My best friend handed me Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief probably shortly after its publication in 1996, at a point where we had read through all of Tamora Pierce’s then-current body of work and were slowly going mad waiting for the next installment. The Thief was the logical recommendation for a next read: Gen was small and sassy like Alanna, stubbornly self-reliant even when the gods decided to take an interest in his business, and as creative an interpretation of the thief archetype as Alanna is with knighthood. It was also, I think, the first fantasy novel that actually bowled me over with its twist. The stuff I had read before then—The Song of the Lioness, The Blue Sword, etc.—kept me enthralled simply exploring every inch of their lush worlds, but The Thief set up expectations and then swiftly subverted them.
It was such a perfect standalone novel that I remember initially being leery of the sequel. But then 2000’s The Queen of Attolia, true to the brutal ruler after which it’s named, upped the ante with a devastating act of violence early on that forever alters Gen’s identity. Suddenly, instead of a thief or trickster he is neither, simply a beloved protagonist coping with the unimaginable. By the end of the book, our worldview—both as readers and as participants in the ongoing conflict among Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia—has radically shifted. So why didn’t I continue on with The King of Attolia, published in 2006? For one, I didn’t even know that a third installment existed. Around that time, I met new fantasy heroines in Rani Trader (from Mindy Klasky’s The Glasswrights’ Apprentice) and Mel Astiar (from Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel) and forgot all about Gen.
But twenty years after I read The Thief, Turner’s series has stolen my attention back.
Imagine my astonishment at learning that not only was there a new book in the series, Thick as Thieves, out earlier this year, but that it was the fifth installment (after A Conspiracy of Kings). When I’d stopped reading after two books in the mid-2000s, it was still years before Twitter would make it ludicrously easy to keep up with one’s favorite authors and book releases. If I had thought of The Thief in the intervening time, it was with a fond nostalgia but no need to revisit it with even a cursory Google search. I realized recently that I’d never given The Thief a second read after the excellent twist at the end—a shame, as Turner had so meticulously crafted a narrative that took on whole dimensions of meaning once dramatic irony was applied. I wish I could discuss this series without spoiling, but alas. If you’re new to the books, go read the first two before returning to this piece. It won’t take you long; I tore through them both in the space of 48 hours.
Spoilers for The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, as well as Kushiel’s Dart.
Rereading the first two novels, I caught so many details I had missed before—and not just Gen sneakily withholding information (He wanted to know my name. I said, “Gen.” He wasn’t interested in the rest.) and braiding Hamiathes’ Gift into his hair with the utmost casualness, or the coolest and most secretive acceptance of a marriage proposal to come out of Attolia’s mouth under the eye of enemies trying to steal her throne. Part of what makes this series so compelling to more than just YA readers is that Eugenides rises above the simple archetype of thief. Not just because he is the greatest of his kind, but because the best things he steals aren’t material possessions: Freedom. A queen. A kingdom. Peace. Respect. Love.
Growing up with the heroines of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, among others, I was fortunate to have my pick of lady knights and female mages. Most stories led by young boys, I chose for the world, not for who led the action. Female readers settle for male main characters as a necessary evil. Eugenides is the rare male protagonist whose story I want to read, as he transitions from cocky Thief to one-handed Thief to king. As Gen learns to manage his new identity as someone with a disability that should separate him from his calling, he retains his skills as Thief yet still decides to trade his title and home for the good of Eddis. Not simply out of duty, but out of love, too.
At the age of ten, I couldn’t draw any more of a connection between Gen and Alanna than the witty threats they inspired from those around them. (Ambiades hadn’t liked it when I’d suggested he should have been left home. I pointed out that he’d been no help at the ford. He pointed out that I had climbed a tree. I pointed out that I had no sword. He offered to give me his, point first.) However, in hindsight, I’m astonished that these two cranky heroes are opposite sides of the same coin when it comes to grappling with gender tropes. Alanna’s struggle is much more straightforward: She wants the adventure and honor more commonly afforded to male warriors, not to be shackled to a home as someone’s wife and property. Though in some ways it’s even more difficult for her friends and peers to handle when she does find herself tempted by gowns and other “frippery,” contrasting her softer side against the fierce Lioness they’ve come to know and accept.
Despite earning the venerable title of Queen’s Thief, Eugenides is rarely considered as anything but a boy. It doesn’t help that he’s short and small. While his size makes him excellent at his calling, deftly able to slip into narrow spaces, it does little to instill respect for anything but thieving. The queens of Eddis and Attolia are relatively young rulers, but Gen is younger still. Attolia is never regarded as anything less than a woman, because of her beauty and cunning in poisoning her first husband and murdering his successor to secure her throne for herself. Nor is Eddis treated as a girl; if anything, for taking on the name of a masculine ruler (queens would normally be styled as Eddia) and her insistence on wearing trousers and engaging with her generals as an equal, she is treated like a mannish woman. (It is said over and over that what she lacks in beauty she commands in loyalty, as any Eddisian would walk over hot coals at her smile.)
