This week, I got my hands on one of my most anticipated reads of the year: Return of the Thief, the sixth and final book in Megan Whalen Turner’s young adult fantasy series The Queen’s Thief. And it was totally wonderful.
But in wanting to write about why I thought it was great, I realized that I wanted to talk about the series more broadly, because it’s not nearly well known enough and specifically might scratch itches for Game of Thrones and romance fans.
This will likely be a bit rambling (I’m under the weather), but here’s why you should give The Queen’s Thief a try. I’ll start with a long non-spoilery pitch, then talk about the titles in a more specific, brief, and spoilery way.
I heard about the series about six years ago from Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile. She said something like, “It’s hard to explain, but it’s a YA fantasy series that doesn’t feel like either of those things. There’s all these politics, and some romance, and also Hellenistic gods!” And while I said, “oh? I’ll look it up,” I thought, “That doesn’t sound like my thing.”
But as the early books in the series went on sale, I bought them mostly to be polite. Once I realized I had acquired the first three, I figured I ought to read one, right? I accidentally started with book 2, The Queen of Attolia. And I couldn’t put it down.
The series is set on a Greece-like peninsula in a time not unlike the late Middle Ages or the early Renaissance. (There are guns and cannons, but they’re crude.) Three small kingdoms–Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis–occupy the peninsula, and they’re caught between the Mede Empire to the south (which has a certain Ottoman flavor and is, at times, Orientalized) and various larger kingdoms to the north and, across the sea to the west, that are coded European.
While the series is fantasy, there aren’t wizards and magic. For hundreds of pages at a time, nothing supernatural or unrealistic happens at all. To the extent that there are fantastical elements, they come from the pantheon of gods and goddesses, who have a Greco-Roman flavor but have their own mythology, powers, and interests, and, like Homer’s gods, occasionally intervene in human affairs.
Despite their precarious position, Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis mostly spend their time fighting with each other, and in Attolia and Sounis, there are intense internal political disputes. Eddis, though, has a distinct advantage because of its thief. The thief is a member of the royal family, and serves in a sort of hybrid thief/spy/advisor/strategist role. The thief can steal things (obviously) but also provides information. Of the three kingdoms, Eddis has the worst position in terms of resources and land, but the thief levels the playing field.
ETA: what I’m about to tell you is a spoiler, but it’s sort of a necessary spoiler. However, if you want absolutely no spoilers stop now and read the books.
If you’re willing to learn one teeny tiny thing, read on.
I’ll add another tag before I get seriously spoilery.
The current thief, and the protagonist of the series, is Eugenides. Gen, as he is often called, is a brilliant and at times ruthless rogue. He can be endlessly charming but also willful, even spiteful, and reckless. I’d love to see the series on film or television, but it’s hard to imagine anyone capturing the complexities of Gen.
The other major characters are the queens of Eddis and Attolia, Helen and Irene, who couldn’t be more different. One of the things I love about the series is that it shows us these women who would have disparate styles and were made even more disparate by the challenges of their respective kingdoms. Irene Attolia is a my favorite, despite the fact that she commits one of the most violent and reprehensible acts of the series, because she’s basically a rapier: steely, cutting, and deadly. Almost everyone misunderstands or underestimates her, except her future king. Their marriage is deeply romantic and affirming.
But I also love Helen Eddis for her kindness and her goodness. She faces some of the hardest choices to keep her people safe, and she struggles with her role of queen, but she sets aside her ego and makes the calls she needs to do because it is right. And she gets a soft man who ADORES her, and it’s wonderful.
The series is filled out with dozens of terrific characters. The heir to a king who must find inner strength everyone has told him he doesn’t have. A guardsman whose supreme act of disrespect becomes the means of his redemption. The secretary to an ambassador who carries information that can cut down an empire. Spy masters and tutors and soldiers and advisors, all of whom have fully realized backstories and agendas and shifting loyalties.
The Queen’s Thief understands something Mad Men did: people sitting around a conference table yelling at each other (or lying to each other with smiles on their faces) can be as tense as a battle sequence if you’ve done the character work. This is how the series is political. It has opinions on human social relationships involving power. On how and why people do things. On how very personal geopolitics can really be. It’s the definition of a palace intrigue series.
