The King of Attolia, Megan Whalen Turner
This is the third book in Megan Whalen Turner's excellent "Thief" series. I posted about the second, The Queen of Attolia, back in February (only my third post and wow, just one paragraph on the book - I was still stretching my blogging wings at that point). Fair warning, there will be spoilers here for anyone who hasn't read the earlier books.
The series is set in a land that bears some resemblance to ancient Greece, though Turner has added elements of Byzantium as well. The stories move between three kingdoms, Sounis, Attolia, and Eddis. The rulers face not only threats from each other, but also from the powerhouse Medes, who constantly threaten invasion. I thought that the first two books were really good, primarily because the central character, Eugenides, is such a fascinating, twisty one, and I could see why they came so highly recommended, especially from members of the Dorothy Dunnett listservs I belong to. But this is the book where I really fell for him.
At the end of The Queen of Attolia, Eugenides the former Thief of Eddis has won the heart and hand of the Queen of the title, a rather unlikely match given that, well, he is The Thief and Eddisian (though a member of the royal house), and she had his right hand cut off, for thieving among other things. I had my doubts about this couple. In this book, we get glimpses of their marriage, hints of their relationship, which we initially have to put together and puzzle out.
By this point in the stories, we know who Eugenides is and just what he is capable of. The Attolians have no idea; they disdain their new king as the "goatfoot" whom they believe forced their Queen into marriage. Part of the great fun of this book is watching them completely and utterly underestimate Eugenides. He plays to their ignorance, giving them plenty of rope. In this he reminds me very much of Dorothy Dunnett's Nicholas, hilariously playing the knave while putting his elaborate, byzantine schemes into play. We watch, waiting for him to strike, and to triumph.
This isn't just for Eugenides' entertainment, and it isn't just a game. There is a very serious issue at stake. Due to internal divisions, Attolia needs a king to unite the barons and lesser lords. Eugenides doesn't want to rule, but he must, or the country could fall to civil war or invasion. Here, the struggle is with himself, to accept his destiny. In this (and in his sometimes lashing tongue), he reminds me also of Dunnett's Francis Crawford. At the same time, he must force the court, and especially the Queen's Guard, to accept him, and respect him, if he is to rule.
There is one further book in this series (so far), but I'm going to save it for a while. This one was so completely satisfying, and I don't want to rush on to the next one, especially since it's the last one! (so far.)