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Thick as Thieves

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?

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. I loved this book, as I have loved every book in the series. But as I was reading it, I kept wondering to myself what made it a book for young people, other than that previous books in the series were (arguably) for young people? I don’t think we’re ever given ages, but Kamet and Costis both felt entirely adult to me. If this was the first book in the series instead of the fifth, I would’ve been scratching my head as to why it was published for youth instead of adults. I can see some YA themes of understanding your place in the wider world, and recontextualizing your relationships with authority figures, but I didn’t feel that they were explored in a manner that was necessarily unique to youth sensibilities.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      That’s a totally fair question. The criteria for Printz mean that this is eligible regardless — although a committee can choose to consider the “for teens” in the award name as a point of merit, and use that as a reason to knock it off the table.

      Does anyone have teen feedback on this? The series doesn’t move well for us.

  2. I loved this, and I loved discussing it and finding new wrinkles with people, but if this gets any recognition I will be shocked. In a good way, but shocked nonetheless.

    And this is probably anecdotal, but I was a teen who loved the series and now I know teens who do (though not in a formal educational setting!)

    It’s definitely not your traditional coming-of-age, though, because Kamet doesn’t come of age as much as have his entire world upended and have to readjust. I’m wondering now if this is the reason Queen and King were never recognized? Gen is presumably a teenager in both, but they’re much more adult in feel and theme as well; it’s only Conspiracy that can be viewed as a traditional coming-of-age, I think.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Is Gen a teen in Queen and King? Because I thought originally he was 12-14 in Thief, but when I reread them and in light of the later books, I think he’s a small 16-18 in that first book, and in his 20s by the later ones.

      • I think he’s a teen in them – late teens, maaaaybe 20, by King. But Turner has never discussed the ages, and there are a lot of posts on the Sounis blog/journal/whatever speculating on all their ages. (Some are tagged, some aren’t.) It’s an interesting conversation – I always like reading people’s thoughts on this!

  3. I loved THICK AS THIEVES, too. We added it to our BSD Mock Printz list for teens to consider their favorites. It was our only fantasy add this year. I haven’t read other books in the series but have noted that at least one has won a Newbery (Queen, I think.) I appreciate the review because I missed all the references to gods. Makes me like the book even better.

  4. I can throw a lot of support behind this one, but you’ve covered those things, so I want to mention the thing that kept giving me pause while reading:

    The whole “I must not let the Attolian find out about the dead master everything would be terrible then!” line of reasoning.

    First off, the worldbuilding never told me why he thought this would be such a big deal to Costis or to the King of Attolia. They’re already stealing a high-powered slave in an inflammatory act, why would it be such a bigger deal if it was a high-powered-presumed-murderous slave? Why would Kamet think they would abandon him or kill him over it? What is our cultural and worldbuilding context for this assumption? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t on the page (though I will grant two things: I’ve only read it once, and that was with the flu). Now, were I more thoroughly steeped in the worldbuilding from the previous books (I’ve read each of them only once, and while I don’t think I had the flu for any of them, the details are not super-concrete in my mind) I might have had that background–but it’s such an important part of the motivation and the plot that if really understanding it requires prior knowledge, that perhaps does speak to how well it works on its own.

    Second–and in this case bolstered by knowing the limited knowledge and potential unreliability of this series’s narrators–I could buy Kamet’s belief in this supposition, but not that he was right about it. Which of course he is. My narrative fluency looked at this clearly-limited, biased narrator and told me that of course Costis knew about the dead master and Kamet was being his snobbish self-centered self in assuming otherwise. I spent 90% of the book convinced that Costis knew and this was Kamet making hay out of nothing (or a cultural difference) and we had an “uh… duh.” conversation coming up. So when Costis found out and was pissed, I was left with even more “how does this fit into the worldbuilding?” questions and was left with a less-firm sense of the relationship and actions to that point.

    And then of course it’s not even true, and I threw my hands up at trying to figure out the politics of this. And yes, the labyrinthine politics are a feature, not a bug, of the series, but I felt like this was a concrete enough element that I *should* be able to parse this small facet of the politics and not need to resort to “okay, whatever you say, characters, I give up.” Especially because this is not a series where “whatever you say, characters” is an especially good response to, well, anything any of the characters say ever.

    Ugh. I’m not sure I explained this well and sometimes I come back to “maybe I am just not clever enough,” but it really struck me as an utterly unsupported character assumption that damaged the overall stability of the plot and relationships.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Ugh why do you have to raise good points that derail my ability to believe that this is the year MWT will get YA recognition?

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