Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Thick as Thieves

Thick as Thieves
by Megan Whalen Turner
Recommended Ages: 12+

In a fantasy world inspired by ancient Greece, a slave named Kamet has realistic hopes of becoming the most powerful man in the Empire. Already he wields enough independent power over the household goods of his His master, which more than makes up (in Kamet's mind) for the occasional savage beating. Plus, Nahuseresh, the younger brother of the heir to the dying emperor, has signaled his intent to give Kamet to his brother as a coronation gift. Then one fateful day, Kamet's life is changed by two encounters in the corridors of Nahuseresh's home in the imperial capital. First, a burly soldier from the tiny, independent country of Attolia whispers to him that if he wants to be free, Kamet should meet him later. Kamet's initial reaction is to bust a gut laughing: Free? In that filthy, uncultured backwater? But then, a maidservant Kamet secretly loves and trusts whispers that their master is dead, poisoned; and when the emperor finds out, the entire household staff will be tortured and killed, starting with Kamet.

So Kamet and the Attolian, only much later identified as Costis, begin a long trek across the Empire, pursued by a force of imperial law that, Kamet knows, reserves its most terrible punishments for crimes related to slavery. Slave rebellion, slave escape, slave theft – compared to these crimes, assassinating a high ranking member of the royal family is a minor infraction. The unlikely pair marches across forbidding landscapes, hunted by vicious animals and equally vicious men – from imperial bodyguards to slave traders. They tangle with the violently insane, with treacherous cowards, with bounty hunters and (this part will seem familiar to some, nowadays) with health officials whose plague prevention measures are monstrous.

Meanwhile, Costis and Kamet form an odd bond that Kamet is slow to recognize as friendship. It tests the level of priority he places on his own survival. It challenges his ideas about strength and weakness, foolishness and wisdom, savagery and civilization, slavery and freedom. Their journey binds them together in a friendship that mimics the heroes of a series of myths that Costis likes to hear Kamet tell, and at one moment whose effect teeters between chilling and heartwarming, they experience something that makes them wonder whether it's more than a myth.

Of course, their whole adventure serves a purpose understood only by the maddening, wonderful, self-contradictory King of Attolia – a man so obviously flawed, weak and stupid that his enemies always underestimate him; a man so unbelievably good, strong and brilliant that, when he finally sees him up close, Kamet immediately has his measure and blurts out a word that changes how both of them are addressed from then on. It's an adventure with a clever twist that, at one point early in the book, I guessed was coming, then forgot about for long enough that it surprised me when it came. It's a story with stories embedded in it, bearing witness to the romance of literature itself. It's a tale that conjures a whole, complex world, tests the character of the men in it and rewards the reader on a deep emotional level.

This is the fifth of soon-to-be six in the "Queen's Thief" series, preceded by The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings, all of which deservedly share a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for children's and young adult fiction. Book 6, Return of the Thief, is set to be released on Oct. 6, 2020. Turner is also the author of the young adult novel Instead of Three Wishes.

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