JOINT REVIEW: Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
READERS PLEASE NOTE: The following review contains MASSIVE spoilers for the earlier five books in Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series and this is one series where spoilers should be avoided at all costs. Seriously, don’t even read the blurbs for the later books. If you’d like to try the books, start with the first one, The Thief. -Janine
Janine: It’s been a long wait for the conclusion to this series; the first book was published twenty-four years ago. Return of the Thief, the sixth and final book, had a lot of expectations to live up to. Jennie and I have loved earlier books in the series, so we decided to review it together. Readers, forgive the length of our discussion; there is a lot going on in this book. Also, I just can’t stop babbling about it.
Return of the Thief is actually split into two books, the first and second “Books of Pheris.” Pheris, we discover, is our first-person narrator, a witness to some of the most pivotal moments in the history of the Little Peninsula (a Greece-like region comprised of three small countries, Attolia, Eddis and Sounis) and he says in his forward that he is writing the book to provide an accurate as possible account of events. He was not present for every scene, however, and where he wasn’t, he describes the events he’s heard about. Those few sections are written in third person, the rest in first person.
Pheris’s story begins with the high king’s order that the new heir to the Erondites barony be conveyed to the capital and the palace. Eugenides, the king, began his rule as King of Attolia but is now high king over Eddis and Sounis as well.
Late in book three (The King of Attolia) the person behind the attempt on Eugenides’ life was revealed to be Sejanus, second son of Baron Erondites. Sejanus was promptly locked up and his older brother, the heir, exiled for another reason. Their father, Baron Erondites, was a powerful, a dangerous thorn in the side of the monarchy. Gen (as Eugenides is sometimes called) decreed that Erondites’s next heir, a grandson, be sent to him so that he could be raised (and presumably molded) to be loyal to the crown.
Pheris is that grandson. Pheris’s mother, daughter to the baron, has been feuding with her father for years. When Pheris was born disabled (he has a weak leg, two twisted fingers, and is mute), his mother did not expose her child to the elements, as is commonly done with disabled children in Attolia. But she did not refrain from that practice out of softheartedness. Her goal was to get back at her father and she named the child Pheris after him.
No one ever expected Pheris to inherit and now that he has, his life is in danger. Pheris has a younger and handsome, articulate, able-bodied brother, Juridius, and when Pheris meets an untimely, prearranged death, as he almost certainly will, Juridius will inherit.
Pheris knows this and even as a preteen (I’m guessing at his age because it isn’t given; all we know is that he is small in stature and that he looks—and at first deliberately acts—much younger than he is) he fully expects to die soon. But as it turns out, Baron Erondites wants to play a mean-spirited, taunting joke on the king, so Pheris is delivered to the capital to fulfill the king’s decree and to be assassinated at a later date.
Pheris has been taught by his nurse not to show his intelligence; he is safer if he is underestimated. He is used to being kicked, hit, insulted and laughed at merely because he is disabled, and he endures this but not without taking revenge on his abusers by such means as drooling on them.
So Pheris acts the role of a drooling and developmentally disabled child, hiding in corners and under dinner tables so as not to be noticed and abused as well as to observe the goings on. He continues to do this even after he arrives in the Attolian court, but he runs into a problem: Eugenides sees through his act.
Like Pheris, Gen has benefitted from being underestimated, and like him, he’s disabled, though in his case, not by birth. He is missing a hand—long before he married her, his wife cut it off. And Gen, too, is sneaky and almost too clever for his own good. So it doesn’t take that long for Pheris to begin to feel sympatico toward him. The king observes him more closely than others do, but he doesn’t expose Pheris’s machinations, only encourages him in subtle ways to come closer to fulfilling his potential. Though it isn’t stated, subtextually this is another reason Pheris comes to trust and like him.
