Final Verdict First:
The Thin Executioner is a traditional fantasy in the sense that it tells of an underdog’s heroic quest to a mountain that is believed to house a being of incredible powers, but it is also a refreshing fantasy for its cultural diversity. For those of you who are wary of horror (like me), this book is creepy and thrilling without being scary. Although I wouldn’t say this book is on par with its inspiration, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it’s an action-packed adventure that held my interest throughout. I’d recommend The Thin Executioner to anyone looking for a YA POC fantasy who enjoys dark, violent fiction.
The Thin Executioner marks the first book I’ve read by Darren Shan. I was really excited to read it. I even chose the book as one of my “Most Anticipated 2010 YA Releases” for the second half of the year. What drew me to the book (besides that Darren wrote it) was its synopsis, especially the short excerpt on the back cover:
“The executioner swung his axe — THWACK! – and another head went rolling into the dust. There was a loud cheer. Rashed Rum was the greatest executioner Wadi had ever seen.”
That excerpt felt deliciously brutal and morbid, which is the tone I associate with Darren’s writing. I’ve been wanting to read one of his books for awhile now, and The Thin Executioner seemed to be slightly different from his existing series (Cirque du Freak and Demonata), which, sadly, look too scary for me. I went into reading TTE not knowing exactly what to expect, having not read any of his previous books, but because of his previous books’ praise and popularity, I expected the book to pretty darn good. And all in all, I think it was.
TTE is told in third person from the perspective of Jebel Rum, a fourteen-year-old boy from a respected family in Wadi, a southern coastal city of the land known as the Makhras. Jebel is the type of main character that bothers some readers. He’s not that easy to relate to and he’s not a “nice” guy. He’s spoiled, ignorant, intolerant, self-righteous. But understandably so. After all, he was raised wealthy and privileged, and had never been outside of his own city before his quest. His narrow worldview stems from not having been in a position in which his beliefs and culture were ever challenged before. I think that this is also the reason why, although TTE is a YA book, Jebel comes off as an MG character. He’s quite childish and so his voice follows suit.
Having said that, I didn’t feel as connected to Jebel or any of the other characters as much as I would’ve liked. I felt slightly removed from them, even in the case of Jebel’s slave, Tel Hesani, who was my favorite. The emphasis was more on the action and the world-building than the characterization. Sometimes an imbalance in plot and characterization can bother me, but in the case of TTE, it didn’t. This is because I was totally into the world that Darren created, which stood out to me for two main reasons: the crazy, sticky, seemingly impossible situations that Jebel experiences, and the breadth of the Makhras’ cultures.
Darren mentions in his dedication at the beginning of the book that “the country of Jordan…inspired much of this book’s setting and plot, and whose landmarks provided the names of all the characters (with three exceptions) and places.” While the book is inspired by a real country, its existence in relation to our world is not explained. It feels like the Makhras could have existed in our world’s past, or in a world completely unrelated to our own. I liked that ambiguity. Jebel’s quest takes him all over the eastern half of the Makhras. In his travels, he comes across all types of cultures, whose beliefs span the spectrum in terms of religion, slavery, the environment, beauty, gender roles, etc. Some of the cultures wowed me. Some were harder to understand. And there is one group of people in particular that is ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING. I’ve read some reviews that thought the book was too long and slow-moving at some points. I never found that to be so. Whether Jebel was braving the elements or dealing with dangerous characters, his journey through the vastly different areas of the Makhras had me riveted.
There is one aspect of TTE’s world-building in particular that I want to mention. Not only does the Makhras range in belief systems, but also in the way people looked and what is considered beautiful. To Jebel’s people, dark skin is considered most beautiful, while in other parts, girls shave their heads and are taught to become fierce warriors, just like the men. The lack of POC fantasy is widely lamented in the YA blogosphere, so I want to let you all know that The Thin Executioner is in fact a YA fantasy with a strong POC element.
Jebel’s quest is a year long; he has a lot to endure and suffer through, and a lot to learn about himself and others. Once you near the end of the book you may assume that you can guess the ending, but it isn’t as obvious as you’d think. There is quite a surprise awaiting you that kind of reminded me of the Christian belief that Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins. Ha ha! You probably think that’s a major spoiler. It is and it isn’t. More on the “isn’t” side. But anyway, I was expecting a lot from my first Darren Shan book, and I was rewarded with both the brutality and gruesomeness I was hoping for and a couple of unexpected elements, including the POC aspect and the ending. I’d say that makes for a pretty positive reading experience. If you like adventure books and reading about the darker aspects of human nature, then you should read The Thin Executioner.
Interestingly, I’ve seen several images of The Thin Executioner around the Internet with a light-skinned version of the character on the cover. I’m guessing that the character is Jebel, seeing as how he’s the main character. There’s also the fact that the character on the cover seems to have an executioner’s mask on, and Jebel is trying to become his city’s executioner. Thing is, Jebel and his people are dark-skinned. Hmm. Maybe the light-skinned image was the pre-publication version? Not sure. The copy of the book I read has the darker image, though, so hopefully all the published books have the darker cover.