Thursday, May 25, 2017

Book Review: Megan Whalen Turner's Thick as Thieves

Yes, I know I was going to post this review last week. I had forgotten that I always read Megan Whalen Turner’s books twice through, once to enjoy the story and again to appreciate the tricky structure. Thick as Thieves was no exception.

How much can you say about a book that is the perfect vehicle for its story? As always, Megan Whalen Turner’s prose is clear, luminous, limpid. If you think of a novelist’s prose style as a window through which you see the story, hers is a windowpane so clean that you hardly know it is there. Like Mary Renault, she gives voice to an archaic period (she keeps saying on the basis of technology it’s a fifteenth-century world, but it feels much more like classical Greece to me) not by dragging in archaic words and phrases, but by stripping modern English of whatever shows modernity. She’s a master at avoiding contractions, slang, neologisms – anything that might yank the reader back into present time.

In all this, Thick as Thieves is like her previous four books in this world. As always, she presents us with engrossing characters, a story that keeps reeling us forward, and – dammit – a surprise at the end. I know Megan Whalen Turner’s tricks by now and yet she still surprised me.

To hell with the style, you say: what’s it about? On the surface, it’s an escape-and-pursuit story: the slave Kamet, on learning that his master has been poisoned, and knowing that slaves are routinely tortured in an investigation, flees the city but finds his path to freedom blocked by determined pursuers, “accidents,” and suspicion. On another level, it’s a story of a slave becoming a free man in a much deeper way than simply striking off his chains. And it’s a story of an unlikely friendship growing between two very different men.

And as in her previous books, Megan Whalen Turner adds depth and resonance to her story with her invented mythology and literature. Thick as Thieves differs from previous books in drawing from the culture of her Medes rather than from her Greek-ish city-states. The prose story is punctuated by brilliant pastiches of something very like the epic of Gilgamesh, highlighting a friendship between two mythic beings that is very like that between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. She’s pulled it off once again: Thick as Thieves is at once an adventure story, a story of change and growth, and a reflection on the relationship between gods and men.

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