Both rulers refuse to be treated as political pawns, eschewing husbands in favor of ruling their respective countries, albeit quite differently—one cruel, one kind. Ironically, it’s Eugenides, as a member of the Eddisian royal family, who is more treated like a traditional princess, traded to Attolia in marriage to secure peace between their countries against Sounis and the looming invasion of the Medes. That Eugenides chooses this fate out of love for Attolia (love for someone older and taller than him, interestingly) doesn’t change the fact that he turns himself from thief into tool—something that neither princess ever considered, but a passive role into which he places himself.
This was where I left Eugenides ten years ago. Just as The Thief had worked as a standalone, The Queen of Attolia seemed to wrap the story up neatly. I think I also had subconscious reasons for stopping myself there. It’s uncomfortable to admit, as someone who stumbled into Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon at seven and The Golden Compass at eight, someone who loved the political and magical intrigue of Tamora Pierce’s many quartets, that I was maybe just too young to appreciate The Queen’s Thief. As a kid, I fixated on the seeming impossibility that Eugenides could love the woman who ordered his hand chopped off. Even after learning that he has loved Attolia since she was a princess and he a child, it was difficult to reconcile her brutality with a person who could be deserving of his love, love that survives amputation. Until, of course, I reread The Queen of Attolia and completely understood why she had no choice: She had to make an example out of Eugenides to save face in front of her people. Attolia has never known anything but wearing the mask, and maintaining it.
On a reread, the brutality of the amputation itself—a point of no return for the rest of the series, mere pages into the second book—made my stomach drop in a way that was wholly familiar. A mix of sick dread and macabre excitement, it was the same feeling at the midpoint of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, when Phèdre rushes home to find Delaunay and Alcuin brutally murdered. Her foster father and brother can’t be magically resurrected any more than Gen’s hand can be reattached. (The Alanna books, for all that I adore them, brought back the dead frequently, and I can’t recall such a similarly identity-altering injury or casualty.) This loss marks a turning point in the story, a permanent narrative marker from which the rest of the protagonist’s life continues on.
And that’s what I need out of a book, especially out of a fantasy novel and most certainly out of a fantasy series, where the political machinations seem like a never-ending game of Musical Thrones. Phèdre must learn that there are consequences to her bedroom spying, that despite being gods-touched, she is not invincible. Eugenides, who spent the entire first book dancing circles around readers who never guessed that this gutter-rat thief was the capital-T Thief, must be swiftly cut down. And in fact, only that maiming could have led to love. If Attolia hadn’t chopped off Gen’s hand as a punishment—and a way to torture him and Eddis both—then he wouldn’t have become the king of Attolia. For one, Attolia would probably have hanged him without considering an alternative; or if he had escaped with his limbs intact, there would be no reason for Eddis to go to war over her Thief.
Again, I’m gripped by the same hesitation to crack open The King of Attolia. What if a first read of the next books doesn’t match up to my delightful reread of the first two? Especially since they expand the world dramatically, told through the perspectives of Costis, a young soldier in Attolia’s royal guard; the return of Sophos, the naïve young heir to Sounis from The Thief; and Kamet, a Mede slave on the losing side of The Queen of Attolia. I already miss Eugenides’ voice or even just popping into his thoughts. But then I read this appreciation of the series from The Book Smugglers, which makes the argument that of course we have to switch perspective:
Because this time, this time we KNOW how clever Gen is. But no one else does. Including Costis, the narrator, a member of the Queen of Attolia’s Guard who commits the mistake of underestimating Eugenides. And this is the genius of Megan Whalen Turner because in book 3, we, the readers, are Eugenides’s accomplices. We sit back and wait for the coin to drop for everybody else as it has dropped for us in books 1 and 2. This is about pay-off, about Eugenides stealing respect and a kingdom. And what a story this is.
I’ve never been a protagonist’s accomplice. Admirer, yes (Alanna); audience, of course (Phèdre); but never invited to join the storyteller as he continues to prove that he can steal anything, even one-handed. But not my trust—that I’ll hand over freely.
Originally published May 2017.
The first thing Natalie Zutter did while writing this piece was look up The Queen’s Thief fanfiction, and oh boy did Archive of Our Own deliver. Geek out with her over the series on Twitter and Tumblr.