Saturday, 30 October 2021

#CBR13 Books 48-50: "The Queen's Thief series books 4-6" by Megan Whalen Turner

CBR13 Bingo: Old Series (the first book in the series came out in 1996. The first book in this review came out in 2010 - it's taken a long time for Whalen Turner to complete it)

A Conspiracy of Kings
Page count: 362 pages
Audio book length: 8hrs 26mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Sophos, the heir to Sounis, is rusticating with his mother and sisters, having been sent away from his uncle's court for generally being considered a disappointment. He keeps ignoring his tutors and weapons training, which turns out to be a problem when mercenary soldiers come to the estate with nefarious plans. Sophos is abducted and disguised as a runaway slave and discovers later that his mother and sisters were taken hostage and are hidden away by one of his uncle's rebel barons. There's a planned coup afoot, where the rebel barons want to kill Sophos' uncle and install him as their puppet king. Sophos ruins their plans by managing to escape, but as he has been very successfully disguised as a slave, he is recaptured by actual slavers and ends up working the fields at the estate of the very baron who seems to be leading the plot against the crown.

Meanwhile, Sophos' royal friends, like Eugenides, the King of Attolia, and Helen, the Queen of Eddis, believe Sophos to have been killed in the attack on his estate. They are therefore extremely relieved when he shows up unexpectedly in Attolia along with the Mage of Sounis, his former tutor. By this point, Sophos discovers that his uncle has fallen, and now he, Sophos, is King of Sounis. He needs to recount his tale of captivity and escape, before he begs aid from Eddis and Attolia to muster enough troops to actually secure his throne. 

Sophos shows up as a supporting character in The Thief and is later mentioned in The Queen of Attolia. I never thought much about him, and remember trying to start A Conspiracy of Kings once before, many years ago. I never really got very far because the story of Sophos just didn't interest me all that much, but this time, I was firstly determined to finish the entire series, and secondly, listening to the books in audio, with Steve West narrating, so I pressed on. I'm glad I did. While the book is in no way my favourite of the series, it Whalen Turner is a talented writer, and seeing Sophos come into his own was a much more interesting story than I had first expected. His understated romance with Helen, Queen of Eddis is also very sweet. 

Thick as Thieves
Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 8hrs 47mins
Rating: 3 stars

Official book description: 
Deep within the palace of the Mede emperor, in an alcove off the main room of his master’s apartments,. Kamet minds his master’s business and his own. Carefully keeping the accounts, and his own counsel, Kamet has accumulated a few possessions, a little money stored in the household’s cashbox, and a significant amount of personal power. As a slave, his fate is tied to his master’s. If Nahuseresh’s fortunes improve, so will Kamet’s, and Nahuseresh has been working diligently to promote his fortunes since the debacle in Attolia.

A soldier in the shadows offers escape, but Kamet won’t sacrifice his ambition for a meager and unreliable freedom; not until a whispered warning of poison and murder destroys all of his carefully laid plans. When Kamet flees for his life, he leaves behind everything—his past, his identity, his meticulously crafted defenses—and finds himself woefully unprepared for the journey that lies ahead.

Pursued across rivers, wastelands, salt plains, snowcapped mountains, and storm-tossed seas, Kamet is dead set on regaining control of his future and protecting himself at any cost. Friendships—new and long-forgotten—beckon, lethal enemies circle, secrets accumulate, and the fragile hopes of the little kingdoms of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis hang in the balance.

Kamet is a very minor, barely mentioned character who appears in The Queen of Attolia, as the personal secretary of Nahuseresh, the Mede ambassador to Attolia. Due to Eudenides' schemes, Nahuseresh has to flee Attolia in disgrace, and hatred between the former ambassador and the former Queen's thief is strong. In this book, Kamet finds himself cast adrift, fleeing for his life accompanied only by an Attolian stranger, who claims he can help Kamet - but who can help a slave whose master has been murdered? The fate of all slaves in the Mede empire is to die with their master, as a runaway, Kamet is risking terrible torture and certain death if he's caught. 

Kamet's near-constant companion in this long journey from Mede to Attolia is Costis, once a guard in the Attolian royal guard, now sent on this special mission by his king. While Kamet remembers his time in the Attolian court as mostly a chore and has the impression of the Attolians as backward, primitive people, his time in and out of dangerous situations with Costis slowly begins to change his mind.

Very much a bridging book, spending time with two minor characters of the series, this book nevertheless shows the readers further aspects of Whalen Turner's excellent world-building and characterisation. Her books feature so many different cultures, traditions, attitudes, and religious beliefs and this "road trip" narrative (except the two protagonists are mostly on foot) is an interesting way to show more of the fictional universe of these characters. 

Return of the Thief
Page count: 480 pages
Audio book length: 11hrs 22mins
Rating: 4 stars

After the marriage of Sophos, King of Sounis and Helen, Queen of Eddis - who have both sworn allegiance and fealty to Eugenides, King of Attolia, the one-handed former thief of Eddis now finds himself High King of all three nations. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in all three countries who are unhappy about this and Eugenides and Irene of Attolia need to make sure there aren't civil uprisings within their own lands, as the powerful Mede empire prepares to wage war on the little peninsula, perfectly happy to annex all three countries.

In a story told mostly through the eyes of Pheris, a young physically disabled man who has been sent to the Attolian court by his ruthless grandfather, Baron Erondites. The king has ordered that Erondites' heir be raised at court, and in an attempt to spite the crown, Erondites sends his previously hidden away eldest grandson, who everyone believes to be a speechless idiot. However, Pheris, while unable to speak and frequently suffering terrible pains because of his disabilities, is very intelligent and has been taught to communicate through sign language by his nurse. He has learned that it's best to appear as insignificant and invisible as possible, but it doesn't take long before the Attolian king understands that his newest attendant is more of an asset than he appears, or Erondites ever suspected. 

After more than 20 years, this final volume in the Queen's Thief series came out in late 2020. That, and the "Old series" square on this year's Cannonball Bingo card, provided the impetus I needed to finish the series myself. It was really nice to revisit the first three books and remind myself of the early books, and the Audible audiobooks narrated by Steve West were all really well done. I appreciate the various ways in which Whalen Turner changes up narrators and explores unexpected parts of her fictional universe, to give the reader a bigger picture of everything going on. The characters are complex, multi-faceted and flawed in interesting ways. Being the final book in the series, Return of the Thief really won't have the proper impact if you read it without having read the previous five. Technically, you can probably skip Thick as Thieves, but all the books are very entertaining, so why deprive yourself of a few hours of good writing?

I saw one of the reviewers on Goodreads saying it was bittersweet to reach the end, but I really liked seeing where the characters all ended up, and appreciated the completion of the metaphorically and sometimes literally long journeys they have been on to where they finished their stories. I note that Whalen Turner has left the door open to return to her fictional world with a potential Queen's Thief - the next generation. Only time will tell if she does. 

Judging the books by their covers: As I said in my review of The King of Attolia, I really like these new elegant covers for the books, looking like little historical dioramas. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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