Series: Queen’s Thief
Author: Megan Whalen Turner
Genre: Fantasy, YA
Under the books section of my rec page you will find some of my favourite books, but like many a bookworm, I will get squeamish if you asked me to pick my One True Love. I’ll play coy if you ask, but secretly, I know that my favourite book of all time (if you set aside Dream of the Red Chambers, The Last Unicorn, Ella Enchanted, The Secret Garden, etc. etc. etc.) is Queen of Attolia, the second book in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series. It has everything that a then-10 year old girl could want: romance, revenge, murder, delicate political machinations, trauma, working through trauma, swashbuckling, worldbuiding, asshole gods (from a girl from a culture with asshole gods: this is so #relatable), complex interpersonal relationships, introspective, lonely characters, SADNESS––I could go on, but I think you take my point. It’s a flipping good series, okay.
It’s a hard series to talk about without some major spoilers, so I’m going to give an attempt at a spoiler-free review, but if you trust me enough, buy the books, exit from this page without reading anything, and then come back to me in two months with eye bags, tears, and several broken (and then unbroken, and then rebroken) hearts and then we can talk spoilers at each other. If not, don’t blame me if you’re spoiled, because it’s impossible to talk about the premise of some of these books without spoiling all previous novels in the series.
The Queen’s Thief series (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves) is set in a vaguely Mediterranean, alt-Byzantine world where the gods are real, and are sticking their noses into the business of three small kingdoms, Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis, which are on the brink of war both with each other and with a neighbouring empire, the Mede Empire (like an alt-Byzantine Empire). Its follows multiple protagonists across the progression of the books, but its main focus is Eugenides, a young thief who holds many unexpected titles and roles, as he attempts to maneuver these politics, sometimes for his own gain, but more often for a larger purpose.
Gen’s wit, his intellect, and his wry sense of humour are easily the life of the series, but what impresses me the most––and what’s impressed me the most since I was an impressionable pre-teen with bad hair and bad teeth and bad taste in clothes––is MWT’s impeccable plotting and her nuanced characterisation. The former is something that’s a little less at play in the most recent novel, Thick as Thieves, largely owing to the fact that the majority of the novel is spent away from the peninsula on which the three small kingdoms are located, but it’s still there in spades compared to some of the machinations in some of the other YA novels.
The world is also developed beautifully––for all it takes a lot of cues from the Byzantine-era Mediterranean, be it culture, or language, or religion, or literature, the world of the books feels utterly unique, one that exists with real-world analogues, but on its own terms. Its cultures are distinct, developed and interact with each other in realistic ways. Turner isn’t an anthropologist, but she writes like one––where other authors may write kingdoms that differ for the sake of difference, Turner carefully considers what the effect of centuries of interaction, geography, and access to natural resources may have on a culture.
Lowland Attolia, with her technology and her strong army, considers barren, mountain-bound Eddis to be barbaric. On the other hand, the slaves of the Mede empire wonder condescendingly if the nobles of Attolia are even literate. An alliance between Sounis and Eddis may lead to suspicion from Attolia, but Eddis needs Attolia to access trade routes, and any tension between Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis, is noted eagerly by agents of the Mede Empire, who seeks to colonise all three. The symbols, the different religious rites, architecture, agriculture, economy, and social hierarchies of each kingdom is also carefully considered and plays a real role in the unfolding of the plot––something I don’t often see in novels that consider characters and only characters as the ones who hold agency over history. But there are forces larger than individual people at play in the Queen’s Thief books––agents here are as belittled as slaves or as worshipped as gods, but even still they are constrained by social forces.
Little countries get eaten up by bigger countries. Or crushed between them.
Despite the politicking, though, no amount of smarts on Turner’s part could have gotten me to fall as deeply in love with her books if she hadn’t included an incredible cast of characters to carry the story. They are often deeply hurt, deeply traumatised, and deeply fallible. They may not always make the correct decisions, but they will try their hardest to make the right ones for their people. A case in point here is Irene, the queen of Attolia, the antagonist of the first novel and one of the protagonists of the second and third novels.
To keep this as spoiler-free as possible, I’ll say this: Attolia (both title and name, something I want to stick a pin in here and come back to later) is introduced as a foil to the queen of Eddis. The protagonist of the first novel says to her that she is more beautiful than Eddis, but more cruel. And those are the two words that come to describe her, each and every time––beautiful, but cruel. Beautiful, but cruel. Her people love her, but are also terrified by her.
She’s developed much more significantly in her eponymous novel––given a backstory, but not an excuse. She is cruel. She is cruel, but she is sad, and she is also worthy of redemption, if she chooses to redeem herself. She is worthy of love, even when she tries to reject it because she considers it a weakness, a failing, and this is tied directly into the political context in which she must be queen. She’s not Eddis, with loyal ministers and nobles who would die for her. She lives in a den of vipers and snakes, and to survive she must make herself cruel. But making herself cruel has dehumanised her so she is more object than person, more symbol than girl.