Pheris is made one of the king’s attendants and so he is there when a lot of the important conversations are had and significant decisions are made. In this way he learns that Attolia, Sounis and Eddis are preparing for war with the Mede empire. The Medes, positioned to the south across the Middle Sea, have long wanted to conquer the Little Peninsula, and while the Greater Powers in the north have promised to provide aid, so far it hasn’t been forthcoming. Meanwhile, in preparation, Attolia, Euegnides’s wife and queen, has been taxing her people’s grain to store in the granary.
At first Pheris is careful not to go anywhere in the palace alone; assassination is still a threat. Gradually he learns where it is safe to go by himself. But one day, while walking down a corridor on his own, Pheris is approached by his younger brother, Juridius.
Juridius and Pheris were close when they were younger, before Juridius figured out that he’d be treated better if he acted coldly toward Pheris. Years have passed since their camaraderie-filled early childhood but Pheris still loves his brother. Nevertheless, when Juridius questions him on the topic, he refuses to reveal when the wagons carrying the taxed grain will be leaving for the granary. By this point he is loyal to Gen.
It isn’t until Juridius threatens to expose Pheris’s darkest act in childhood, one that could make the king send him back home, that Pheris gives in. The information doesn’t seem that important but Pheris is nevertheless mired in guilt over his betrayal of the king’s trust. When Baron Erondites uses the information to attack the grain wagons and spill the grain, Pheris’s guilt becomes almost unbearable.
Of course, the king realizes that Pheris must know sign language and that he was the source of the leak. He is furious and wants Pheris sent back home. Pheris cannot be trusted any more than any other Erondites, it appears. But just then a goddess appears before Gen and Pheris, barring that possibility with equal fury. Only Gen and Pheris see her, so when Eugenides allows Pheris to stay, others think he is being too kind. Pheris knows otherwise and believes that he will never regain the king’s trust.
An opportunity to do it arrives unexpectedly, in a situation where only Pheris is in position to defuse a desperate situation, and when Pheris provides a rescue, Gen grants him a second chance.
The novel has several other plot threads, too. The Eddisians and to a lesser extent the Sounisians resent Gen’s rule over their own monarchs. The citizenry is in the midst of unrest over the taxes. Gen wants to fight at the head of his army but Sounis, Attolia and Eddis all tell him he can’t; as the linchpin to their treaty he is too valuable to risk, but he feels that he can’t ask others to put their lives on the line if he won’t do the same.
There are also intrigues involving the ambassadors, Kamet and Costis’s triumphant return to court from Costis’s mission abroad, questions about whether the queen can carry a child to term, and Pheris’s relationships with and observations of different people at court, from the kitchen staff to the other attendants to Teleus to Relius, the latter of whom Gen eventually engages as a tutor to him. And of course, the looming war with the Medes.
Will Pheris learn to read and write as Relius exhorts him to do? How will the king and queen settle their dispute over whether Gen should fight in the war? Can the wrinkles in diplomacy between the Little Peninsula and the Greater Powers be straightened out by the eve of battle? Are the gods still on Gen’s side? Can the Little Peninsula win a war even with their soldiers far outnumbered by the Mede troops? And is Pheris really worthy of the king’s trust?
There are many things I loved about Return of the Thief. Pheris is a great character and I connected with him sooner than I have with any of the other first-person narrators in earlier books. A lot of it had to do with the way that he was underestimated by others and how he manipulated their perceptions of him in self-defense, in anger, and in bitterness over the way they viewed him.
Jennie: I so agree with this – I was drawn into the book right away because Pheris was such a sympathetic narrator. All the more because he had very real and human resentments towards his tormentors.
Janine: Yes. I loved the way that Pheris’s disabilities were handled. He is never portrayed as lesser in any way, nor does he pity himself because he isn’t able bodied. He places the responsibility for the ways he has been mistreated firmly on those who mistreat him, not on himself. His narration makes no bones about that and he doesn’t spare them.
It was easy to root for him because he’s an underdog and a child when the story starts, too. I wanted to see how Pheris’s future would unfold and how all the new possibilities the change in his circumstances provided would spread before him. As a reader of the earlier books I had a stronger sense of that than he did but I still could not predict how it would play out.
