What You Need to Know About The Queen’s Thief Series Before Reading Megan Whalen Turner’s Return of The Thief

Megan Whalen Turner could have stopped at The Thief in 1996 and still had an indisputable classic. The novel, which ostensibly seems like a proto-Greek fantasy tale for young readers, is an exercise in sly misdirection: Eugenides the thief tricks both his captors and his readers by playing to various fantasy tropes, only to reveal himself as something else entirely and steal all our hearts. The Thief was a near-perfect standalone novel.

But then, four years later, Turner followed up The Thief with The Queen of Attolia, by laying low her beloved protagonist in the most devastating way.

Every five years since then (give or take), she’s expanded the borders of her world with a new adventure. Eugenides shows up in each, but so too do we learn more about the brutal and beautiful Attolia, the less-conventionally-attractive but kind and brilliant Eddis, and their various advisors, allies, and enemies. What began as a series about the three warring nations of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia has transformed into a meditation on the rulers who take those same names while radically changing what each country represents.

Plus, there is somehow, incredibly, a twist in every single book. Whenever you think you’ve caught on to Turner’s cleverness, she mines a new perspective or practices a new bit of narrative sleight-of-hand. While it seemed as if this series would just continue on into perpetuity, The Queen’s Thief series is coming to a bittersweet, sure to be emotionally ruinous, end.

Whether you’ve been waiting three years (since the most recent book’s publication) or nearly twenty-five for the conclusion to what The Thief started, we’ve come a long way. If you have not had the time to cram a speed-reread in, we’ve got you covered with a series primer so you’ll be all caught up for Return of The Thief.

Viewpoint is crucial to how information (and especially biases and blind spots) is relayed in these books, with even the same style used to different effects, so we’ll track that here. Ditto Eugenides’ character arc through an astonishing range of increasingly powerful titles—many of which actually elide his true intentions. Most of the books include in-universe mythology as well, with the manner of storytelling and its morals often reflecting one of the characters’ struggles. And of course, we can’t talk about this series without screaming over the iconic twists or, perhaps more accurately, the significant events happening right under our noses.

This piece contains spoilers for the entire Queen’s Thief series leading up to (but not including) Return of The Thief.

 

The Thief

POV: Gen (first-person)

Summary: After bragging in a Sounisian wineshop that he can steal anything, common thief Gen is freed from the king of Sounis’ prison by Sounis’ magus, who wants him to steal the impossible: Hamiathes’ Gift, a stone blessed by the gods that confers the divine right to rule to its owner. Traveling from Sounis to Attolia—crossing through the mountain nation of Eddis, between the two—Gen gets to know the magus’ two apprentices, Sophos (easy to blush and hopeless with a sword) and Ambiades (the poor son of a fallen noble house), and the soldier Pol (Sophos’ bodyguard).

Gen gets the blessings of his gods to steal the stone from a rapidly-flooding temple, but they are attacked by Attolians on their way back to Sounis, and the stone is lost. Ambiades ultimately betrays them to Attolia, which gets both him and Pol killed, and which brings Gen, Sophos, and the magus face-to-face with the queen of Attolia: beautiful, but not as kind as the queen of Eddis, as Gen makes clear when she offers him the opportunity to be her Queen’s Thief. Escaping the prison, Gen leads the magus and Sophos over the border to Eddis—where it is revealed that all along he has been working for Eddis and its queen, to whom he hands over Hamiathes’ Gift. It is also revealed that Sophos is Sounis’ nephew, the heir to that nation’s throne.

Mythology: Creation myths involving the ever-dueling lovers Earth and Sky, but also their children, the lesser gods that Gen worships: Hephestia (the Great Goddess), Moira, and Eugenides (god of thieves), among others. Many a story is devoted to the trickster Eugenides and how he attained immortality, but at great loss of his mortal family.

Series Moment: The double whammy of Eddis welcoming her Thief back to his homeland—revealing that he is not gutter trash, but a member of the Eddisian royal family—and Gen, a.k.a. Eugenides, reaching into his hair to untie Hamiathes’ Gift. Many a reader has entirely passed over mentions of all thieves being named after Eugenides, or the repetition of Gen having unkempt hair and two hair ties, without catching the sleight of hand at play.

