One of the greatest joys of a fantasy fiction fan is discovering an epic series where you have several volumes to devour at once.
American author Megan Whalen Turner burst onto the scene 21 years ago with The Thief, introducing us to the world of The Queen’s Thief and winning a Newbery Honor Award in 1997. Five books later, her new novel Thick As Thieves takes us back to the kingdoms of Attolia, Eddis and Soulin, and turns to the character of Kamet the slave (who readers met briefly in the second book, The Queen Of Attolia) to tell the story.
Though happy with his lot in life, the poisoning of Kamet’s master ejects him from complacency – and entirely from the Mede Empire. Think of the Medes as the Romans, and you get an idea of how fascinating his tale becomes.
Mede is a vast, sprawling empire looking to swallow up smaller kingdoms, and its citizens share their realm’s strong views of its backwater neighbours. For example, Mede has a sewer system; Attolia has chamber pots.
Turner blends mythologies from the Romans, the ancient Greeks and other civilisations of that time and place to create a fantasy world that may be vaguely familiar to students of history but completely unique to others. The gods themselves appear to influence the events of her world.
Thick As Thieves is essentially the story of Kamet and Costas, one of the queen’s guards from the third novel, The King Of Attolia, as they try desperately to escape from the empire and get across the ocean to the safety of Attolia.
Turner’s writing and her delicate touches are gorgeous. Her mastery of foreshadowing is second to none. Even better is the impeccable building of her fantasy world. In every one of her five books, she weaves myths, legends and religions from her creation into her stories, giving the world a feeling of history and immense depth.
Turner’s first novel, The Thief, sets up the character of Eugenides (aka Gen) as the main protagonist. A liar, a scoundrel, and a brilliant tactician, Gen is also the Queen of Eddis’ thief.
The patron god of thieves is named Eugenides as well, and so “Eugenides” has become a heredity title held by all the queen’s thieves. Gen is so great a thief that he can steal anything from jewellery to secret plans to persons such as a magus, or even a queen.
The Queen Of Attolia continues Gen’s story from a third person perspective, detailing his dealings with the titular queen, from her pursuit of him across her country to their marriage.
The King Of Attolia picks up that story from Costas’ point of view, as Gen becomes king even though no one – let alone a guardsman – wants an outsider as his monarch.
In book four, A Conspiracy Of Kings, Turner reveals the events in the kingdom of Soulin after Gen steals the magus from the kingdom’s ruler. The novel follows the trails faced by Sophos, the heir to the sovereign, on his journey to the throne after his uncle is killed.
The books don’t need to be read in order, but the characters and world building deliver a better payoff when they are. All four volumes have now been reissued in paperback, with bonus content, to pave the way for Thick As Thieves.
Turner gives us the history of her gods in the first books with a more a traditional “Western” style of tale, in the vein of Homer’s Odyssey.
Admittedly, I tackled the books back to back, and it was a jarring change to hear the Medes’ style of declamation. Their form of recitation, using a more poetic style of storytelling and visual imagery, was annoying at first. But as Kamet tells one of the many adventures of two legendary friends named Ennikar and Immakuk, the charm of these poetic recitations starts to appear.
Apart from being a way to unload information, it establishes this entire world as a living entity, filled with different people, schools of thoughts and, of course, myths, legends and religions. Turner does love having her deities take direct involvement in her characters’ lives, and Mede’s gods work as much as anyone else to reach their own ends.
This is another level of delight in Turner’s storytelling. A constant thread alluded to throughout the entire body of work is the threat of disaster. We know that a volcanic eruption not unlike Vesuvius is threatening to annihilate Eddis like Pompeii. It’s up to Gen and his friends and allies to do the will of the gods if they are to survive the oncoming destruction.
So if you’ve not had the pleasure of The Queen’s Thief up till now, go pick up Thick As Thieves. And if you’re sold on this book, go get the rest of the series. Moira has a message for you.
Thick As Thieves (The Queen’s Thief #5)
Author: Megan Whalen Turner
Publisher: Greenwillow Books, young adult fantasy