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Return of the Thief, Megan Whalen Turner

October 11, 2020

Return of the Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, is a spectacular finale to one of the most fun-filled series of books I know.

If you haven’t yet read The Thief, it’s high time you did—it’s one of the best short novels I’ve ever read, with a surprising and spectacular ending. Once you’ve read it, though, you have four more to look forward to, plus this final novel which is so great I could have read it all in one afternoon but deliberately stopped and saved some of it for the next day so it wouldn’t all be over much too soon.

Return of the Thief is narrated by a new character, Pheris, an extremely vulnerable little boy being used as a political pawn by his powerful grandfather. When the king of Attolia asks for the new heir to one of his great estates “to be raised in the palace away from the malignant tendencies of his family,” he does not expect the arrival of Pheris, who has been taught that he must pretend to be a drooling idiot so that his family will leave him alone. Eventually Pheris and the king discover that when the other one is around they don’t have quite as easy a time fooling other people.

Readers get a number of interludes in which the king and Queen of Attolia communicate obliquely or directly, and enjoy the delight of those who are fond of them and know what they mean, after years of loving them both despite their many faults. I particularly enjoyed the part where the king is watching a satirical play in which he is the main figure of ridicule and comments to Attolia “I feel I am missing something in the references to wine,” to which she replies “I have increased the royal requisitions of it, as well as the other crops we are stockpiling.” The king’s disingenuous reply is “I don’t see why that’s my fault.” The country is preparing for war and while the king and queen may be irritated on a personal level, as rulers they are understanding that the play provides a safety valve for the feelings of “all those who resented the high taxes and the requisitions levied to support the war effort.”

It’s a marvelous thing to read about, in this day and age, when the leaders of a country are dedicated to their gods and serious about their responsibility to the people they serve. The king’s apology to Pheris, at one point, is so wise it hardly seems human. He has realized that the reason Pheris seemed to betray him at one point is because he had seen the king lose his temper: “I frightened you and I am sorry for that. You might otherwise have come to me when Juridius threatened you.” He also finally asks the boy if he wants to be the heir of his house, something no one else had even thought to ask, up to that point.

The king, Eugenides, still has moments when his emotions get the better of him, however. There is a fight to the pain, a dashing and heroic venture on horseback, a merry chase around the royal palace, and a moment when the barons of the great estates think they have the king cornered and he responds by saying “If you truly think the king may not oppose his united barons”—he paused while he lifted his hand to his mouth and used his teeth to pull the seal ring off his finger—“find yourselves another king.”

We also find out what happened to the rubies from the Attolian crown and “the diamond and sapphire collection colloquially known as the Attolian Skies.” They are used to buy some ships.

At one point when the queen of Eddis is nervous about what will happen in the war, her husband attempts to comfort her by saying “I’m sure Gen has a plan,” and she responds by saying “if that doesn’t frighten you, it should.” A little later, Gen himself reassures her by saying “Helen, you know how it will go. They will agree, like people always do, that it’s all my fault….They will embark on a long relationship of mutual respect and admiration and lecturing me.” And of course this does comfort her, for as the king himself points out “I am right. I am always right.”

As usual, some of Gen’s best plans are spontaneous, like when he is riding out to meet some opposing generals and discovers that they are riding elephants, rather than horses. Pheris is worried, realizing that even the gentlest horse “would go wild when confronted by an animal ten times his size, and the king was no rider to handle a badly spooked horse.” But “as if unaware of this looming humiliation, the king suddenly said ‘I really want one of those’” and then a whole game’s afoot, with the king ordering up all the melons from the breakfast table and walking up to the elephants, feeding them melons, patting them on their noses, and generally causing such a commotion that the generals have to climb down and meet the king and queen of Attolia on even terms.

Pheris is a masterful narrator, even calling his readers’ attention to the fact that “people are no less mysterious than the gods. If an author’s account of any man is tidy, you must believe it has been made so in contrast with the truth, which is rarely clear and never simple.” And before the end of the story Pheris has become a masterful courtier, finding a precarious way to serve the interests of his king in one of the very few instances when the king isn’t entirely aware of where his own best interests lie. In a novel full of clever characters delighting in each others’ cleverness, Pheris proves himself to be one of the cleverest.

Return of the Thief is all anyone could have hoped for, except that this series might never end.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2020 8:10 pm

    YESSSSSSS oh I am so glad you loved this. I did too. If I had only one wish it would have been to see slightly more of Costis and Kamet, but that feels very greedy considering we got one whole book of them. But I absolutely loved the scenes of Gen, Helen, Irene, and Sophos hanging out together doing government. Those were all amazing and I could have read ten million of them. What a great book. I adored Pheris. What a great series.

    • October 13, 2020 8:18 am

      I loved it so much! I feel like you and I are virtually holding hands and jumping up and down in delight because it’s so good!!! I was so delighted to discover your almost synchronous review!
      And yes, the scenes of Gen, Irene, Helen, and Sophos hanging out together are fabulous. The part where Irene gets the elephants for Gen… how can that be topped, in fiction?

  2. October 12, 2020 9:27 am

    Your enthusiasm for this is certainly infectious. It sounds like a terrific story.

    • October 13, 2020 8:19 am

      It is one of the best stories I know.

      • October 13, 2020 8:57 am

        On that recommendation, I’ve added it to my wish list.

  3. October 12, 2020 12:37 pm

    Okay, I’m going to add The Thief to my TBR list.

    • October 13, 2020 8:19 am

      You should! I can’t imagine that you won’t absolutely adore The Thief!

  4. October 19, 2020 6:54 am

    I decided before reading this I have to reread the whole series in order. Do I wait for them to come in from the library or just give in and buy my own copies? I have hopes that my son will read them too.

    Whenever and however I get around to it, I’m so glad to hear it was a worthy conclusion.

    • October 19, 2020 8:04 am

      I would buy copies of these books, because they are ones you and your son will probably want to reread.

      • October 20, 2020 3:21 am

        I think that’s what I’ll end up doing. Just have to figure out the most cost effective way.

  5. October 27, 2020 10:21 am

    Yes! It really is one of the best series out there. I can’t decide if the palace chase scene or the pulling Sophos out a window scene is my favorite.

    • October 27, 2020 10:29 am

      My vote goes to the palace chase scene. I was highly entertained.

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