Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner. ★★★1/2
At last, the fifth book in The Queen’s Thief series! While this book can theoretically be read independently, the previous books are good too so why not start with them? The series starts with The Thief, but the second book, The Queen of Attolia, remains my favorite.
After the debacle in Attolia, Kamet is glad to be back in Medes. As the slave of a powerful master, Kamet hopes to accumulate power and influence of his own. So when an Attolian solider offers to help him escape, Kamet laughingly dismisses him. Until he finds out that his master has been murdered and that he and the other slaves are to be put to death. Kamet and the Attolian solider (who is recognizable as Costis if you’ve read the other books) journey across the Mede empire, short on resources and constantly pursued.
Out of all the books in the series, Thick as Thieves is most reminiscent of the very first book: a first person account of a journey. However, Thick as Thieves for the first time moves the setting outside of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. I believe that each book in a series should expand the world in someway, and Thick as Thieves is wonderfully successful in this regard. Whereas the previous books in the series have add Greek mythology influences, Thick as Thieves expands the cultural lore to include elements similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh. That much I was able to perceive, although I’d guess there’s other elements of Babylonian and Sumerian culture and mythology that went over my head.
As I already noted, the plot structure is most similar to the first book in the series, which I’m not that thrilled about. The Thief was my least favorite book in the series, and I miss the third person political narratives of the other books. Oh, well. At least Turner’s writing is sublime and she does spin some characteristic plot twists that I failed to see coming.
Also characteristically, Turner’s character development is excellent. Kamet is a compelling first person narrator. His world has suddenly been upturned and he’s having to learn to think about it and himself in new ways. Plus, he’s for the first time developing an actual friendship, with someone who’s his equal.
And here lies a large topic of discussion I’ve seen among other reviewers: “Is the relationship between Costis and Kamet entirely platonic?” However, I’ll raise you another question: “Why is The Queen’s Thief series so heterosexual?”
Before reading Thick as Thieves (or even hearing the buzz about possible homoerotic subtext), I wanted the novel to add canonically queer characters. Their absence from the world Turner’s constructed is especially notable given that the series draws so heavily off of classical culture and mythology. And as someone who’s studied Latin for five years (including Catullus), let me tell you, the ancient world was not heteronormative.
It’s something I thought about when I read and reviewed the fourth book in the series back in fall 2015, but I didn’t mention it in my review. Instead, I saved my criticism for a vague tumblr post. I haven’t normally criticized books for failing to include queer characters, but I find myself less tolerant of this as time goes on. It’s sort of similar to growing dissatisfaction with narratives that don’t include women (who are also largely absent from Thick as Thieves as it happens).
With the previous books, it was easily excusable. But since the first book was published in 1996 and the fifth in 2015, children’s and young adult publishing has gone a long way towards becoming more inclusive. After all, it’s not like a Queen’s Thief book that included non-heterosexual characters wouldn’t find readers — the series already has a devoted fandom, and Rick Riordan has proved that an established series can add queer characters and still be successful.
When I heard other reviewers saying they saw queer subtext in Thick as Thieves, I was interested but wary. I want queer representation, but subtext isn’t representation. And to be frank, I’m tired of subtext.
Personally, I didn’t read any romantic undertones in the relationship between Costis and Kamet. I didn’t see any of the romantic or sexual language that I typically see when an author’s establishing a relationship as romantic. The closest Thick as Thieves comes is when a supporting character mistakes Costis and Kamet as lovers, which is the first acknowledgement from the series that queer people do exist. It’s also a type of scene that I’ve seen before and never been fond of. It basically feels like the author’s trying to position their work as queer inclusive… without ever actually including queer characters.
To all the people saying that men can have friendships without it being romantic: fair point. However, the Queen’s Thief series isn’t exactly lacking when it comes to depictions of male friendship (which is far more prevalent than the female equivalent), but it hasn’t included any romantic relationships between male characters. If Kamet and Costis were a romantic couple, it wouldn’t erase the friendship between Costis and Gen, Gen and Sophos, or any of the other positive relationships between male characters in the series.
While I personally didn’t see Costis and Kamet’s relationship as romantic, I’m not saying that readers who did aren’t onto something. I’ve always been terrible about telling the difference between romance and friendship (grey-aro here!), so I’m hardly the best person to judge here. I’ve seen some people saying they think Turner left the nature of Costis and Kamet’s relationship purposefully ambiguous. I really hope that’s not the case. It’s one thing for an author to accidentally write a relationship with perceived queer subtext, but it’s quite another to purposefully create an ambiguous, “are they/aren’t they” scenario. That would be queerbaiting. As the case stands, I don’t think Thick as Thieves can be called queerbaiting, but it’s a thought worth mentioning.
When I said that I wanted the series to include queer characters, I never meant the leads. Just some minor characters to show that queer people do have a place in the world Turner’s created. Yet subtext is not sufficient, and I’m not pleased that this ostensible subtext is being praised in some circles as progressive.
Thick as Thieves is a well written narrative which I found enthralling. I read this entire young adult novel in a single Sunday afternoon. Yet, at the same time, it’s a bit of a disappointment.