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Author Megan Whalen Turner Talks Fantasy, Inspiration, and Her New Queen’s Thief Novel: Thick As Thieves

thick as thieves cover

The wait is almost over. As of May 16th, Thick as Thieves, the latest book in the much-loved Queen’s Thief saga will finally be released!

Do you remember the world-wide breathless anticipation leading up to the release of a new Harry Potter book? That’s the same level of anticipation going through the hearts and minds of fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books right now. It would be a disservice to book-lovers everywhere if you didn’t hear about it.

(Full disclosure: these are my favorite books of all time.)

The Queen’s Thief takes place in a fantasy land inspired by ancient Greece. There, a man named Eugenides consorts with queens and kings to foil political machinations of the kingdoms that want to take over his homeland, both from nearby and the distant Mede empire. Eugenides is a thief, the personal thief of the queen of Eddis. He’s snarky, egotistical, charming, clever, and terrifying. He’s a character who could only be handled by a master writer because everything he says and does has about twelve different layers of meaning and you’ll always find more on re-reading.

There. If I had to summarize these books in one paragraph, that’s how I’d do it. But you don’t understand! You’ll notice I don’t call the Queen’s Thief books a series. That’s because they kind of aren’t. There’s an evolving story and Eugenides is always a central component, but at the same time all of the books stand alone and may barely even feature the titular thief! Instead we might get a story about a scrappy boy who must steal a mythical object, a queen who’s been forced to become heartless to keep her country in one piece, or a guard that just had to punch his king in the face.

The latest book, Thick as Thieves, is about a man named Kamet. As a slave to a member of the Mede royal family, Kamet simultaneously has a lot of power and none at all. He can buy and sell slaves for his master, order around slaves and servants, and lives in a fine palace. He’s also been given the opportunity to read and write as well as speak numerous languages. In many ways it’s a privileged existence, but is it really better than freedom?

It’s not a question he has long to ponder. After a sudden tragedy, Kamet has no choice but to run away with the help of a man from the distant land of Attolia, a country the Medes mean to conquer. The two have a lot of reasons to be at odds, but they have to work together to survive the dangers of bounty hunters, slavers, the elements, and even a lion. They really have no choice but to become friends. (And maybe fall in love, but I’ll let the fanfic writers make the call on that one.)

I was lucky enough to speak to Ms. Turner a bit about Thick as Thieves as well as the full Queen’s Thief saga.

TMS (Alex Townsend): In the Queen’s Thief novels you always change who the main character is, arguably always getting further from the titular thief, Eugenides. What’s your motivation behind that choice?

Megan Whalen Turner: I think Eugenides is always my main character, but every book gives me a chance to show him from a different perspective. That new perspective is sometimes just a change from first to third person and sometimes a view of him from the eyes of someone entirely new. That new perspective won’t mean very much, though, unless the reader understands more about the viewpoint characters, which means telling their stories, as well.

TMS: The main character in TaT is a Mede slave named Kamet who we first met in The Queen of Attolia and haven’t seen since. Did you always have plans to bring him back in a more central role? How would you describe his personality? Do you think he has a lot in common with Eugenides (in terms of ego and cunning perhaps)?

Turner: Thick as Thieves was originally meant to be the second half of The King of Attolia, before the first half of The King of Attolia decided to take up an entire book.

As for Kamet, I’d say that he’s smart and highly trained and has, like Eugenides, a burning desire to let the world know it.

TMS: Kamet is also the second disabled protagonist the novels have had. Was this a conscious choice for you or something that happened on its own? What do you feel is the significance of having handicapped heroes in a setting that doesn’t offer much in the way of technology or societal accommodation to aide them? Do you want their presence to send a message to readers, both handicapped and able-bodied?

Turner: Honestly, with every new addition, the books of The Queen’s Thief have become more and more of an homage to Rosemary Sutcliff. A British writer of the mid-20th century, she wrote mainly historical fiction set in Roman Britain with lots of battles and bloodshed and adventure. She wrote the kind of stories that she liked to read during the long hospital stays of her childhood.

In her story Warrior Scarlet, the main character has a birth defect that renders one arm almost useless. In Brother Dusty Feet, the main character can walk only with the aid of crutches. In Eagle of the Ninth, one of my favorite books, a newly-minted Centurion is hale and hearty on page one and by the end of the first chapter must face the fact that his broken leg will never heal properly, that he will never finish his twenty years of service and never be able to buy back his family’s farm.

I didn’t know the term “plot armor” back then, but I knew when it had been shattered. It made me wonder exactly what kind of people get to be the heroes in stories of blood and battle and adventure. And why.

