Note: This review contains some spoilers for the second book in the QUEEN’S THIEF series, The Queen of Attolia.
In Thick as Thieves (2017), the long-awaited fifth book in Megan Whalen Turner’s QUEEN’S THIEF series, the setting shifts away from the peninsula where Eddis, Attolia and Sounis are, to another country in this world, the Mede Empire, which has long been nursing not-so-secret plans to conquer and annex the peninsula. Kamet is a valuable secretary and slave to Nahuseresh, former Mede ambassador to Attolia and nephew to the Mede emperor. After an escape from Attolia when Nahuseresh’s political intriguing there backfired on him, as was related in The Queen of Attolia, they are back in the Mede empire, where Nahuseresh is trying to regain his former political standing. Kamet has what he feels is a close and valued relationship with his master, despite Nahuseresh’s volatility and brutal beatings when slaves make a mistake or displease him, and the hope of an even greater position of power and influence in the future.
So initially Kamet laughs it off when an Attolian soldier offers him an escape from slavery and freedom in Attolia. He abruptly changes his mind a few minutes later, however, when another slave, Laela, tells him that Nahuseresh has been poisoned, almost certainly by the emperor’s command. She urges Kamet to go on the run immediately to save himself. When a Mede is murdered, his key slaves are tortured and all are executed on principle. Suddenly the Attolian’s previously-scorned offer becomes Kamet’s best option to survive. He leaves immediately, not even stopping in his apartments for supplies or the money he had managed to save up.
Kamet and the Attolian ― who remains nameless for most of the book, but will be identifiable to most readers who are familiar with the QUEEN’S THIEF series ― embark on a hazardous journey across the Mede empire and beyond. They’re pursued by the emperor’s handpicked guards and other enemies. Kamet mistrusts the offer from the Attolian, is keeping a dangerous secret from him, and plans on sneaking away from him as soon as possible. But as events conspire to keep them in each other’s company and they go through harrowing experiences together, they gain a greater respect for each other and even begin to develop a friendship that may carry them through the dangers to come.
In its tale of a danger-fraught journey and unexpected friendships, Thick as Thieves is more reminiscent of the first book in this series, The Thief, than some of the later books, though with a new main character. Kamet is a slave who initially has a slave’s mentality, an acceptance of mistreatment that should not be acceptable. He has pride in his place and power, even though he is mere property under Mede law. In fact, he initially disdains the Attolian, who he believes is a foolish, uncultured person, as well as the country of Attolia generally (“a place more backward than anywhere I have ever known, with its stinking sewers and its smoking furnaces and its preening idiot aristocrats”). But things are never as simple as they seem in this world, and the friendship that gradually develops between Kamet and the Attolian is a fine example of learning to appreciate the qualities in others who are unlike you. It’s a touching bromance; there’s never any substantial evidence of a romantic interest between the two (though I suspect some readers will be hoping).
Gen makes an appearance in the last part of the novel, and (typically for him) quickly put a new spin on several key elements of the tale, making the reader rethink everything that’s previously happened in the story. Gen just never disappoints, even when he is at his most frustrating and deceptive. He’s one of my favorite characters in fiction.
Like the earlier books in this series, Thick as Thieves contains stories-within-a-story that relate thematically to the main plot. Here, in a nod to the Mede culture, they’re in the form of blank verse poems. I had some difficulty wading through them; they’re more stylized and opaque than the stories in the prior books. But the patient reader will be rewarded with additional insights into the relationship between the main characters and some mysterious characters that show up at key turning points in the tale to help the two along their way.
The QUEEN’S THIEF series of YA fantasy novels, with allusions of Greek and other ancient mythologies, is well known for its plot twists and complex, layered characters, and Thick as Thieves admirably carries that torch. I was able to quickly identify the Attolian and even was reasonably certain of one major plot twist that is revealed close to the end, but ― this being the QUEEN’S THIEF series ― there were other surprises that I hadn’t anticipated at all. And I wouldn’t have it any other way! Turner says there will be one more book in this series. I’ll be anxiously waiting for it.