The Queen’s Thief, Books 4-5 by Megan Whalen Turner

A new installment of The Queen’s Thief is here! That proved an excellent incentive to reread the first three books (which I deeply love) and finally tackle the fourth book as well as the handful of short stories that’ve appeared as paperback extras.

A Conspiracy of Kings
A Conspiracy of Kings is a coming-of-age story for Sophos, the sweet, scholarly boy we met in The Thief who also happens to be the heir to Sounis. Some of the barons are in revolt, and when the villa in which he’s staying is attacked, Sophos tries to save his mother and sisters but ends up captured himself. Although he’s resourceful enough to escape and hide out amongst enslaved field hands, he nonetheless is bitterly self-critical and sure his father is disappointed in him (as usual). And yet, throughout the course of the novel, he exhibits a great deal of courage, makes some hard choices, and—though still the sweet, scholarly boy underneath—ultimately becomes a worthy king.

A Conspiracy of Kings strikes me as a simpler book than The King of Attolia, probably because Sophos is earnest and idealistic rather than guarded and secretive, though that’s not to say that he’s incapable of carrying out a secret plan or clever strategy. The book does have an unusual narrative style, beginning in the third person with Sophos already in Attolia, switching to first person as he tells Eddis his story up to that point, going back into third while everyone’s together in Attolia, going back into first when he returns after claiming the throne and fills Eddis in again, and then back into third for the ending.

It occurs to me that as The Queen’s Thief series continues, the further we’re getting away from Eugenides. The Thief was first-person from his point of view, The Queen of Attolia was third-person, The King of Attolia viewed Gen and his relationship with the queen through the eyes of a palace guard, and now we have a story about Sophos in which Gen appears occasionally and spends some of that time behaving with icy formality. I appreciate the expanding world the characters inhabit and genuinely enjoy spending time with everyone, but I do love Gen best and hope the focus returns to him someday.

Thick as Thieves
After waiting so long for a new book in the series, learning that it would be about Kamet, the slave of the Mede ambassador Nahuseresh, was somewhat of a disappointment. Now, I feel compelled to apologize to the author because I really should’ve had more faith in her. Kamet is a smart, distrustful protagonist with somewhat of a superiority complex and his evolution throughout the novel is fascinating.

Thick as Thieves is most similar to the first book in the series, since it involves a road trip peppered with storytelling. An Attolian soldier has been dispatched by Eugenides to steal Kamet out of spite, and after initially planning to decline the offer of freedom (thinking of all the power he will one day wield after he is gifted to the next emperor), Kamet is forced to accept after learning that his master has been poisoned and that he must escape quickly or face torture and execution. A Goodreads reviewer describes what follows as “bloodshed, betrayal, and bromance,” and I really cannot improve on that description. Although he initially thinks the Attolian is an idiot and plans on ditching him at the earliest opportunity (rather than return to uncivilized Attolia) he comes to like and respect him very much. I also love how one little piece of information lets readers know exactly who this soldier is, although Kamet does not use his name until near the end.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but that’s the part of the book that really shines. (Alas, the road trip does drag a little in parts.) There are quite a few surprises—including one satisfying “I knew it!” moment—and the conclusion is both sniff-inducing and exciting, as conflict is still brewing between the Empire and the small countries on the peninsula, though the latter (thanks to Eugenides) appear to have acquired some powerful allies. This is such a great series and I hope we’ll see Kamet again in what follows.

The short stories:
“Thief!”, originally printed in Disney Adventures Magazine in 2000, is a prequel short story about Eugenides as a kid. There’s not much to it, but I liked seeing Gen interact with his older brother and favorite sibling, Stenides.

“Eddis” was included in the 2007 paperback edition of The King of Attolia. In it, nine-year-old Helen—wonderfully described as round, solid, sturdy, and not too bothered by the fact that she isn’t pretty—slips away from the palace to go exploring. Her destination is a desolate temple where she is visited in the night by a trio of gods, who refer to her as “the last Eddis.” It’s a neat story that not only fleshes out Helen’s background a little bit and explains why she uses the masculine “Eddis” rather than “Eddia,” but ties in nicely with her motivations in A Conspiracy of Kings.

“Destruction” was included in the 2011 paperback edition of A Conspiracy of Kings. In this brief story, we witness the ceremony to dispose of Hamiathes’s Gift in the fires of the Sacred Mountain in Eddis. Frustrated Sounis is in attendance as is Attolia, who never takes her eyes from Eugenides. Scant though it is, I find I appreciate having a mental image for this occasion, as well as the moment in which Eugenides achieves certainty that the stone is really gone.

“Knife Dance” is included in the new paperback edition of The Queen of Attolia. In it, a juggler named Druic is coerced by his jerk of a brother to perform a certain Eddisian knife dance—”one of the Mysteries of the Thieves”—for the court of Attolia. Both the king and his god have something to say about it. I liked this one, and the ending was very satisfying.