Jennie: I felt the author may have tipped her hand slightly (deliberately?) with the opening depicting Pheris as a sort of historian of the times depicted in the story. There wasn’t really a question of him learning to write, and I felt that his place by Gen’s side (and on Gen’s side) was telegraphed.
Janine: I think I would have known that he would end up by and on Gen’s side regardless. By this point in the series we know Gen well enough to know that he will come to like Pheris. Too, all the prior central character in the series besides Gen himself—Costis, Sophos and Kamet—have ended up on Gen’s side in the end. The same is true with regard to the reading. I couldn’t imagine him emerging from Gen’s guardianship illiterate. As with genres such as romance and mystery, the question was one of how rather than of if.
Jennie: Good point about the other characters – there’s a bit of a formula to how people interact with Gen over these books, so I’m sure I was at least subconsciously aware of that.
Janine: While Pheris and Gen never openly bond over the things they have in common, my reading was that they understood this quickly and that it did, in fact, provide a silent, unacknowledged bond between them. Eugenides is not Pheris’s father but I felt that he was almost a father figure, or at least that we got some clues as to what kind of father he would make. I loved seeing that side of him.
Jennie: Agreed. The part of me that likes things neatly wrapped up and presented to me as a reader might’ve wished for a heart-to-heart between them, but that wasn’t either of their way. They were very similar and I thought Gen especially recognized Pheris in a way that no one else in Attolia was capable of.
Janine: Yes! Eugenides wasn’t openly affectionate or disciplinary, but he found ways to meet Pheris on Pheris’s level without underestimating him or condescending to him as others did. He found ways to show his approval, too, whether with a dry and subtle remark he knew Pheris would pick up on, by leaving a lockbox for Pheris’s treasures in Pheris’s hiding place, or by trusting Pheris to be smart enough to use the resources Gen made available to him. It was, in many ways, a laissez-faire approach to guardianship, and yet I never got the sense that Gen was inattentive or irresponsible in how he handled it. Pheris was seen, understood, and eventually trusted and loved.
Best of all, there was a lot of Gen in this book, far more than in the last two books. Did that affect your reading experience with this book versus with A Conspiracy of Kings and Thick as Thieves? It did mine.
Jennie: I don’t remember A Conspiracy of Kings all that well, but this was definitely a very different reading experience from Thick as Thieves. Not just due to the lack of Gen in that book, but Thick as Thieves is a road book, and I find those to have a particular rhythm all their own.
Also, I remember Thick as Thieves as being very focused on the two main characters, whereas there was a huge cast of characters in this one.
(But yes, I liked the “more Gen” aspect of Return of the Thief!)
Janine: Great point about the rhythm of on-the-road books.
Eugenides has been my favorite character in the series—probably my favorite character in all of YA literature—since I read The King of Attolia and it was wonderful to see so much of him here. Every book reveals new facets of his character and he is so many things—clever, mysterious, deceptive, generous, affectionate, vengeful, loyal, mischievous, acidic, exasperating, snarky, charismatic yet able to disappear into the shadows.
Additionally, his relationship to the gods and their presence in his life are felt in the story more than in any other book since The Queen of Attolia. And I love that relationship too.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that we also get a good view of Gen and Irene’s relationship, one of my favorite aspects of the series. Their connection is powerful even a few years into their marriage. Both of them are schemers but with very different personalities. And whereas some people might hate that quality in a partner, it only makes Irene and Gen love and admire each other more. They are well aware of one another’s faults, as when Attolia calls Gen “unkingly,” but no matter how frustrated they get, their love never lessens.
Jennie: I really love their relationship – it’s enough to make me go back and read the earlier books, and I never reread.
Janine: They are so worth rereading, especially back-to-back. Knowing how things turn out and what the hidden agendas are makes it possible to pick up on double meanings and that causes the books to read differently than they did the first time.
