2020’s Return of the Thief is the sixth and final volume in Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series.
Born lame and mute, by custom Pheris should have been exposed or smothered at birth. His mother spares him, a ploy to spite his grasping, malevolent grandfather Baron Erondites. The powerful baron has a misshapen grandson and heir, ha ha ha! The baron has good reason to have him killed. Pheris survives only because he seems completely meek and inoffensive. But he has a secret: he’s actually extremely intelligent and adept at manipulating others. His doting nurse coaches him in concealment.
Eventually Pheris is sent off to serve at court, as is customary for aristocratic heirs. He becomes an attendant to High King Eugenides.
There’s little doubt that the baron will have his disgraceful grandson murdered once Pheris has served his purpose . Death may come at any moment … until then, Pheris is experiencing court life at an interesting moment in history of the Peninsula.
After long struggle, famed Thief Eugenides (Gen) has become high king of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. His position is the result of political compromise’ Gen is not popular and is often called to prove his worthiness to the throne. Gen might have sent the unpromising Pheris back home, to be murdered as surplus to needs. Instead, Gen permits Pheris to take his rightful place in the court.
Having seen past Pheris’ carefully cultivated surface, the high king arranges for Pheris to be educated. Although Pheris is pessimistic and untrusting by nature, the promise of knowledge — in particular, access to higher mathematics — wins him over. Very gradually, he begins to relinquish his most closely guarded secret, that there is a very active mind hiding in plain sight.
Gen becomes quite fond of Pheris.
Pheris puts this to the test when he betrays a state secret to his younger brother (one of the few to whom Pheris reveals his intelligence), but his bond with the king holds. Few can say they are the favourite of a king. Too bad for both that this king seems as doomed as Pheris himself.
The mighty Mede Emperor has set his eye on the three kingdoms of the Peninsula. Previous cunning gambits having been confounded by crafty Gen, the Emperor sets aside subtlety in favour of dispatching a vast army to crush the Peninsular kingdoms. Unless Gen can produce a miracle, Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis will be known only as obscure names found on outdated maps.
Providentially, Gen has powerful allies. Less fortuitously, Gen’s previous brilliant gambits have convinced said allies that Gen is an even greater threat than the Mede Empire.
This was supposed to have been posted in April. It was not and somehow I convinced myself it had been. Memory. It’s a thingie.
Readers with an interest in history may notice that the author has drawn inspiration from the Greco-Persian Wars (the Greek version thereof). While the model is obvious, the fact that this setting also includes such details as gunpower should make it clear no one-to-one correlation is intended. Indeed, relying too heavily on the source material will prove misleading.
Speaking of things not in the source material, gods play an active role in shaping the history of this world. This raises the question of divine reach. How localized are gods? Do they hold sway over the whole world under a myriad of names or at they just as regionally defined as Turner’s nation-states? The events of the series suggest that the second surmise is true. That would give local gods strong motivation to ensure that their worshippers are not pushed aside by another god’s devotees.
Turner has been adding volume by volume to her series since 1996; the first book in the series was published more than five ten twenty years ago. Readers who grew up reading certain other fantasy series may well be astounded that Turner has in fact finished her grand edifice. It seems that it is possible for someone with vision (and an outline) to keep track of all the plot threads and weave them together into a coherent whole within the span of a human lifetime, without leaving an unfinished edifice for someone else to finish. No doubt, HBO offers are even now winging their way towards Turner!
This volume is not merely a stopping point but a grand finale that delivers on all the promises made by the five earlier volumes.
1: First-born heirs have the glorious opportunity to serve as courtiers. They might also be described as hostages, as they are within easy sword-length of the high king’s soldiers if the courtier’s relatives should disappoint. This stratagem fails in its purpose if the relatives would just as soon be rid of the embarrassment.