JOINT REVIEW: Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner
Jennie and I are both fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series (my recent an interview with the author is here), so when we heard a new book was coming out, we wanted to review it together. Readers who haven’t read the series and wish to avoid spoilers for earlier books can read my review of the first book in the series, The Thief. – Janine
Janine: It’s been a long seven years for fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, but a new book is finally out. Thick as Thieves is the story of Kamet, whom readers have previously encountered as a minor character in The Queen of Attolia.
In that novel, we saw Kamet, a slave and secretary to the Nahuseresh, the Mede ambassador, help his master escape Attolia after the backfiring of Nahuseresh’s plan to force Attolia’s queen to marry him and thus aid the Mede Empire in subsuming the smaller nation.
For the series’ readers, all that was seventeen years and three books ago, but for the characters, no more than a year or two have elapsed since. Kamet’s story begins far from Attolia, with a beating.
As Kamet tells it, after the events of The Queen of Attolia, his master returned home to ridicule. Laughed out of court, Nahuseresh took his family and retinue of slaves to the country to rusticate. More recently he has returned to the Mede capital, Ianna-Ir, where he hoped to be given the governorship of Hemsha, a minor coastal province, by his uncle the emperor.
Anticipating Nahuseresh’s success in this matter, Kamet sets out a bottle of remchik for him to celebrate with. But the emperor turns down the request, and upon receipt of this news, Nahuseresh beats Kamet severely for presuming to try to please his temperamental master.
Kamet’s wounds are tended by Laela, a friend and fellow slave for whom he has done a favor in the past. After his bruises fade, Kamet goes to the emperor’s palace on an errand day. Since his eyesight has been damaged by the work he does by the light of a smoking lamp, he is glad of the break from his usual routine.
At the palace, he encounters a man whom, due to his limited eyesight, he does not immediately recognize as an Attolian soldier. Kamet doesn’t know the Attolian, but when the soldier tells him that his king blames Nahuseresh for the loss of his right hand and would like to deprive the Mede of his own “right hand”—Kamet himself—Kamet is terrified that he is about to be killed.
Instead of attacking him, the Attolian asks Kamet to meet him at the Rethru docks after sunset. From there the soldier will take him to Attolia, where he promises that Attolia’s king will free Kamet. Kamet nods and is much relieved when the soldier departs.
And then he is greatly amused. He is not (or so he tells himself) interested in freedom. Nahuseresh is brother to the emperor’s heir; someday he will be one of the most powerful men in the world, and as his secretary, Kamet will wield much of that power. Freedom in a backward, ignorant country such as Attolia can’t hold a candle to that, and anyway, he does not trust the king’s promise. If he meets the soldier on the docks as arranged, the soldier will summarily kill him.
Kamet’s amusement fades when he encounters Laela, who has come to deliver a warning. Nahuseresh is dead, poisoned, and consequently all his slaves, including Kamet, now face execution. “Save yourself,” Laela says, and she pushes Kamet toward a serviceway through which he makes his escape.
Jennie: Did you judge Kamet for fleeing? I did, a little bit. It’s explained that he’s actually doing the other slaves a favor by not letting himself get caught; they’ll likely face a quick death rather than torture if he alone is blamed for the poisoning. But that felt a bit like something one tells oneself to justify acting out of self-interest. Kamet is highly motivated by self-interest and I thought it was interesting to see how he had developed that way because of his enslavement (this theme is reinforced later with the explicit idea that “slaves don’t do each other favors”; that the luxury of selflessness is one more thing they’re denied).
Janine: I think I did judge him a little, but only until it was explained, and even before that, not much, because the survival instinct is an intensely powerful one in human beings and he was also in shock when he fled. It wasn’t like he had time to collect himself and think about what he was doing.
After wandering aimlessly in a daze, Kamet finds himself on the Rethru docks where he meets the Attolian, who not only does not kill him, but helps him hide and gets him onto a ship. When the ship burns further up along the river, Kamet and the Attolian have to make their journey by other means, with the emperor’s lethal, elite guards close on their heels.
The Attolian is honest and companionable, but Kamet dares not confide in him about Nahuseresh’s death, or to think of him as a friend. He does not even refer to him by name, because the Attolian is bound to serve his king, and Kamet is sure that if he doesn’t escape his companion along the way, when they reach Attolia, the Attolian king will turn him over to the Medes so as not to call down the empire’s wrath on Attolia.
But as they travel, Kamet finds himself sharing more and more of himself with the soldier, even reciting his translations of the ancient legends of Immakuk and Ennikar for the Attolian’s amusement. Like Ennikar and Immakuk, Kamet and his new acquaintance grow closer through shared adventures and dangers, but what will happen to their friendship when the truth is revealed?
If I had to compare Thick as Thieves to one of the author’s earlier books, I would choose the first book in the series, The Thief. Like The Thief, Thick as Thieves is the story of strange bedfellows forced to travel together who find themselves reluctantly bonding along the way. Like that book, it also introduces us to a new setting, a new mythology, and to a new narrator / hero.
Jennie: I always forget how much I like a good road trip story until I read one. Thick as Thieves did remind me a little of The Thief.
Janine: Kamet is almost an everyman figure, and there is a refreshing normalcy about the way he struggles to accept his new and nightmarish reality of being hunted and almost surely doomed.
