May 10 2017 12:00pm

From The Thief to The King: How Megan Whalen Turner’s Eugenides Stole Our Hearts (and the Queen of Attolia’s)

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Note: This post contains spoilers for the series. Really, really good spoilers, but spoilers nonetheless!

It's been seven years since the last book in The Queen's Thief series appeared, and fans are thrilled to finally get to return to the alternative universe in sort-of-ancient-Greece this month. Although the series mostly belongs in the young adult fantasy genre, deft characterizations, clever plotting, and an astonishing enemies-to-lovers romance arc in the second and third book have made it a hit with romance readers as well. Thick as Thieves is supposed to stand alone, but here's a spoiler-filled catch-up on some of the major plot elements and characters of the first four books.

The Thief (Amazon | B&N | Kobo) is told by Gen (short for Eugenides), one of the most delightful unreliable narrators of all time. At first glance, he seems a braggart and a whiny weakling, despised by virtually everyone. We meet him in the prison of Sounis, where he's offered a bargain by the king's magus: steal something for the king, and he'll go free. The prize, we learn, is an ancient artifact which the king can use to force a marriage with the queen of Eddis, a naturally well defended mountain country that stands between him and an invasion of the country of Attolia.

The rest of the book is a journey with the magus, a soldier/bodyguard called Pol, and two apprentices named Saphos (who is shy and goodhearted, more scholar than warrior, and heir apparent to the king) and Ambiades (who is envious and treacherous.) It includes a meeting with the beautiful and terrifying Queen of Attolia, who tries to force Gen to become her thief, and ends in a desperate escape. Along the way, Gen receives visitations from the Gods he hadn't really believed in, earns the respect of his comrades with hidden skills, and fulfills his mission, retrieving and returning the artifact to... the Queen of Eddis, his own cousin, dear friend, and sovereign.

Lois McMaster Bujold, whose Miles Vorkosigan is a literary ancestor to Eugenides, wrote about The Thief, “Just read it. Then read it again, because it will not be the same river twice.” There are plenty of clues throughout the book that Gen is not what he seems, even from the very start:

“You said at your trial that not even the king's prison could hold you, and I rather expected you to be gone by now.”

I said, “Some things take time.”

“How true,” said the magus. “How much time do you think it's going to take?”
Another half an hour, I thought, but I didn't say that either.

Throughout the series, Eugenides continues to be, like Miles, vulnerable and fallible, yet so sneakily clever that he always comes out on top.

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

After the triumphant surprise ending of The Thief, The Queen of Attolia (Amazon | B&N | Kobo) starts with a shock. In his role as thief, Eugenides has been secretly visiting the palace of Attolia to steal information—and with his usual cockiness, making his presence subtly known to the queen. But then he's caught, and the queen is manipulated by Nahusereh, the Medean ambassador, into having his right hand cut off—leaving him physically and emotionally devastated, and the queen with a nagging sense of having destroyed something precious.

She has also played into the hands of the Mede Empire, whose goal is Attolian dependance, Nahusereh as king of Attolia, and the eventual conquest of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. The twists and turns of the plot are too intricate to describe here; at this point, the series becomes at least as much political intrigue as adventure. But even after Eugenides has recovered and rejoined the world — prodded by a message from the God of Thieves to “stop whining”—the tension between him and the queen he deeply fears is constant, and leads to a confrontation in which he offers her a choice: marry him, or die. And that leads to a startling confession, showing how much has again been kept from the reader:

“'Before you make a decision,' he said. 'I want you to know that I love you.'”

It's a classic romance trope, on top of a classic subverted romance trope. Although Gen is briefly the one with the upper hand, Attolia is older and taller than him, equally intelligent, and more powerful in just about every way. And she's caused him tremendous damage. How can he possibly love her? How can she allow herself to love him back? The genius of the book is that by the end we completely understand and believe it.

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen TurnerThe King of Attolia (Amazon | B&N | Kobo) switches narrative focus to Costis, one of palace guards, after Eugenides and Attolia are married. (All rulers take the name of their realm; her first name, used only in great intimacy, is Irene.) All of the guards and attendants hate Eugenides, whom they believe an inept boy and outsider, who stole their queen. Most are taking their rage out in nasty pranks, but Costis is honest and honorable enough to just completely lose it and bash the new king in the face.

Instead of death, he's sentenced to be Eugenides's guard. We see the new marriage and the new king through his contemptuous eyes, which gradually open to the truth: Eugenides serves his wife and her country in secret, while desperately fighting against actually becoming a ruling king. As one of the queen's sharpest advisors finally realizes, “He didn't marry you to become king. He became king because he wanted to marry you.”

In the end, it's Costis who forces Eugenides to show his men what he's capable of, and accept the results:

He limped towards the queen, and the courtyard quieted as he approached and was silent again as he dropped to his knees before her and laid the sword across her lap.

“My Queen,” he said.

“My King,” she said back.

Only those closest saw him nod his rueful acceptance.

A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

Having given Eugenides a happy marriage and an adult role, the series's fourth book, A Conspiracy of Kings, (Amazon | B&N | Kobo) starts on another young man's journey. Saphos has been absent from the series since book one, other than worrying reports about him being missing. (Especially worrying for his beloved, Eddis, who had just written him an acceptance of his proposal.) The first third of the book is his story of his disappearance, kidnapped by men who had hoped to set him up as a puppet king; he rescued himself only to learn that his uncle is dead and he is now Sounis. Like his friend Gen, he faced the choice of whether to take on the responsibilities of a ruler; like Gen, he reluctantly accepted. But his adventure ended with him the king of a conquered country. And now he and his friend have to deal with each other as rulers of lands at war.

The story ends somewhat somberly, with the gentle and kindhearted Saphos having to come to terms with the ruthlessness required of a king, and gain his throne with violence rather than reason. But despite some political complications—of course!—there's a happy ending for his more gentle love story. And as with all the books, there's humor and friendship and caring along the way.

Thick as Thieves (Amazon | B&N | Kobo) will feature Kamet, the Mede slave/secretary of the evil Nahusereh, and I'm told it's more of a bromance than a romance. I don't expect to mind.

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Willaful has been diligently reading and reviewing romance for the past seven years, but for some reason just can't seem to catch up. She blogs at A Willful Woman and Karen Knows Best.

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Jennifer Proffitt
1. JenniferProffitt
I LOVE this series and your post brought back all the feels! Can't wait for the new book and will probably be re-reading this series now :) Thanks for giving me a reason!
2. willaful
So good. I read a very interesting interview at the end of the last book, btw, in which Turner said that in The Thief, she was playing with the convention of the personal narrative which tells you everything you need to know. So Gen was not exactly intended as an unreliable narrator, but since he's telling his story to someone who knows him, he leaves out all the details they know... like who he is and where he was born, etc. Now I need to reread it another time from that perspective!
Jennifer Proffitt
3. JenniferProffitt
@willaful that is FASCINATING. I'm definitely going to have to re-read it through that lense!
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