The fantasy genre has been afflicted by several big names who take years and years to actually produce any books, leaving series dangling and fans angry. Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martian are the most famous offenders.
But, while it’s true that Megan Whalen Turner has only written five books in the last 20 years, all part of an ongoing series called The Queen’s Thief, I wouldn’t count her with other slow authors. Her books, while they contribute to an ongoing narratively, all manage to be satisfying, relatively self-contained novels which satisfactorily wrap up their immediate conflicts and plot threads. They might trickle out at the rate of one every 4 to 7 years, but there’s no feeling of being left waiting for an ending that might never come.
It probably helps that Megan Whalen Turner doesn’t pretend to be a full-time author, and she rarely communicates with the public. She’s something else, something I actually think is beautiful: a hobbyist writer who just happens to be a master of her art.
It’s impossible to talk about any of the Queen’s Thief books without major SPOILERS for previous books. The first book–THE THIEF–is best enjoyed if you know absolutely nothing about it’s premise or plot before you start.
A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS focuses on Sophos, young heir to the throne of Sounis, last seen as a significant character all the way back in THE THIEF. He’s grown up considerably since then, but he’s still relatively inexperienced, and perceives himself as an incompetent young man who’s more comfortable reciting poetry than training swordsmanship or preparing to rule a kingdom. Adulthood catches up with him when, while he’s living with his mother and tutor on an isolated island, soldiers from a rebellious faction within Sounis burn his villa and capture him before passing him into the hands of a cruel slave merchant. The rebels quickly lose track of him, and by the time Sophos is able to escape from slavery, his royal uncle is dead, making him the king of Sounis, and faced with three problems:
1.) War with rebels within the country
2.) War with Attolia, now ruled by his one-time friend Eugenides
3.) Potential absorption by the powerful Mede empire, which is seeking to make inroads on his side of the sea
In writing the above, I’ve realized that the magic of these books isn’t easily captured by a simple plot summary. A summary of the previous book–THE KING OF ATTOLIA–might look something like, “A hapless guardsman loses his temper and attacks his king. His punishment is to become the king’s best friend.”
Actually, that sounds pretty good. So let me try a pithier summary of CONSPIRACY OF KINGS: “Sophos never wanted kingship. Now that he has it, he will have to learn that no one–kings included–gets what they want, and that no king can rule without war.”
Still not as good, but it gives you a better picture of what the book is actually about. A lot of Sophos’ struggles come from the fact that his newly accepted role as the king of Sounis (or simply Sounis–rulers take their country’s name in this world) makes every relationship and friendship–particularly his friendships with former ally Eugenides and current love interest the queen of Eddis–a battleground of suspicion and layered intentions. He and the other monarchs have to struggle not just to settle on the terms of their friendship, but on how they can, collectively, prevent their countries from being absorbed into the Mede Empire.
After a lengthy episode seeking help from–and negotiating a surrender with–the king and queen of Attolia, Sophos returns to Sounis for the last third of the book carrying gifts from each monarch. The queen gives him a flintlock pistol inscribed with the words: “The Queen made me”. Sophos takes the clear message: only violence will resolve his problems and take back his throne. Eugenides’ gift is secret, and he tells Sophos to examine it only when he has considered and decided on the queen’s suggested solution.
Sophos finally does, and finds a second pistol underneath the first. The inscription on this one is “I make the King”.
The climax of the book relies on Sophos using each pistol to shoot a different man.
It’s kind of a sobering theme, but there’s nothing particularly grim about the book as a whole. In fact, I think one of this series’, and this book’s, greatest strengths is that it’s heroes–two kings and two queens–are all fundamentally decent, even heroically good, people. That’s a refreshing thing to read in an age of cynicism and fantasy series like Game of Thrones, which portray the nobility as a cast of tyrants, psychopaths, and perverts.
That being said, I might consider this the weakest of the series (or perhaps tied with THE THIEF). It has stretches that are fairly slow, and on this read-through, I thought there were several sequences, particular the negotiations in Attolia, which could have been pruned without losing anything substantial. Even when Megan Whalen Turner isn’t at her best, though, she’s still pretty damned good.