Jennie: Everyman figure is a good description – he’s not a compelling hero like Gen but he has relatability that makes him more interesting than he would otherwise be. There again, I think his personality, such as it is, is chiefly formed by his slave status. Kamet is so featureless that it’s rather ironic that his one strongly identifiable characteristic is pride (though that, of course, is also related to his status as a “valuable” slave).
Janine: For me his most identifiable characteristic was his drive to survive, but his pride probably came in second. I didn’t find him featureless. He had a cultured sensiblity, love of literature, and also this slightly acidic quality, almost snarkiness, to him. I do agree that he was formed by his experiences while in slavery, but he’d spent most of his life enslaved.
As a longtime reader, I at first found it amusing to hear Kamet relate his impressions of Attolia and his suppositions about its king. But when we learn more about the deep loneliness he experienced in Attolia, a sense of being unappreciated and alienated from almost everyone there due to having been a slave, his thoughts about it take on a melancholy cast.
With his master’s death, the future Kamet expected to have is wiped clean, and so is his sense of his own identity. If he is not Nahuseresh’s secretary, then who and what is he? If he is now an escaped slave, does that mean he is a free man? What is the nature of this freedom, and what does it mean to him to be free? The exploration of Kamet’s new and emerging sense of self made for a powerful and resonant theme.
Jennie: I totally agree. Kamet at the beginning of the novel was so entrenched in the slave mindset that he could no longer value freedom. I think it scared him, but he also simply couldn’t see himself clearly in relation to his master – his master’s status was *his* status, and he valued that over freedom. Even closer to the end of the novel, there’s the bittersweet sense that Kamet did give something up to gain what he gained.
Janine: My reading was that early on, Kamet couldn’t bear to acknowledge how much freedom would mean to him, because he didn’t believe it would ever be within his reach. I read the bittersweetness you mention as being over his limited choices even in that later situation. His agency mattered to him a lot more than he wanted to admit.
Jennie: I also thought that his youth when he was enslaved was a factor; he was young enough that slavery was almost the only life he’d ever known. Kamet could be seen as akin to being brainwashed.
Janine: He was a young child then and likely had to find a rationalization that would help him survive captivity.
Although the Attolian is not identified by name (to the reader; Kamet is well aware of his identity), he is a character whom readers have encountered in the past. I enjoyed his presence in the story, and I don’t want to spoil who he is for readers by saying whether or not I figured it out, so I will hide that information.
Spoiler (“spoiler”): Show
The Mede Empire is almost a third character in the story, and we get to know it much better here than we have before. I appreciated that here we meet some Medes who aren’t smarmy and scheming villains in Nahuseresh’s vein, but ordinary people to whom Attolia is not a chess piece.
The myths which Kamet shares with his friend are written in verse, which makes them a bit less entertaining than the myths narrated by the characters in the earlier books, but I appreciated the use of verse for the way Ennikar and Immakuk’s journey echoed not just that of Kamet and the Attolian, but also that of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
Jennie: I’ll be honest; I might’ve skimmed the myths a little.
Janine: As in the other books, immortals intervene to influence the characters’ fates, but in this book, that intervention was subtler. It almost went over my head completely, but once I worked it out, I liked that subtlety very much.
Jennie: Um, it might’ve been too subtle for me? Like, I’m-not-sure-what-you’re-referring-to subtle?
Spoiler (“spoiler”): Show
To answer a question I’m certain is on the minds of fans, that of how much of Eugenides we see in this novel, the answer is: not much. He does not appear on the page until the 86% mark. Of course, I missed his presence and that of Irene. When we do see them, we experience a new development in their lives in a brief but almost profound way.
The pacing of this novel is a bit uneven. It has a quick start and then slows down for a while before picking up steam later on. The last section is the most exciting, and quite satisfying. As with the other books in the series, there is a twist in the tale, and while I anticipated one aspect of the twist, I did not guess another.
Jennie: I didn’t have as many issues with the pacing as you did – I felt like the slower parts were punctuated with action (usually Kamet and the Attolian running into some sort of trouble) so the story never got too slow for me. My chief issue was probably Kamet’s belief that he couldn’t possibly come clean to the Attolian, even after it was amply demonstrated that the Attolian was trustworthy and his friend. On the one hand, I could see this as an illustration of Kamet’s self-protective slave mindset. But ultimately, the more it was brought up (Kamet fretted about it a lot) the more it felt either like a huge blind spot in Kamet’s powers of perception – and presumably those should be well-honed by his enslavement – or simply a plot convenience to maintain narrative tension.
Janine: I’m trying to remember if that bothered me. Maybe slightly. I think I ascribed it almost as much to Kamet’s assessment of the Attolian’s king, over whose actions the Attolian had no control.
Jennie: That’s fair. We know that Kamet’s view of the king of Attolia is very skewed until late in the story.
Janine: I’m curious as to whether rereading the book with the knowledge of all the things I figured out or learned toward the end will make the book more exciting, as has happened with most of the Queen’s Thief books. They are never the same book the second time that they were the first.
Jennie: I think the only downside (if it is a downside) to Turner’s style is that I’ve come to expect that things aren’t as they seem in the course of the story, so the surprises have become less surprising. Still, Thick as Thieves was entertaining and enjoyable, and even surprisingly poignant in its depiction of an enslaved man’s mindset. My grade is a high B+ (maybe an A-?).
Janine: I was going to give this a B+ initially, but it’s stayed with me longer than other books I’ve read afterward, so it’s on the cusp of an A- for me, too.