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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 2: A Conspiracy of Kings vs. Countdown

A Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whalen Turner
Green Willow Books/HarperCollins
by Deborah Wiles
Scholastic Press

Judged by
Dana Reinhardt

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

Roxanne Feldman About Roxanne Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at


  1. Long ago when I got out my crystal ball and predicted winners, did I mention that I meant just the opposite?

    0-2 (but still enjoying the judges commentary)

  2. Vindication! I suspected all along that the book couldn’t quite stand on its own, as lovely as the prose and writing might be. And it’s so nice to see Countdown getting some serious love. Exciting times! Does this mean Countdown will now go head to head against The Cardturner? Woof. Tough call that.

  3. I had no idea who this Dana Reinhardt person was, not dipping into the deep end the YA pool too often. Before reading her result I checked her out using that handy librarian tool – Google. I found this FAQ page on her website: I now want to find a matching Soupy Sales t-shirt and go for a walk with her, and then read all her books.

    She had the daunting task of choosing between one of my favorite books of last year and my all-time favorite characters in fiction. (Did you notice how this is now all about me?) I just gotta love a judge who says: I’m choosing this book because it is my kind of book, and there are no inconvenient criteria to slow me down, so there! I do pity anyone who tried to read CofK without the proper foundation. I think if I were to examine the deep dark recesses of my biased heart I would admit that Reinhardt made the choice I wanted her to make. I just didn’t want Eugenides to catch on, so I played it cool.

    Once Mrs. Turner has the entire epic out in the open air, I say you hold a Battle of the Series and see Gen wipe the floor with Harry and Frodo.

  4. Dana–

    I couldn’t disagree with you more and on so many levels. COUNTDOWN is an excellent novel, and your analysis of it was spot-on. KINGS, however, is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Turner is a genius at narrative, plot, and character. She’s the kind of writer that makes other writers whistle out loud ask “How did she do that?” While the reading of KINGS may be enriched by reading earlier books, it does indeed stand alone and those legs are STEEL. There will be no baying for your blood from this rabid fan, but there will be FROTH!

  5. I’ve found that most readers tend to lean toward either realistic fiction or sci-fi/fantasy, as demonstrated above (though obviously, both books are terrific). I do worry that because more and more books are being written in series, some of the best ones will continue to be kicked out of competitions on the grounds that they don’t seem to stand alone. See also Fevercrumb and I Shall Wear Midnight, for example. In fact, isn’t this more likely to affect SFF than realistic fiction? I wish there was some way of adjusting for that–DaNae has a point!

  6. Hmm. My words seem pretty paltry now that I’ve read David’s post. What he said!!

  7. I am also one that hasn’t read the rest of Turner’s series and so when I picked up Conspiracy of Kings, I was somewhat lost. The writing is excellent, but I struggled with the book because I didn’t know the characters well enough grasp what was happening. While I didn’t think Countdown was a perfect book, I did enjoy it and I learned from it.

  8. I couldn’t be happier that Countdown won! It has been one of my favorite pieces of historical fiction this year. I really felt for Franny and loved the format of the book. That, alone, has engaged many of my readers. When I have time, I want to tackle Turner’s entire series. I felt that her analysis of each book was clear and concise. When you compare apples and oranges, your favorite fruit is going to win. Way to go Dana!

  9. David,
    Did you initially read KINGS w/o the benefit of the earlier books? If not I’m not sure how you can claim the book stands on its own unwobbly legs.
    I’m not sure how someone who isn’t reading A Conspiracy of Kings w/o reading the previous novels can judge the work’s “stand aloneness” . Dana read KINGS w/o the other 3 novels and felt those legs were wobbly. If you read KINGS after reading the other books you can’t really judge its ability to stand alone because that’s a reading experience you haven’t had. I had read THE THIEF a while back but still needed to do some wikipediaing to recall who all the many named characters were, so I can imagine a reader in Dana’s position would have some difficulty. If only they’d have included a map….