There are fewer romantic moments in this book than in The Queen of Attolia or in The King of Attolia, probably because the characters are settled into their marriage by this point, but there are still several and they are lovely and true to who these characters are as people.
Gen and Irene have an unusual partnership. It’s clear that Eugenides would die for Irene, but there are plenty of things he won’t do, even for her, such as give up his thieving, stop trusting in his gods, or take over her role as monarch. He understands that she is more of a royal in her demeanor than he will ever be, that she knows Attolia’s barons better, and that she is more comfortable with wielding power. He respects all that and refuses to trample on it, sometimes to a fault. Likewise, Irene understands Gen’s need to steal and she doesn’t ask him to give it up no matter how unkingly that might be.
Jennie: I myself reached peak exasperation with Gen when he refused to apologize at a pivotal moment in the book. I may be forgetting some details from previous books that justify his refusal somewhat, but sometimes Gen comes off as such a brat. It’s a testament to his charm that those who love him can tolerate the brattiness.
Janine: There are things in earlier books to support it, yes (in my view, anyway). And I think that brattiness is integral to his character—and in a way, part of his sometimes-abrasive charm. A line he repeats from book to book (it may even be all the books) is “I can do anything I want.” And it’s not about being powerful enough to get away with whatever, but rather about a refusal to break or at times, even to bend. He we won’t tolerate being told what he must do. There’s a streak of independence there that he won’t surrender regardless of the consequences. I actually think that’s part of why the gods favor him.
He’s very much like a character from a classic literary source like the Bible or a Greek myth, where the literary figure is favored and loved by his deity almost as much for his flaws as for his strengths. And as with many of those characters, the flaw and the strength are rooted from the same trait, in this case, Gen’s insistence on agency and autonomy. He would never have become king without this trait, and it’s also part of what makes him so entertaining to read about. So—yes, he’s being a brat, but ask yourself, would you really have liked him better if he were the kind of person who would cave?
Jennie: Oh, I agree. But it does make him exasperating at times. He’s really an extraordinary character, and I suppose exceptions are made for those.
Janine: This reminds me—I love how consistent the characters are throughout the series. There are no personality transplants here. Given how each book reveals a new facet of Eugenides, that’s a tall order, yet Turner pulls it off.
Jennie: That’s a really good point – it’s impressive.
Janine: We also spend some page time with other favorite, central-to-the-series characters like Sophos and Helen, Kamet and Costis, and side characters Relius, Philologos, and Gen’s dad. There isn’t a ton of the Magus in this one but he’s not one of my favorites so I didn’t miss him that much.
Janine: The book is a treasure trove, almost every scene a gem. Not just the momentous decisions and the surprising turns (like the other books in the series, this one is twisty), but the little interactions Pheris has with characters; with Eugenides, of course, but also Relius in his tutor role, or with Kamet, whom he only meets briefly. Certainly his encounters with the gods. Even his interactions with people who don’t like him are set out like jewels, either fascinating because they show how Pheris outsmarts those people, or reveal his insights into them, or because they have ramifications for other characters and / or the kingdom.
Turner’s books usually have a slow first half, but not so here. The first half engaged and fascinated me from the beginning and the second blew my socks off. I’ve come expect a big twist in the plot (each of the books has at least one) and so I had some sense of what it might be in the last couple of books before it was revealed. Here I did not. I didn’t even come close to guessing it.
Jennie: It’s funny, I reread your earlier reviews in preparation for this one, and an ongoing thread in those reviews was pacing issues. Which resonated with me because I actually did feel the book lagged a bit in the middle, once Pheris’ relationships with the other characters are well established. I also find almost any battle descriptions in any book at least a bit tedious (one of the reasons I’ve never read Les Miserables is that I was told there was a 500-page battle scene).
The faster pace of the last half or third was very gratifying, though.
Janine: I’m not a fan of battle scenes either, but I feel like Turner bent over backwards to summarize 90% of the battles rather than portray them. She only showed the ones that involved important plot turns. Battle scenes might actually be something that some readers will want more of.