“Wineshop” is included in the new paperback edition of The King of Attolia. It’s extremely short and depicts Eugenides enjoying his final moment of anonymity before coins bearing his likeness enter circulation and how Teleus spoils it all. There’s one part of it that makes me wonder if Eugenides knew that was going to happen. It would not surprise me.

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner: A+

From the front flap:
There is a new king in Attolia. Attolia’s barons seethe with resentment, the Mede emperor is returning to the attack, and the king is surrounded by the subtle and dangerous intrigue of the Attolian court.

When a naive young guard expresses his contempt for the king in no uncertain terms, he is dragged into the center of the political maelstrom. Like the king, he cannot escape the difficulties he makes for himself. Poor Costis knows he is the victim of the king’s caprice, but he discovers a reluctant sympathy for the man as he watches the newly crowned king struggle against his fate.

Eugenides is being his usual brilliant, lazy, bored, self-mocking, others-mocking, and occasionally hotheaded self in this book. He’s such a great character; I could read a whole book just about him reacting to things. In fact, in the first hundred pages, there isn’t a lot of plot, just setting the scene of life at the Attolian court and how the also likable Costis has been snagged into the service of the king. “Poor Costis,” indeed.

And then the intrigue starts, and the character development, and the little revelations behind what the public perceives and… it’s just so well done! It’s hard to describe too much, as I am determined to avoid spoilers.

I’ve enjoyed every book in this series, but it’s been this one that’s really cemented me as a devotee and left me impatiently awaiting Gen’s future exploits. Each has been better than the last, but The King of Attolia is perfect. Do yourself a favor and read these books!

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner: A-

From the front flap, edited for spoilers:
When Eugenides outwitted the Queen of Attolia, she lost face. To restore her reputation and reassert her power, the Queen of Attolia will go to any length and accept any help that is offered… she will risk her country to execute the perfect revenge.

Eugenides can steal anything. And he taunts the Queen of Attolia, moving through her strongholds seemingly at will. So Attolia waits, secure in the knowledge that the Thief will slip, that he will haunt her palace one too many times.

The Queen of Attolia is the sequel to The Thief, set in the same world but without the same narrator. Strenuously avoid reading the description of this book on Amazon, for there is a spoiler right there in the first sentence. I was its victim, but thankfully, the event it describes happens fairly early on so I didn’t have to spend the whole book wondering when it was going to occur. Suffice it to say, Gen does a lot of growing up in this book.

He’s still as likable as he was the first go around, but with this volume, I’ve also grown to like the Queen of Eddis quite a bit. A rational, competent, female leader in trousers who spurns offers of marriage and earns her court’s loyalty by ability rather than by scheming, Eddis (the monarchs go by the names of their countries) is an excellent character.

Although I enjoyed The Thief, The Queen of Attolia is much better, in my opinion. It’s become more of a game of political intrigue, and I prefer that sort of story much more than one with lots of traveling. Essentially, there’s a power struggle between three countries in one part of the world, and they need to get their acts together to avoid being overrun by an Imperial power from another coast. Although Gen’s is primarily the main point of view, there are passages in each of the countries allowing us to get a glimpse of the motivation and rationale of all parties.

The Queen of Attolia is fast-paced, clever, and entertaining. I especially found Chapter 16 to be amusing. I am really quite surprised that my local library is shelving it in the Juvenile section rather than YA, as I’m not sure very young kids could really grasp the importance of, say, buying up a whole bunch of surplus grain as a political maneuver.

The one downside I could give it is that sometimes the story jumps forward to show Gen doing something, having made a decision he was struggling with previously, but without showing how he finally came to make his choice in the matter. In most cases, the story manages to loop back around and give a bit of explanation, but it can leave one in a state of not understanding his motivations for a time.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: B+

From the inside flap:
The king’s scholar, the magus, believes he knows the site of an ancient treasure. To attain it for his king, he needs a skillful thief, and he selects Gen from the king’s prison. The magus is interested only in the thief’s abilities. What Gen is interested in is anyone’s guess. Their journey toward the treasure is both dangerous and difficult, lightened only imperceptibly by the tales they tell of the old gods and goddesses.

That description makes this tale sound dull and full of theological tales, but really, there are only 3 or 4 of those. The real story involves Gen being recruited by the magus to help steal a stone that supposedly imbues the owner with immortality and proclaims him or her the rightful ruler of a country called Eddis, a neighbor to the country Gen and his companions are from, Sounis.

Gen’s traveling companions are interesting, though not quite as fully fleshed out as they could be. The evolution of the relationships throughout the course of the book is subtle and well done, as Gen is simply viewed as a tool to start with. Gen himself is a very entertaining narrator, clever and trying to be as annoying as possible at first, which is amusing.

The author is good at evocative descriptions that aren’t too wordy, but I would have liked to have had a map so as to better visualize their travels, particularly in the last couple of chapters. Although this was shelved in the Juvenile section of the library, she doesn’t noticably oversimplify things for the benefit of a younger crowd. Overall, the traveling portions are less boring than I usually find and were enlivened by the interactions of the companions, but towards the end, do get a little repetitive. Thankfully, the end itself is not dull.