“Show don’t tell” is advice pretty often given to writers. I actually think the original proscription is kind of questionable. Sometimes you should show, sometimes you should tell in your writing. In a larger sense, some books are written for showing the reader something to think about and some books are written more directly to tell the reader what to think. There’s room in this world for both kinds of book, for every kind of book (for books that involve no thinking whatsoever, hardly a neuron firing!), but I what I wanted to write was the kind of book that engages the reader, that shows them something they might want to think about. I didn’t mean to tell them what to think. So, no, I hope I’m not doing something as narrow and pointed as sending a message. I certainly don’t believe that’s what Sutcliff was trying to do when she wrote so many books I loved.

TMS: Thus far the Queen’s Thief novels have focused almost entirely on men. Do you have any plans to a book exclusively from a female perspective?

Turner: Hmmm. While it’s true that my viewpoint characters so far have been male, I can’t agree that the stories are focused entirely on men or even almost entirely on men. I do plan to write a book from a female perspective, but I’m afraid I’m not telling whether it’s a Queen’s Thief book. I try not to talk about that sort of thing in advance.

TMS: Queen’s Thief has always been a bit of a loose series, probably largely because of the long gaps between new volumes being published. It now seems to be marketed as a series of stand-alone books set in the same world. Was that your original intention or is that more of a marketing decision?

Turner: I wrote The Thief more than twenty years ago and over the course of time, the definition of “series” has changed out from under me. In my youth … back in the dark ages of the previous century … being a part of a series did not mean a book was a segment only of a larger story. In the Narnian Chronicles or Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, or Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising, every book had a beginning, a middle, and a resolution at the end. For years, the publishers of CS Lewis’s books couldn’t even settle on a numbering system to dictate the order in which they should be read. And is The Dark is Rising the first book in its series or is Over Sea, Under Stone? I started with The Grey King. My cousin read The Book of Three first while I was reading The Black Cauldron.

These days, it’s quite common for a book to have a cliffhanger ending, or to be only 1/3 of a story with its beginning in one volume and its end in another. While my books are definitely a set, I’m not sure anymore that they should be called a series. Now when people hear that word, they think they have to begin with book one. I don’t want them to think that. I want readers to know they can start anywhere, with any of my books, and there are upsides no matter where they begin.

That’s always what I was aiming for. Each book a whole and complete thing. It’s true—I did not expect it to take such a gobsmackingly long time between books, but the longer it took, the more I was determined not to leave my readers hanging on for some resolution in some future book that might be 14 years away.

TMS: Thick As Thieves reads largely like an epic, between the physical journey that takes place and the emotional development that Kamet goes through. Was this story inspired by any classic epics?

Turner: Not by an epic, no. I’ve mentioned The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff already. Back when I started The Thief, I was aiming to write a sort of historical fantasy, a mix of Sutcliff and Diana Wynne Jones and Joan Aiken, maybe with some of Peter Dickinson thrown in. I put allusions to all those authors in my book, cribbing a line from Jones and writing in a signet ring with a flawed emerald from Sutcliff’s story. I added more allusions to Sutcliff in The King of Attolia and by then, I knew that I wanted to revisit The Eagle of the Ninth. In EOTN, a former soldier and a slave begin a journey together and finish it as two free men. Sutcliff focused on the soldier and his emotional development, but I wanted Kamet to be at the center of my story.

TMS: How did you go about building the world of the Mede empire? What ancient cultures inspired you? I’m particularly interested in hearing about the roots of the poetry Kamet recites. Your books have always included short stories as part of the world-building, but never anything in this style.

Turner: Inspiration is unpredictable. I did go to the University of Chicago and I did study Greek Thought and Literature and I do have an interest in the writing of the Ancient Near East and yet … when you look at the poetry you are very unlikely to think of AS Byatt’s book Possession, but that’s what first made me think of using poems in Thick As Thieves.

TMS: One interesting theme that’s been present throughout the Queen’s Thief novels is the way you look at different social classes and humanize them all. Often in fantasy, royalty seems to be the only class that matters with maybe one odd hero or peasant getting to shine and join their world. In your books, poor thieves, soldiers, servants, and slaves have all had prominent focus. This complexity is especially emphasized in the new book with Kamet, a slave who is often beaten and mistreated, but is also in many ways more privileged than most of the Mede Empire. What appeals to you about focusing on characters in such a wide variety of social classes?

Turner: Human beings take big complicated messy things and simplify them so that they can be understood. That’s essential. If we didn’t do it, our ancestors would have been eaten by bears. But it means that we are always sliding, in an inverse to entropy kind of way, towards simplification, towards a single story, toward exactly what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned about. I was very lucky while growing up to be exposed to a lot of writers who pushed back against that simplification. That’s not the only kind of story I like to read, but it’s the kind of story I want to write.

Remember, Thick as Thieves comes out May 16th. Be sure to pick up a copy at your local bookstore or online!

(image: Harper Collins)

Alex Townsend is freelance writer, a cool person, and really into genderstudies and superheroes. It’s a magical day when all these things come together. You can follow her on her tumblr and see her comments on silver age comics. Happy reading!

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