On another topic, there are also numerous Easter eggs in the form of callbacks to conversations and interactions from earlier books. These are to be found in the earlier books, too, but in this book, I noticed more of them than I have in each of the others.
For example, the earrings presented to Gen by Heiro connect to a scene in The King of Attolia.
In another scene—
A reader doesn’t need to understand the allusions to enjoy the book but they do enrich the reading experience. I thought there were almost too many of them in the first half, but in the end, I decided it was fitting. This is the conclusion to a series that began twenty-four years ago, and the trip down nostalgia lane is sweet.
Jennie: I caught some but you no doubt caught many more than I did.
Janine: Probably. I’ve read these books so many times, LOL. I also appreciated that the portrayal of the Medes was more even-handed here than previously. A couple of the other books are problematic in this regard; I’m no expert but I didn’t think that was an issue here.
Jennie: In what way did you find them problematic previously? They were definitely the villains here but mostly just in a standard aggressive-invader way.
Janine: There was some Orientalism in a couple of the earlier books. It was worst in The Queen of Attolia—Nahuseresh, the Mede ambassador to Attolia, was referred to as oily. And in Queen as well as Conspiracy, every single Mede character we met on stage was conniving, villainous and slick (Mede characters did not appear on page in The Thief or King, though they were referred to). The scheming piece doesn’t bother me that much because all the major players on the world stage in these books are conniving and sneaky, be they villains or heroes. But I felt that there was more variety of personalities and fairness in the Medes’ characterization here.
There are only a few things I can complain about:
The motive behind the incitement of the Eddisians to resist Gen’s rule, when it was revealed, didn’t make sense to me since it could easily have backfired.
Another thing I noticed was that each of the earlier books contains a mythical story within the story, but this one doesn’t. There is a brief outtake from a play and a lovely poem, but no story about the gods. It felt like an omission but I didn’t see a place where Turner could have fit one smoothly.
Jennie: Yes, I noticed that as well. I didn’t really miss it, because there was a lot going on.
Janine: Same here. There were also a few places where the timing of events didn’t seem to work but I don’t want to go into detail about them because with these books it’s so important not to spoil.
When my husband and I finished reading, he poked holes in the battle strategy. It’s a valid criticism but I was so absorbed that it didn’t register with me at all. I care a lot more about the characters, the plot, the politics, the gods, and above all, the relationships, and these were marvelous in this book. How did you feel about these aspects?
Jennie: It’s funny, in books that are somewhat action-filled and have a fair amount of world-building (though I’ve always liked the fairly simple and straightforward world-building in these books; complicated world-building makes my brain hurt), the strength of these stories really is in the characterization.
Also, when a book is really working for me, plot holes are nothing. I only notice them when I’m too easily distracted by them.
Janine: My expectations of Return of the Thief were high, and I waited years for it. I was afraid it would fail to meet those expectations but it exceeded them and then some. The only book in this series that I probably like better than this one is The King of Attolia. So this is one of my favorite books in what is my favorite YA series. How does it compare to the other books in the series for you, Jennie? And do you feel it lived up to expectations?
Jennie: So, I actually went through my book log to see what I’d given previous books in the series. It looks like I’ve given all of them A minuses, except for A Conspiracy of Kings, which I gave a B- to? I don’t know; I may have been cranky that day.
Honestly, the book I remember best is Thick as Thieves (I can’t believe it’s been 3 ½ years since I read it!), and that one felt someone different from the other books in the series to me (maybe because of the lack of Gen?), so it’s hard for me to compare.
I will say that Return of the Thief lived up to my expectations – the author did a beautiful job of wrapping up the series and giving longtime fans what they want, while remaining true to the characters and telling a fresh story.
Janine: I rarely give out straight A’s, particularly to books I haven’t read a second time. But I know I will return to Return of the Thief, and it’s by far my favorite 2020 book so far. So—A.
Jennie: For me it’s a strong A-.