Thick as Thieves

So, today’s post was scheduled to be about two new books in familiar worlds with thieves in them. But after rereading Thick as Thieves I decided to split them up — because really, both books (the other is Wein’s The Pearl Thief, of course) deserve full posts to themselves. Thick as Thieves delighted me when I […]

Thick as ThievesSo, today’s post was scheduled to be about two new books in familiar worlds with thieves in them. But after rereading Thick as Thieves I decided to split them up — because really, both books (the other is Wein’s The Pearl Thief, of course) deserve full posts to themselves. Thick as Thieves delighted me when I read it for the first time, back in February, but I wanted to love it so much that I wondered if maybe I had loved it despite issues. After rereading it, I’m convinced I didn’t love it enough the first time around, because once I was past that first read to find out what was going to happen, I was able to sit back and really be blown away by Turner’s writing, which is frankly genius.

Thick as Thieves, Megan Whalen Turner
Greenwillow, May 2017
Reviewed from ARC

A few notes before I dive all the way in. Thick as Thieves is set in Turner’s alternate ancient world, which is inspired by ours but also very much its own place. This is the fifth book in this long-running series, so it’s the sort of thing we usually write off for Printz consideration. However, I think this one truly works as an independent book, with a fully rounded plot and character arc, regardless of the aspects that tie into the much larger plot threads that continue to be tugged, mostly by Gen, who appears here towards the end but is not a central character. Likewise, knowing the Attolian is (spoiler, but as always, that’s how we roll) Costis is a wonderful tie to The King of Attolia, but I don’t see it mattering to an appreciation of the relationship between Kamet and Costis; it’s more of an Easter egg style reference than a critical element. But — I am a longstanding fan of this series, and I reread the previous four books just a few months before Thick as Thieves came into my hands, so maybe you have a different sense of how this reads to someone looking at it on its own merits? If so, have at it in the comments, because it matters significantly in the assessment of the Printz-worthiness of this one.

Ok, with that out of the way, let’s look at the book we have in front of us.

The Printz is an award for literary merit. No surprise, then, that readers (speculators and RealCommittee members) often seem to like books that reference the larger literary canon in some way. Turner goes on further, creating an epic within her story and not only referencing it but having Kamet recite significant sections of it as well. What is most striking is the syntactically awkward verse that sounds a lot like a translated epic that probably grew from an oral tradition before being committed to paper (or scroll, or tablet). I took an “epic and romance” class in college, with a reading list that covered Beowulf and Njal’s Saga, and Immakuk and Ennikar would have fit in perfectly. Right down to the awkward yet rhythmic stanzas. And like the larger world, they seem inspired by something historical (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) but also wholly original.

Added literary chops: Immakuk and Ennikar provide a story within the story, a parable for the friendship, and a metaphor that is critical to the turning point in the relationship — that moment when Costis says he thought they were Immakuk and Ennikar but maybe they were Senabid and his master (another made up text! Which we don’t even see or hear — and yet which the reader understands perfectly. This is how you build a world, people. With details and layers and depth.)

Speaking of the world: can we talk about the divine intervention? I knew the wine merchant was not human towards the end (when Kamet reflects that the merchant is the only reason they weren’t caught) and immediately suspected the scholar who sends Kamet back for Costis. The one-eyed wine merchant is Immakuk, I think (unless there’s another one-eyed god I’ve forgotten), and the scholar/prosperous gentleman is thus Ennikar.  The subtle presence of the gods among the humans is a nice touch; this is fantasy, after all, but so lightly done you could probably read it as straight historical fiction in an imaginary place.

 

Moving from the big (the world) to the small (Kamet), there’s the voice. Kamet is slightly fussy and spoiled, and keenly aware of his own self importance — but he’s also a slave, and has a worldview shaped by his own precarious existence. He’s got a kind of Stockholm Syndrome relationship with his master, and Turner has given him a voice that allows us to see this — in a first person narrative — without falling into the trap of it seeming absurd that the narrator can’t see what the reader is being told. It’s a difficult balance; Kamet has to reveal more than he thinks he’s revealing, but in a way that is consistent with how intelligent he is. It’s fitting that he’s short-sighted, physically and metaphorically. Kamet’s voice, and the character it reveals, is an achievement: Turner makes him strong and weak, independent and cowed, and slowly grows him into his new, free identity throughout the adventures. The slow revelations of the relationships he had in Attolia fascinated me; he seems so lonely, with only Laela as a friend, but it turns out that in Attolia he had a community, one which it seems he’s denied in many ways, presumably because it was so uncomfortable to see himself through others eyes.

(And again, not important in the context of this book considered alone, but I knew immediately that the boy for whom he translated Immakuk and Ennikar was Gen, and in the context of the larger series, it’s a perfect piece of character revelation about both Gen and Kamet.)

From a Printz perspective, where this might fall down is that the resolution sets up the next phase of the battle between the Medes and Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. But I’m not sure that this is a real issue, because the most powerful part of that resolution is what it means for Kamet, who has found friendship and finally been able to make a decision for himself and himself alone. It’s a strong, meaningful end to his journey, regardless of its meaning to the larger world.

So obviously, I’m enamored of this one, and think it deserves Printz recognition and (of course) the series deserves the Turner Award. The series thing shouldn’t matter for this book, but probably will, making it less likely than some of the other frontrunners, but I’d be awfully happy to see this already lovely cover sport a little more gold (or silver) come January. What do you think?

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