I happen to love that stuff. I could eat it with a spoon and a cherry on top (and I think that’s why Brandy rec’d the series to me), but I completely understand that it strikes other readers as slow. And specifically, The Queen’s Thief series can feel like a lot of table setting, very little time at the banquet. While there are battles and wars, the books often give more pages (many, many more pages) to the preparations, strategies, and lead up, while the battles themselves are sometimes cleverly avoided or, if they occur, summarized.
I personally liked that balance, as I’m much more interested in the insult to the ambassador beforehand or why that messages wasn’t received the way it could have been, etc., but your mileage may vary.
Additionally, while three of the books are wholly or mostly palace intrigue–The Queen of Attolia, the King of Attolia, and Return of the Thief–the other three–The Thief, A Conspiracy of Kings, and Thick as Thieves–are at least partially road trip books. Thick as Thieves only has a few court scenes at the end, and the two protagonists of that book spend almost all of their time with each other and not interacting with the rest of the series’ characters. I LOVED the first group of books, and very much liked the second. But, again, your mileage may vary.
I will say that this is the rare series that I went in with almost no information and was ultimately glad I knew nothing. I’m not generally plot a reader; I love characters and prose. But The Queen’s Thief books gave me all three, and I was glad I didn’t have any spoilers about the plot.
Normally, plot twists can’t live up to their billing. They aren’t actually that original or surprising, and so the pleasure comes from the character work, how motivated the action is or how the characters feel about it, from or the writing. I firmly believe that most of the time, spoilers are fine and can actually increase one’s reading pleasure.
And look, Megan Whalen Turner does write beautiful prose. It’s not particularly flowery, but she’s a master of diction, and she accomplishes a great deal with precisely the right word choices. Similarly, while there isn’t a lot of description, what we get is effective.
She also makes wonderful POV choices. Even in some later books when I was going, “Argg, I don’t want to be in so and so’s head, I want to know more about XYZ,” she always won me over. It’s wonderful storytelling, with compact, elegant prose, and I could wallow in it all day.
But her plots are as strong as the writing, and they hold up to numerous rereads. These books have a quality inherent to good mysteries in that all the pieces are there, beautifully blended in with the red herrings and bits of description and the ironic one-liners, and when I go back, I can gather all the bread crumbs together–even as I was very, very glad I didn’t know where to look for them the first time.
A few other things: while I think it’s right to say the series has shades of Game of Thrones, aside from one unwanted kiss, there’s no sexual violence. There is regular violence: murders and assassinations, battles, fights, torture, and scuffles. And in one of the series’ two main romantic relationships, the couple does tend to throw things when they argue.
I don’t mind violence in books as long as it doesn’t feel excessive. I’m not a fan of violence for its own sake or as a form of sensationalism, and I like to feel as if the narrative is grappling with the morality and trauma of the violence, especially when otherwise “good” characters have to kill or hurt people. For me, the series successfully walks that line. There are some horrific acts in the books. Several were legitimately shocking–I gasped reading these books more than once–but it never felt gratuitous, nor like the narrative was asking me rationalize the violence or hand wave it away. I’m certain the characters will carry the scars, literal and metaphorical, of the events for the rest of their lives.
Some of this may because the series is technical young adult. The first book, The Thief, does feel like a middle grade book. I wasn’t sorry that I read this one later on because while it does some dazzling things technically, it does feel aimed at younger readers. The rest of the books straddle that line between YA/adult, but I suspect this keeps the sex and violence a little more PG-13.
In terms of downsides, as I mentioned above, I did find the Mede empire to have a vaguely Oriental flavor. That the Medes are an exotic other adds to the terror they pose. They have a different set of gods and customs, and they don’t respect or understand the countries of the Little Peninsula, and it’s clear that misapprehension goes both ways. (Which of course Gen is able to exploit.)
While the Medes get more complicated as the series goes on, and a later treasonous ambassador from another country is clearly a blond-haired Northern European, the characterizations of the Medes in early books can feel squicky, and I’d wished we had a more complicated Mede character earlier.
Additionally, a POV character in a later book is non-speaking and has what seemed to me to be autism. While I appreciated the character’s arc and voice, I was not able to find an own-voices review of this book. So if anyone has seen one, please share it with me! It worked for me, but I can’t evaluate if it’s good representation or not.
Finally, one of the characters is enslaved, and his arc is at least partially about freeing his mind. Another character spends a brief time in bondage. Again, these plots worked for me, but I know some readers would want a trigger warning.
ETA: a few more trigger warnings: on-page miscarriage, ableism from villainous characters and a few slurs even from “good” characters, some loss/grief, and various issues with disapproving family members.
So the plus side for me: complicated characterizations, different kinds of women in power, and layered geo- and personal politics. And while they aren’t the focus of the series, there are also two wonderful romances that get a decent amount of page time and several tertiary romances, two of which are queer. You can begin with the second book, as I did, and treat the first as a prequel without losing much.
!!!! NOW I’M GOING TO START SPOILING THINGS.
STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE SERIES. !!!!!
I’ve already written more than I intended to, and I’m getting woozy, so here’s a few brief thoughts on each book.
The Thief: for me, this book is all about the reread. How is it told in first-person POV without every once slipping and revealing Gen’s true mission? It’s really amazing. It also feels, in the best, way like a reworking of The Hobbit, and I love how it comments on and revises fantasy tropes.
The Queen of Attolia: this is maybe my favorite book because I love Irene so much. I love her backstory and her strength and her struggle to believe Gen. I also love how his plan almost doesn’t work out but then she saves it.
The King of Attolia: my second favorite. I struggled with connecting with Costis the first time, but it’s another masterpiece of POV. Everything we need to see is there, but Costis just doesn’t understand. The glimpses of Gen and Irene’s marriage are also so lovely.
A Conspiracy of Kings: I love how different Sophos is from Gen, and how soft he is. I really do wish we had more keyhole moments into his relationship with Helen, but I appreciate how the pacing of this book is fairly brisk and the climax/denouement are wonderfully tense.
Thick as Thieves: it took me a long time to come around on this book because I really wanted to be in the Attolian court, but Costis and Kamet won me over in the end. I do wish that it were on-page that they’re lovers (as the later books make clear with Relius and Teleus), but this is what fan fiction is for, right?
Return of the Thief: I didn’t think this book could possibly live up to my expectations, but it absolutely did. As with The Queen of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings, the pacing is fairly brisk. It helped that we already knew so many of the characters and the world, so we were able to slide right into the court intrigues and the coming war.
My primary complaints are that the ending might be a bit too pat, and, as I said above, I feel like I’m not the best person to evaluate whether Pheris was good representation. In terms of the latter, it’s clear that Return of the Thief is in conversation with I, Claudius, but I’ll feel better about the book once I get a sense of how autistic readers feel about it.
That aside, I was initially worried that Pheris as narrator would feel like a hybrid of Sophos (the “bad” heir who turns out to be perfect) and Costis (a naive narrator who doesn’t understand what he observes), but it didn’t read like that at all. I love the parallels between Pheris’s story and Gen’s, but also the differences between them. Pheris’s choice to not kill Sejanus, for example, becomes the thing that saves everyone. (And that felt like another Tolkien throwback, but not in a bad way.)
I will say, it all comes together very neatly. I wasn’t quite so dazzled by Gen’s plan to get the Eddisians on his side as I normally am by his plans, and I was disappointed that he fell for the obvious ruse and was captured by the Medes/Erondites. But his on the fly plan behind enemy lines made up for it, as did the gods quite literally smiting Erondites.
But while lots and lots of people died in the climatic battles, no POV characters did, and even Relius gets restored deus ex machina style. And then Irene has twins, and Helen is pregnant, and Eddis gets saved from the volcano. To be clear, I WANTED all those things to happen, but it felt very neat, almost like fan service. Maybe too neat. But I like neat.
A few more things I loved:
- Helen’s observation that Gen and Irene need to show each other their worst sides to believe they can still be loved. (sobs quietly to self)
- Irene’s line that she didn’t become “inappropriate” (aka pregnant) on her own.
- Gen’s fireside prayers and his almost killing the ambassador who kisses Irene.
- “If I can’t kill him, you can’t”: I’m very sad we never got Irene POV.
- Sophos’s comment that he and Helen got married right away because they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, and Helen teasing him about his blushing.
- Earring sacrifices!
- Elephants! (Give me more Second Punic War references.)
- Roof dancing!
- “War shouldn’t be made beautiful”: oh Pheris, I know.
All these quotes are paraphrases because I read it in print. But in short, I’m certain I’ll reread Return of the Thief a million times, each one filled with gratitude that a story I’ve loved and reread so many times in the last five years ended so perfectly.