Megan Whalen Turner’s QUEEN’S THIEF young adult fantasy series, a masterwork of twisting plots, deceptive plans, and occasional divine interventions from the first book to the last, winds to a close with Return of the Thief (2020), twenty-four years after the publication of The Thief. Return of the Thief introduces us to a new narrator, Pheris, oldest grandson and nominally the heir of Baron Erondites, Eugenides’s powerful enemy from The King of Attolia. (Alert readers, however, will recognize Pheris from a few brief scenes in Thick as Thieves.)
Baron Erondites, whose two sons, Dite and Sejanus, were so memorably disinherited as part of the events that occurred in The King of Attolia, also has a daughter, Marina, whom he’d earlier disinherited for marrying against his will. Pheris, Marina’s oldest son, is a boy who is speechless and otherwise severely physically disabled. Eugenides enters into an agreement with the Baron that the heir to the House of Erondites will be raised in the king’s palace, “away from the malignant tendencies of his family.” The Baron offers up Pheris, sight unseen.
The Baron has restored Marina to the House of Erondites (apparently disinheritance in Attolia is not necessarily as permanent as we were once given to understand). Everyone — including Pheris himself — assumes that Pheris will be rejected as a member of the king’s court and sent home, and the Baron, having gotten one over on the king, will then have Pheris killed and make his younger brother Juridius his heir. But Gen, surprising all, decides to clean up the filthy boy and make him one of his attendants.
“He is Erondites’s grandson and heir,” said the king, “and I have conceived a great desire to see him live to adulthood. Now all of you go away.”
But Gen has more to worry about than the scheming Baron Erondites and his troublesome young heir. Eugenides is now the high king of the Little Peninsula where the three countries of Attolia, Sounis and Eddis are located, but his acceptance isn’t universal in any of the three countries. Worse yet, the encroaching Mede empire from across the sea is weaving new plans to invade and annex their countries. The QUEEN’S THIEF world opens up as more borders are crossed and more countries get involved in the growing conflict.
The political conspiracies and surprising plot turns that mark the entire QUEEN’S THIEF series are alive and well in Return of the Thief, and Eugenides, as usual, is at the center of the plotting. I shouldn’t be surprised by Gen at this point in time, but somehow he still manages to misdirect and beguile me. His mercurial character takes more of a central role in this book than he did in the prior two books, and my increased enjoyment of this book reflects that. Gen’s quirks, stubbornness, and lightning-quick insights, along with his ability to mastermind change, make him one of the most engaging and memorable characters in fiction, and his wife Irene, a queen in her own right, is a match for him.
Almost every book in this series has a different narrator, and Turner branches out in a fresh direction with Return of the Thief. Though the series has dealt with disability before in connection with the memorable loss of Gen’s hand, Pheris’s profound disabilities make him an unusual and challenging central character. Pheris has suffered greatly in his life, both from physical pains and the cruelties of others, not least his poisonous family. “Little monster” is typical of epithets hurled at his face. Pheris is not mentally disabled, though, even though most people wrongly assume that’s the case, helped along by Pheris’s deliberate misbehavior (“the less people want to see you, the easier it becomes to be invisible in plain sight.”). Both Pheris and the people around him — and by extension, we as readers — have something to learn about the ways in which a disabled person can grow and even serve when given opportunity and encouragement.
Turner engages in some interweaving of her timelines in the last few books of the series. In this case, the first part of Return of the Thief takes place concurrently with the last section of Thick as Thieves, and continues from there. There are several callbacks and allusions to events in the prior books, rewarding readers who have good memories for details … or, that lacking, have access to the earlier books and can revisit them (I have to admit I had completely forgotten the subplot surrounding a coveted statue owned by the Mede ambassador, but it was worth going back to refresh my recollection).
It’s bittersweet to finally reach the end of the QUEEN’S THIEF series, but it ends on a high note. I’m sad to leave these characters behind (hopefully one day Gitta Kingsdaughter will call Turner back to this world, though she’s making absolutely no promises). The entire series begs for a reread, though, and I suspect it won’t be long before I’m dancing on the rooftops with these characters again.