Eugenides is… a gutter-rat Sounisian thief… but actually the Thief of Eddis.

 

The Queen of Attolia

POV: Eugenides, Attolia, Eddis, magus, Nahuseresh, et al (third-person)

Summary: After sneaking into the queen of Attolia’s palace several times and increasingly taunting her with his presence, Eugenides is finally caught. While she initially plans to kill him to recover her pride and control, Attolia decides instead to spare his life for a crueler punishment: She cuts off his hand. The suggestion comes from Nahuseresh, the ambassador from the Mede empire who clearly believes that he can romance this haughty queen and take her throne.

Returned to Eddis, no longer the Queen’s Thief of his reputation, Eugenides falls into a deep depression at his lack of purpose, plagued by nightmares in which Attolia continues to take him apart limb by limb. While he recovers, Eddis goes to war with Attolia, with Sounis edging in to take advantage of their very personal conflict. Eugenides is shocked to discover that he has become something of a folk hero among the Eddisians, but when his queen asks him to contribute his talents to the war effort, he learns that he can still steal things that even some two-handed thieves never could.

Like the magus of Sounis, who he frames for sabotage and whisks away to Eddis to be their honored prisoner. Like the queen of Attolia, who he kidnaps within her own fortress and proposes marriage to. Yes, marriage—not just as an alliance between Attolia and Eddis, but because Eugenides is in love with her. A furious, confused Attolia initially turns him down, but when Nahuseresh swoops in to “rescue” her and makes clear that his courtship is now a coup, she agrees to the alliance in order to drive the Medes out of Attolia. Nahuseresh and his secretary and slave Kamet manage to escape rather than be political prisoners.

Despite the Mede threat being resolved, the wedding preparations stall: Attolia cannot believe that Eugenides would love her, after all she did to him, and takes his words as lies; and Eugenides must make peace with the revelation that the gods were the ones who alerted both Attolia and Nahuseresh to his plans, guiding these mortals exactly to this moment. When he demands to know why they cut off his hand and trapped him in a royal role he never wanted, they show him a vision of the Sacred Mountain erupting—the reason for needing to unite Eddis and Attolia. When Eugenides next tells Attolia (whose name is revealed to be Irene) that he loves her, she believes him.

Mythology: Hespira, who like Persephone was led to the underworld to be a god’s bride, but who chose her fate; and Meridite, her mother who tried to bring down the goddess who orchestrated this union. Ultimately, Meridite grows used to the idea, as “mothers must.” Eddis tells this story to the magus, which only in retrospect is made clear that she’s processing her feelings about sending Eugenides to Attolia for an arranged marriage, with no promise of when she’ll ever see him again.

Series Moment: SECRET PROPOSAL ACCEPTANCE FTW. First Attolia had spat that she would accept Eugenides’ proposal when she wore the earrings he tauntingly left for her in her bedchamber. After Nahuseresh’s plot is made clear, Attolia gets dressed in all her finery and, playing the part of vengeful enemy, makes sure to yank Eugenides’ head up so he can see her earrings when she asks if he knows what’s going to happen to him. (Oh, he does.) Then she sends a random prisoner who just happens to be Eugenides’ dad and the minister of war as a messenger back to Eddis:

“Tell your queen that I will not return her Thief a second time.” (!)

“What remains of his life, he spends with me, do you understand?” (!!)

“When he thought I was safely distant from any rescue, her Thief proposed life or death to me and let me choose my fate. I am in my own megaron and have an answer to the Thief’s proposal. Do you know what my answer is? Yes.” (!!!)

The height of all political romance.

Eugenides is… the one-handed Queen’s Thief of Eddis, and later the queen of Attolia’s bridegroom.

 

The King of Attolia

POV: Costis mostly, with cameos from Relius, Attolis, Attolia (third-person)

Summary: As I’ve written before, I thought the series ended there, a dark duology about dueling countries’ rulers and how a Thief becomes a king. Then I learned that there was more to the series—and better yet, even after surprising readers twice, Turner managed a hat trick with The King of Attolia. And it’s all thanks to poor, sweet Costis.

