Book review: The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, by Megan Whalen Turner

(Note: I have fallen SO BEHIND on my book reviews, I have half-a-dozen posts in my drafts folder, whoops. Will try to catch up as speedily as I can.)

This summer I re-read these this series after first encountering them relatively recently — maybe a handful of years ago. I found it interesting to re-evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths: world-building (with religions and excellent handling of complex politics); unusual and ambitiously complex romance development; a willingness to Go There and address consequences of trauma

Weaknesses: some characters are a little too naive for their ages/positions; some emotional moments a bit too heavy-handed or melodramatic

A little more detail and favorite quotes for each book:

The Thief: this book is a great example of many things, including: first-person POV that withholds info, trickster hijinks, and great reveals at the end. Also really heartbreaking stuff along the way and splendid fight scenes. One passage that stuck with me ever since the first time I read it was the scene in which Gen is stabbed through, as his friends watch from above [warning: contains all the spoilers]:

A light push from behind had forced me forward a half step. When I looked down, my shirt was lifted away from my chest like a tent, with a half inch of sword poking through a tear in the cloth. The point must have entered somewhere around the middle of my back but had slanted to come out near my armpit. I remembered very clearly that there was only a smear of blood on the steel.

…”You should have been a soldier,” Sophos said. “You were better than Ambiades ever was. I think that’s why he said, ‘Good riddance,’ again, and that’s when Pol — ” Sophos stopped.

…”Ambiades started to say something, but then you screamed.”

I screamed?

“We could hear you from the top of the cliff when they pulled the sword out,” Sophos told me, his voice shaking — and I remembered. That was the muddled and awful part. I’d felt my life dragged out with the sword, but in the end my life wouldn’t go. It had stretched between me and the sword. I think that only the power of the gods could have kept me alive, but my living was at the same time an offense to them. I should have died, but instead the pain went on and on. Dying would have been so much easier.

…”Everyone looked down at you,” he said. “Then we turned to look at Ambiades, and he didn’t care. I mean, we could see that he didn’t care that you were dead. I don’t think that he cared about anything anymore, not about me or the magus or Pol. And Pol, he just put out one hand and shoved Ambiades over the edge. And then –”

Sophos stopped for another deep breath before he went on. “Then he went over the cliff, too, with two of the Attolians. The magus tried to get out his sword, but the soldiers knocked him down.”

Sophos pulled his knees up to his chest and rocked back and forth as he cried.

Moving slowly, I lifted one hand to his leg to squeeze it. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I had liked Pol.

“I’ve known Pol my entire life,” Sophos said unevenly. “I don’t want him to be dead,” he insisted, as if his wishes should be granted. “He has a wife, and he has two children,” he wailed, “and I am going to have to tell them.”

Damn. That whole scene — damn. Amazing stuff, from the line about “I’d felt my life dragged out with the sword” and Sophos’ sense of responsibility along with his grief.

The Queen of Attolia: first, take a look at the cover.


How fucking scary is that?

I really don’t want to spoil that book, but let’s just say that there is a deeply impressive romance story here, as well as serious consideration of physical and psychological trauma, which always wins points with me. However, I’m not completely convinced by the love story, for all that. I’m not convinced either that one may fall in love originally in the manner described, or that such a love could survive the trauma that befalls the relationship.

However, there’s also more A+ politics and geopolitical conflict. Very realistic.

The King of Attolia: I did have more problems with this book. First, the solid parts:

I loved the introduction of a new character through whose POV we observe the new royal dynamic in Attolia and understand all the protagonist’s resentments. I also understood the scope of Gen’s game and how it all paid off in incredibly impressive ways. The assassination attempt was also a masterful scene.

I had issues with the public scenes between the king and queen, however, especially as they started to drop their guard. I especially had issue with Gen, apart from how deliberately he made himself ridiculous. The lack of emotional restraint regarding the queen was…so frustrating and naive.

But I also wonder how much the audiobook reader is to blame for emphasizing the wrong things. That can play a huge part, and I don’t feel the same annoyance when I read certain passages.

One amusing excerpt of the king’s cousins threatening to pin him in his sickbed:

“You cannot keep me in bed!”

“Of course I can,” said Aulus calmly. “A damn sight easier than I can get you to do anything else. I’ll lie down on top of the covers on this side. Boagus can lie on the other. You’ll be trapped like a kitten in a sack, and before you can work out a suitable revenge, Boagus and I will be safely posted to a distant and very invisible location, far beyond the reach of his royal petulance the King of Attolia.”

A Conspiracy of Kings:

This book broke the mold, so to speak, in switching to a previously minor character — Sophos. I thought it an excellent and realistic portrait of a royal heir was never intended to be such, nor did he desire it.

He was, unfortunately, naive in some terrible cringe-worthy ways, which were painful to get through (especially toward the end). Still, there were some great geopolitical machinations and creative stuff involved.

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