Because here, fundamentally, is what I love about these books: there are always consequences. Morality is not ambiguous, nor are ethics––but people are. They may stand on one side of right and then move onto the other side the next moment. This is true of our heroes and it is true of our antagonists. Too often in YA books, trauma slides off characters like water off a duck––it never feels permanent, and so it never feels real, which means that the very real effects of living through traumatic events and living with trauma are diminished, undercut, and what becomes heroic is withstanding trauma and not being traumatised.
In Turner’s books, on the other hand, what’s heroic is not not being hurt by trauma, but confronting it, surviving it, learning to renegotiate life after it. She also recognises that inflicting trauma is also a negotiation with your humanity: whether or not it comes from an understandable place, cruelty dehumanises and isolates, and it is trust and communication that creates stability rather than fear. In many ways, despite the long games of empire being played through cunning and manipulation, the novels feel very anti-Machiavellian.
It also––and do please keep in mind that I am abled––has one of the best representations of disability I’ve seen in YA novels. The disability itself is a forced amputation that leaves in its wake incredibly complex emotions that are intensely difficult to understand, to parse, to accept. And it’s hard for the readers to accept, too, except that Turner doesn’t expect readers to simply accept it. She spends an entire extra book really confronting the trauma that the amputee undergoes and does not take either the route of “their life is now entirely ruined and worthless because they no longer have a limb” or the route of “their life continues on exactly the same and they can do exactly the same things in exactly the same ways as they did prior to their amputation.” No, life is different now, and the amputee is allowed to be upset, is allowed to be angry and frustrated and hurt. They’re allowed to feel a wide spectrum of conflicting emotions about their amputation and about the person at whose hands they were amputated. But they’re also as capable as they were prior––in different ways now.
Turner also deals with slavery in incredibly nuanced ways––Thick as Thieves is told from the perspective of Kamet, who in Queen of Attolia is only given a few throwaway lines as the slave of the ambassador of the Medes. But here, he is given a narrative, and––again––a wide spectrum of complicated emotions to work through when he’s coerced into freedom.
As a slave in the emperor’s palace I had authority over all of my master’s other slaves and most of his free men. I had my own money in my master’s cashbox. I had a library of my own, a collection of texts in my alcove that I carefully packed into their own case whenever my master moved households. I could not only read and write, I could read and write in most of the significant languages of the empire. My master had paid good money for it to be so. Someday he meant to make a gift of me to his brother, and then, as the next emperor’s personal slave, I would be one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in all the empire…There is freedom in this life and there is power, and I was ambitious for the latter.
As a boy kidnapped from his family just as he was beginning to learn his trade, and enslaved to a noble master because he knew how to read, Kamet does not ply in the platitudes about freedom––no peddling in that hypocritical Thomas Jefferson-esque “freedom” rhetoric––he knows of the materiality of the condition of being enslaved. There is freedom––yes––but there is power, there is ambition, there is the security in wealth that he would have as a slave beholden to another man. And he craves that more than he craves freedom, especially when freedom can mean destitution––at least at first. But the key to Kamet’s character is this: he doesn’t know how to be free. He doesn’t know what freedom means and does not know if he would, in fact, prefer it to the cruelty he has become used to, the violence that has become normal to him.
But he is afforded that complexity, afforded that internal conflict. He truly doesn’t know, and he has to be coerced into pursuing freedom––but is that freedom? What measure of agency does he have, what stake does he have, in his own freedom if it was forced on him?
This brings us to one of the other key themes through the books: agency. It’s here that the shifting perspectives and scales really highlight Turner’s gift for plotting––and Eugenides’ gift for manipulation. The different levels of agency a person is capable of possessing are displayed through their different points of view. In Queen of Attolia, for example, the question is focused on politicking between kingdoms––how much agency does Attolia have when the Medes are actively courting her? How can she keep her country free? In King of Attolia, the stakes are largely focused on the court itself, and to what extent a person can seize political power when all the stakes are stacked against you, In Thick as Thieves, on the other hand, the question becomes one of personal agency––in a system of slavery, can a person who has been enslaved––and given command over other slaves, who can own other people––be free? What are the costs? What does he have to give up, and does it change anything for anyone else?
This question of agency is actually the one bone I have to pick with the series. Turner does a really good job of balancing the personal and the political––whether you can marry for love is a question that is intricately tied to whether it’s good for your country, especially when––in the case of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis––the rulers are so tied to their rulership that they are not called by their personal names, only their titles, which are in turn tied to their kingdoms. Yet because of the intricate plotting, and the twists for which Turner is so now so well-known, it sometimes feels like only one person has true agency at any given time––and while this serves to underscore how brilliant that one person is, it does at times undermine the other characters.
Gen plays the long game, and so does Megan Whalen Turner, but though Thick as Thieves was a really great character piece, it ultimately did very little in terms of the overall arc of the series––it moved certain chess pieces into place, yes, but Mede is no further to invading the peninsula than they were in A Conspiracy of Kings, and Gen no closer to fulfilling a destiny that in certain lights, seems kind of imperial itself. It’s not something I minded the first four books––largely because I do love intense, tightly-plotted political machination––but in Thick as Thieves, it did start to grate a little more than I was expecting. For having waited a half a decade for this novel to come out (I was still in high school when Conspiracy released, and I’ve just graduated college), I wish I had a bit more payoff, or at least that I won’t have to wait as long for the next novel.