The Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Megan and I have followed Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series for years, and we both pre-ordered the final book, The Return of the Thief, months before publication. And we both read it within the week we received it! Readers: this is highly unusual for us at Redeemed Reader. Normally, we “divide and conquer,” rarely reading the same title as each other within such close proximity. Since this book is closing out a series, we thought we’d discuss it Newbery Buzz style instead of offering a more traditional review.

Special Note: this review is for fans of the series. We are assuming readers are familiar with the first 5 books. It is impossible to review this latest book without spoilers for earlier books in the series. That being said, we’ll try to refrain from spoilers related to this book in particular.

Betsy: Megan, I don’t know about you, but I loved the narrator’s character. Pheris is a new character for this book, and I admire an author who can wield different narrators so skillfully. Pheris’s narration shapes the experience of this book in distinct ways, and he is a brilliant choice: allowing us to get an up close and personal look at Eugenides, in particular, but the entire royal court as well. And yet, Pheris is a character in his own right; he doesn’t feel like a construct just to tell the story. 

What was a part or element about this book that you enjoyed? 

Megan: Megan Whalen Turner has mastered the plot twist! In dire circumstances, things are never what you expect. Her characters change for better and for worse, and I think that is realistic. She certainly kept this reader on her toes! I expected that Costis and Kamet, who were major players in the last book, to be more significant characters in this one. Not so, but that’s okay. She certainly knows how to spin stories, and stories within stories. 

Sometimes she hints at something that I have a hard time catching on to, like the recurring volcano dream, and it helped to discuss the meaning with my husband. Was there anything that perplexed you, or did you feel like you had a clear sense of the story at the end?

(Betsy: What IS the significance of the volcano? I was a bit befuddled on that one (but then again, I was gobbling this book up pretty quickly!).

Megan: My husband pointed out Gen’s promise that any citizens of the mountainous country of Eddis who joined forces with Attolia would be awarded land, and as a result, many lives were spared from the threat of a volcano.)

Betsy: You’re absolutely right: the characters change like “regular people” as they age, and the plot continues to keep readers on their toes. I was fully expecting a main character to die because Turner is the kind of author with guts to pull that off. I’ll leave readers in suspense about that, but I’ll add that she ends the series on a very hopeful note full of future promise for all of the characters left at the end of the book. 

Megan: Nicely worded, my dear!

Betsy: I’ve enjoyed the interplay between Gen and the various gods/goddesses in Turner’s world. Earlier in the series, I often thought that those interactions were strikingly similar to the ways in which we might describe the Lord’s providence and the need to chastise us. The Return of the Thief includes some dramatic scenes along these lines (um, that lightning bolt!). Yet, I felt that the nature of the gods/goddesses in this final book seemed more Greek—they appeared more arbitrary and the people more subservient than in previous books. The second-to-last chapter includes a scene of great joy and dancing, which reminded me of one of my favorite parts in The King of Attolia, but the final chapter/epilogue seemed a bit different. Did you get that same impression?

Megan: I found it interesting which characters were able to actually interact with the gods/goddesses, and who couldn’t. It makes you think of the significance of faith and having a genuine relationship with the divine, doesn’t it? Our God doesn’t answer our questions so directly, but thankfully He has provided clear instruction in His Word.

Betsy: Yes! I think faith–specifically a childlike faith–does come through as a strong thematic element.

Megan: Betsy, there was one thing that disappointed us both. Want to share your thoughts about that?

Betsy: Sure, Megan. It’s not unusual in 2020 for a series to start adding in LGBTQ elements even if previous books in the series didn’t have any. And this book follows suit. Two male characters that we met in previous books are clearly in a romantic relationship in this book. I haven’t re-read the earlier books in which they appeared, but I don’t remember any hints to this end. Although they’re not primary characters, they have certainly played key roles previously. Kamet and Costis, from Thick as Thieves, are left a little more ambiguous; readers could read into their relationship, or not. It’s two other characters that I wasn’t expecting at all. But I think the general tone in this book is more “Greek,” if you will: casual references to various lovers and mistresses for many people, the matter of fact treatment of the main homosexual male relationship, and the way everyone in the book takes people’s relationships at face value. It’s not a prominent part of the book, but it’s also not something readers will miss.

What did you think about it? 

Megan: The insertion of a gay relationship was a disappointment, one that I was praying would not appear, primarily because it would be so clearly a compromise with modern culture. It seemed gratuitous, not essential to the story. It felt like Turner was surrendering under pressure, because I cannot recall any hint of it in previous books. That being said, there aren’t any unflawed characters, which is a realistic portrayal of fallen humanity. But while there is growth and evidence of reconciliation on the part of everyone else, part of the happy ending promised that the parted male lovers would meet again. I really didn’t need that.

The gods occasionally offer mild rebukes, but there is no real mention of sin or redemption, is there? That is such a big part of responding to how we respond as redeemed readers. The Bible isn’t shy about describing egregious sins, but it never excuses or welcomes the sinner unchanged into the covenant community for the celebration and fellowship. There is always repentance and forgiveness first. 

Betsy: That’s a good point, Megan. It’s worth musing over: do we see repentance and true fellowship in this book? I think we see fellowship at many levels. Gen’s own machinations behind the scenes work to that end as he protects Pheris, works brilliant, undercover military strategies, and allows the queens to keep face on the surface. Yet, people must love him or hate him on his terms. Perhaps the only time we see him truly humbled IS before his god, right? He certainly submits in that sphere if not in any other. 

This book wraps up a very complex and literary fantasy series: plenty of blood and gore, battle scenes, court intrigue, an enormous cast of important characters, geographical issues, love, king- and queenship, meaty themes…. I think it’s the most mature of Turner’s series by far. What do you think? 

Megan: Definitely the most mature and most complicated. One thing I have to give Turner credit for is that the women are strong, but they are treated as ladies. They rule countries and go towards battle, but they do not put on armor and fight in disguise. The men are gentlemen who respect them and honor their femininity. Younger teens (13-15?) could read the first three or four books, but the last couple are better read with maturity and discernment by teens 16 and up. 

Betsy: I completely agree: Turner’s depictions of men and women are one of my favorite parts in this series! I do think teens who’ve thoughtfully read the first books in the series could continue with the rest a little younger–perhaps 14 or 15, depending on the reader. I’d hate for teens to read this series too young, though, and get bogged down. Better to wait until they’re able to read it discerningly and able to appreciate Turner’s significant literary artistry, even when they disagree with parts of the plot/characterization.

Readers, do you agree with our assessment? Have you read the rest of the series? (Let us know in the comments!)

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