age in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis but it tells, through an extensive collection of archival photographs and primary source material, the larger story of where we were as a nation in those dark and terrifying days. Deborah Wiles beautifully juxtaposes small private anxieties against larger communal ones. In a single day the heroine, Franny Chapman, fights with her best friend, throws up in the principal’s office and learns that an atomic bomb might see to it that she not live to morning– and it’s unclear which is the most devastating event. This, in a nutshell, is what it means to be a child.
I learned while reading Countdown what it must have felt like to teeter on the edge of adolescence while a national existential crisis threatened to eclipse the existential crisis one inevitably encounters at that precise moment.
I also learned that I definitely do not make my children do enough chores around the house.
Wiles transports young readers to the real world of 1960’s middle America, while the journey one takes reading Megan Whalen Turner’s A Conspiracy of Kings is to a world of the writer’s ingenious imagination that feels so real I’m embarrassed to admit I began to question my own knowledge of ancient history. I found myself dusting off the cobwebs, trying to remember if I’d ever studied Sounis, Eddis and Attolia in school.
As I mentioned, A Conspiracy of Kings isn’t generally the kind of book I reach for, but Turner abruptly whisked me out of my comfort zone, (not an easy feat, as I’m quite comfortable in my comfort zone), and for this I’m truly grateful, because I did so enjoy spending time with Sophos. I found him companionable and clever. Decent and thoughtful. If times were different, and I lived in a fantastical monarchy, I’d surely want him as my king.
A Conspiracy of Kings asks the big questions. The questions I want to grapple with as a reader. Questions about honor and duty and responsibility and friendship and loyalty.
But here is another way in which this was never really a fair fight: I haven’t read any of the other titles in Turner’s series. Though I have heard many reviewers posit that A Conspiracy of Kings can stand alone, I would argue that it does so on wobbly legs. While I have no doubt that everything one wishes for in an engrossing read is right here in these pages, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d arrived too late to the party. I didn’t even know that Sophos had been missing! For two whole books!
Look, I know what I’m up against. A Conspiracy of Kings has a vast and quite rabid fan base (I’m talking to you, Jonathan Hunt), and I have no doubt that there will be cries of outrage. A baying for my blood.
But what can I do? I am the reader I am.
And to me, there is just as much drama and adventure in a girl riding a rope swing over a pit of gravel despite her paralyzing fear because she wants to impress the brown eyed boy she loves, as there is in a newly minted king orchestrating the defeat of ten thousand Medes.
– Dana Reinhardt
And the Winner of this match is..
Outrage! Blood! I’ve probably nattered on about A Conspiracy of Kings too much on Heavy Medal so I’ll just say that Turner is absolutely brilliant and leave it at that. Dana’s choice of Countdown is only a mild surprise because I figured that (a) she might be a member of Team Young Adult and (b) she might respond to the themes of war which permeate her own fine novel, The Things a Brother Knows. Now Deborah Wiles is not my cup of tea—but I really found myself enjoying Countdown. I enjoyed being immersed in the 1960s through the documentary material, and I liked comparing it to the growing number of books set during the 1960s and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I look forward to the other books in this trilogy, and I look forward to seeing how Franny fares in the next round. She took down Sophos. Can she also take out Alton?
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt