Notes from the Keeper Shelf: The Queen’s Thief Series

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!
  • Twins!
  • “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.

Author: Emma

Emma is a novelist, full-time mama, recovering academic, and former political staffer. When she’s not reading or writing, she loves her twins' hugs, her husband’s cooking, her cat’s whiskers, her dog’s tail, and Earl Grey tea.

7 thoughts on “Notes from the Keeper Shelf: The Queen’s Thief Series”

  1. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

    I have a lot of thoughts / comments.

    The post gets spoilery before your spoiler warning because describing the Thief’s role in Eddis spoils book one. There’s no way around that if you’re going to describe the series, though.

    I agree on the orientalism in the Medes’ portrayal. The scheming is in line with the other characters—all the major players in the series plot and scheme. But and I really disliked that the Mede ambassadors in books two and four were all of the same smarmy ilk and that Nauseresh was described as oily.

    Actually two characters are enslaved, both Sophos and Kamet — but this is based more on Roman slavery than on the more recent enslavement of Africans, I think. Those are very different types of slavery.

    You forgot to mention that two of Pheris’s fingers were twisted. I did not read Pheris as autistic. I read his self-containment as being due to the way he was treated by the members of his family and of their household. He was more likely to be beaten, kicked, cursed at, mocked and otherwise abused than treated as an actual human being. His main defense was to be as little seen and heard as possible. When Juridius turned on him, he had no one else to play with and had to learn to amuse himself.

    There’s an #ownvoices review from a disabled reader here:

    https://sounis.livejournal.com/819592.html

    Also, while I don’t share Pheris’s disability, I have disabilities (both mental and physical) and to my eyes there is no ableism at all in Pheris’s portrayal and in fact Return of the Thief is one of the best-executed books I have ever read on that score. It’s a stronger treatment of disability than the treatments of Gen’s amputation in the earlier books are.

    My favorite book in the series has always been The King of Attolia. I liked Costis off the bat. I have a soft spot for honorable heroes who face moral quandaries. And while I know lovers of The Queen of Attolia would disagree, for me this is Turner’s most romantic book by a mile. Seeing Gen and Irene through Costis’s eyes brings out what a balancing act their relationship is and how almost everything Gen does in the book is for her. Also, the intrigue!

    Return of the Thief is a close second. It’s not as romantic but I LOVE Pheris and everything about his portrayal. He’s my favorite of the narrators (I love Gen best of all, of course, but I love Pheris more than I loved Gen when he was narrating The Thief. On my first read of The Thief, I mean—later readings differ because I bring all my knowledge of subsequent events to them and that makes the book (and Gen) richer and more complex. The intrigue in Return of the Thief was terrific as well.

    The subplot about getting Eddisians to like Gen was weak, I agree. I didn’t buy Gen’s motive there because his plan could have gone pear-shaped. There were too many variables to make it convincing.

    I didn’t read the Relius thing as deus ex machina because it was clear to me that he was alive all along. When a character’s death isn’t confirmed, if we don’t actually SEE them die, then nine times out of ten they’re alive. Turner did the same thing to Sophos in The King of Attolia, too.

    I do wish something what happened with Gen’s dad had gotten more play. It seemed like it should feel a bigger loss. Pheris’s line about Gen losing a father and becoming a father at the same time was great and I wanted that to be shown in more depth and not just briefly told.

    I find that in general these books don’t dwell on grief, though. Gen lost *a lot* of relatives to the war in The Queen of Attolia and we didn’t see him grieve for them as he did for his lost hand. Same with his brother’s death here. There was a bit more when Sophos was thought dead but still not much.

    I agree on Gen falling for that ploy by the Medes but as you say, the stuff it led to made up for it.

    I can see what you mean about the ending being pat but I loved the last scene and the way it hearkened back to a scene in The King of Attolia. So triumphant.

    Speaking of that—what did you think of all the Easter eggs?

    That “inappropriate” line was perfect.

    I would have loved to have a book in Irene’s POV, but I wasn’t surprised there isn’t one. The books are boy-oriented despite the amazing portrayals of the women. We do at least get some scenes in her POV in QoA and KoA. She is a great character.

    The earrings sacrifice scene was one of the best in the book. And I love Heiro. I could read a novella and maybe even a whole book about her.

    My husband found a lot of errors in the battle strategy. I don’t have time to go into them here—this post is long enough! But I listed them on the spoilery DA thread.

    1. I responded to the DA thread, but to pick up a few things here too:

      – Yes, Gen being the thief is also a spoiler. I’ll add another little tag. ; )
      – What made me think Pheris might be neurodivergent, in addition to his physical disabilities and being non-verbal, is his interest in math and patterns. Again, I might be reading something into it that’s not there. At some point, I’ll skim the reviews at Goodreads and see if I’m the only person who thought he was coded that way. But thank you very much for the link to the ownvoices review!
      – I do love Costis’s dilemmas. I think my initial problem with the book came from wanting Gen/Irene POV, but KoA won me over pretty quickly. I struggled more with CoK and TaT, though CoK eventually gave me a decent amount of Attolian court.
      – Gen’s father’s death definitely felt underdeveloped, especially after the stuff with Gen’s father and Irene earlier in the book.
      – The Easter eggs were wonderful. As you pointed out in your DA review, the care with which MWT writes means the characters have such continuity and there are so many wonderful little callbacks and references, they truly reward rereading in a way few series/books do.

    2. I also thought of autism, particularly because of Pheris’ intense interest in patterns. And there’s no physical explanation for his being mute, IIRC? But I agree that many aspects of his personality could just as easily be explained by abuse.

  2. That’s a good point about Pheris being so focused on numbers and patterns. One of the interesting things about her books (and that makes them fun to discuss) is that she leaves a lot to interpretation, such as with Relius / Teleus or Costis’s relationships with Aris and with Kamet. There’s a lot of room for readers to interpret and it’s an invitation to engage with the text.
    I read into Pheris’s characterization an implication that all Pheris’s disabilities were tied together. This is supported by the fact that his late uncle (Sejanus’s brother) shared the same condition. This was clearly also a congenital disability of some kind. So maybe Turner is mixing together traits to create a hereditary condition that doesn’t exist in our own world? Her worldbuilding is like that on a macro scale too, a Greek-like pantheon co-existing with guns.
    ACoK is my least favorite but I still like it a lot. I feel Gen’s absence more keenly in that book because so much of the climax is about strategizing and it feels like Gen should be in the thick of it. I’m always a bit skeptical that the box wouldn’t have been searched for a false bottom. And Sophos’s actions at the climax are a little too Gen-like. Also, the thing that Sophos says that angers Helen, “I can’t allow—,” seems out of character. It’s not in his nature to default to what anyone, much less the woman he loves, can or cannot be allowed to do.
    But I still like the book very much. I love the dream with the wolf, and the one with the library and his “tutor,” and his camaraderie with the other slaves and the way he frees himself and the way he gets to choose whether to rise to his potential for the sake of his country or stay anonymous which he is a lot more comfortable with. And I feel like he and Helen fit together really well. They would not have at the end of The Thief, or not the same degree. We see him grow into someone who is a match for her. I also love the scene where Gen and Sophos sneak out and Gen tells Sophos when he first knew he as in love with Irene. That scene by itself is worth the cost of the book.
    I like TaT better, though. Maybe because I was more prepared for less Gen but I also liked that the setting was different. Kamet’s character went a long way to make up for the orientalism in the earlier books. Ennikar and Immakuk were great; it was a very different kind of divine intervention and almost as appealing. And the theme of what it means to have a true friend and to be one is a theme I always enjoy. I also liked Kamet’s POV narration better than Sophos’s. His personality had more bite. And when they got back to Attolia that scene in the garden with the queen was just marvelous. One of the best scenes in the whole series.
    I would rank the books as follows:
    The King of Attolia
    Return of the Thief
    The Queen of Attolia
    The Thief (only in retrospect; when I first read it I was not that impressed but now, looking at it knowing everything that will follow, I love it to bits)
    Thick as Thieves
    A Conspiracy of Kings
    As you can see I also love the intrigue-filled books the best.

    1. I definitely agree that Sophos in The Thief, had he continued along that trajectory and had the Magus’s plan worked, would not have been a match for Helen. One thing I really appreciate about Sophos is how much he reflects and changes. Ambiades’s betrayal is really one of the key events in the series, and arguably put Sophos onto a different path (as does his friendship with Gen).

      I need to reread ACoK (I read it to my kids about 18 months ago), but I think I liked it more than you did, mainly because of the second half of the book. I agree that it was odd to me that they didn’t check for a false bottom in the box. What I liked about that moment was that it showed Sophos fully accepting his role and his power. I’m trying to word this carefully because I think there’s a way to read it that just focuses on the badassness of him shooting someone, and I don’t mean to do that. Instead, it felt like the first moment that Sophos was saying, “I’m king,” whereas he’d equivocated and demurred up to then. I also liked how he had to work through it on his own and then have Gen and Irene essentially confirm his decision rather than having Gen be like, “Here’s the plan” and then convince Sophos, which is how most of Gen’s plans go down.

      With Pheris, you are quite correct that the mental and physical aspects of his disability seem both related and heritable, and that it doesn’t graft neatly onto anything we have.

      Now that I’m thinking about it, remember when he’s under the table early in the book and notices the embroidery on Irene’s dress has two birds in a nest? Do you think that’s foreshadowing the twins?

  3. Sorry, I don’t know what happened with the paragraph breaks there!

    Great point about Ambiades’s treachery and Sophos. I loved the Ambiades storyline in The Thief. I think the (connected) death of Pol also caused an important shift in Sophos.

    I liked that moment with the gun too but reading your thoughts on it makes me want to revisit it. And yes I also liked it that Gen and Irene confirm his decision.

    The embroidery— oh, wow, I did not think about that at all. It’s good, subtle symbolism if that is what it hints at.

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