    Can I also point out that this year’s bracket contestants have already surpassed last year’s. Last year only once did the majority of predictions match a judge’s decision (Storm in the Barn in round 1). This year a slight majority of the participants in the challenge sided with THE CARDTURNER (55%) and a similar majority went with COUNTDOWN (53%).

    Pie charts and random thoughts for the first 4 matches can be found at my blog, bottom half of the bracket will be up by Thursday night.

  10. I knew it! Huzzah! I loved Countdown to the death, and I will stand by the book for the rest of this battle! There is no surprise that it will beat the Cardturner in Round 2, but I do grieve Conspiracy of Kings. It will hopefully come back from the dead, (even though I secretly voted for Countdown, predicting that it would be eliminated.)

  11. I must be using the same crystal ball as Ed Spicer. 0 for 2 and counting.

  12. Fear Not! Dana, my fans may be fierce, but they are also very kind. I was going to say that I’ve never heard them bay for anyone’s blood, but I just re-read Jonathan’s comment. So, okay, except for Jonathan, they’ve never bayed. Really. I’m pretty sure.

    I am very disappointed, though. I was sure you’d judge by the covers and that I was a shoe-in. I mean, how can you pass over a hot guy on a horse for a piece of vinyl? You must be fibbing about judging by the covers. I think you read Countdown and thought it was fabulous. I did, too.

    Congratulations, Deborah!

  13. Jan Johnson says

    MWT you are a class act!

  14. I know that a book needs to stand on its own in order to win the Newbery, but that’s just one of the criteria for the Newbery. It’s not a touchstone of excellence or anything. Maybe it would be fairer to CONSPIRACY if the reviewer had happened to be someone who had read the first three books. After all, COUNTDOWN is part of a series, too–but it has an advantage in that it is the first volume of a series, and CONSPIRACY is volume four. I’m not questioning the reviewer’s choice–I think both books are fantastic and it would be hard to choose between them in any case. Still, maintaining the quality of a series over time must take incredible commitment and breadth of mind–and it almost seems as though MWT is being denied her due, just because she’s on book four. Is it really fair to race a marathon runner against a sprinter?

  15. I have to agree with Dana on this one.

    I read THE THEIF forever ago, and while I knew who Sophos was (eventually) I was pretty lost as to the significance of everything until the very very end. The story was great, its importance was just muddled.

    Although I never actually finished COUNTDOWN, it was an easier read. (Life got in the way, otherwise I’d be done by now.)

  16. For the record, here’s one reader who read Conspiracy of Kings without having read (or even knowing much about) the first three books–and thought it stood alone just fine. It did make me want to read the first three rather desperately, but that’s not a bad thing.

  17. I have not read Countdown.

    I loved Conspiracy of Kings, but if I am honest, I don’t know how much my love was influenced by my love for the series. I don’t think it is possible to truly appreciate how marvelous Gen from this book alone and, the truth is, it is Gen’s series. Kindof like how one can’t entirely appreciate Ged of L’Engle’s Earthsea if their only exposure to him is in Tehanu.

  18. I’m sure you all know how I feel: Very sad!

    I’ve read both books, and in my case the bias went entirely the opposite way. I think this particular match was pretty much just a question of which type of book the judge preferred. I was sure hoping it would get a fantasy-loving judge who had read all of Turner’s previous books!

    And much as I hope CofK will win the Undead Poll, I’m afraid I don’t think of Richard Peck as a fantasy fan.

    I actually just began CofK for the third time — because now our library has the audiobook version. Like all of MWT’s books, this one gets even better with each reading, since you see more and more of the things she planted early on. She is absolutely brilliant.

    On the bright side, now I can wholeheartedly root for THE CARDTURNER in the next round. Go, Alton! You’re a champ!

  19. No worries…

    Conspiracy of Kings will rise from the dead in the final round to smite the other two pretenders…

  20. I don’t know why CoK is in a battle of “kids” books. They are (amazing) YA books. Pfft.

  21. LOVED Countdown and am so glad it’s moved on to the next round!

    Sondy…re Richard Peck, I’m guessing he’s pretty open….some of his early work had fantasy elements: Voices After Midnight, his Blossom Culp quartet. They’re more time slip than high fantasy, but still…

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