Our new narrator, in close-third for the majority of the novel, is a member of the Queen’s Guard, who starts the book by punching the king of Attolia. Despite the ending of the prior book, Eugenides is not popular in his new royal position. Attolia’s barons hate him because he married her where they could not, yet they also believe that it must be a marriage of convenience, and shudder to see their queen forced to kiss her husband and bear his clear lack of interest in the running of the country. An easy target with his ridiculous clothes (thanks to stewards who bring him stained and/or mis-sized garments) and tainted food (sand from the kitchen), not to mention his propensity to fall asleep during meetings, Eugenides is as disappointing a ruler as they assumed he would be.

So when Costis decks him, he is shocked to learn that his fate, rather than execution or exile, is to become the king’s new best friend. Not literally, but he’s forced to trail Eugenides all over the palace, from lessons in the Mede language to awkward encounters when courtiers sing Dite Erondites’ mocking song “The king’s Wedding Night” with its humiliating speculation as to what passed between this boy king and the icy Attolia.

As Costis watches Eugenides in his public and private moments, he witnesses the king of Attolia incredibly survive an assassination attempt; counsel his wife not to execute the few men she still trusts for perceived betrayals or failures to protect her; ruin the house of Baron Erondites by sentencing his son Sejanus for sabotage and exiling Dite to protect him, in a mere 98 days; and reveal the greatest secret of all, that he and his wife actually do love one another. In that love, Eugenides spares both Teleus, captain of the Guard, and Relius, Attolia’s spymaster; while both expect their queen to be characteristically merciless, Eugenides knows that if she keeps giving away pieces of her heart out of the obligation to be a cruel ruler, eventually she will have no heart, and the entire nation will suffer.

But this story isn’t just about Costis and the rest of the Queen’s Guard realizing that their king is more than a figurehead; it’s also about Eugenides being pushed to accept the power of his role. If Attolia’s barons think that the king is just a figurehead, they’ll go back to their old plans of fighting one another for her hand and her throne. Once they know that the king is clever and courageous, that he can sneak through the palace at night without being detected and that he’s a master swordsman even with one hand, they will finally unite under their rulers. Conversely, Eugenides must become comfortable with his fears of stealing Attolia’s power from her, trusting that his desire for power can be balanced by her experience, and that they can successfully rule together.

Mythology: Attolia’s maid Phresine tells Eugenides and Costis about Klimun, the king who was warned by the gods not to lie by moonlight. When he is tempted to do so, only the actions of his slave-turned-friend stops him; though he perceives it as a failure, the goddess judges that he must be a good man, to have a friend who will look out for him so well.

Series Moment: There are so many in this book! The biggest ones are from Costis’ perspective, as his view of the king becomes the readers’ (despite the information we already know), and so it almost seems as if Eugenides and Attolia do not actually love one another. Then Eugenides almost gets killed, and the kiss they share is so charged and romantic, that the reader realizes they have always been like this, they’re just incredibly private—and very careful about who they invite into that confidence.

Then there’s the truly eerie scene in which Costis tries to coax a seemingly-drunk Eugenides off the roof, only for the king to demonstrate how his patron god will not let him fall—not yet, at least. Hovering over a precipice, with the divine Eugenides chiding him to go back to sleep, is as disturbing a visual for the reader as it is for poor Costis.

And finally, there’s Eugenides’ big showdown with all of the Queen’s Guard (including Laecdomon, who actually tries to kill him) to prove his swordsmanship. His trick of grabbing the wooden practice sword—utilizing an aspect of this imitation-sword to ultimately win—reveals his capacity for thinking outside the box. Later, he strips down in the baths with the other guards, who finally see him not just as Attolia’s king, but as Annux, king of kings.

Eugenides is… the weak, mocked, vain king of Attolia… or is he?

 

A Conspiracy of Kings

POV: Sophos (first-person); Eddis, Sounis, Attolis, Attolia (third-person)

Summary: While Eugenides was learning how to become Attolis, dear Sophos was learning how to be anything but Sounis’ heir—thanks to getting kidnapped in an attempted coup to make him a puppet ruler, and accidentally becoming a slave instead. Months of back-breaking labor and solidarity with his fellow poetry-loving field hands on a rebel baron’s estate reshape Sophos’ soft upbringing into something hard and simple, but rewarding. By the time he has the opportunity to meet up with his father and the magus, he has changed in more than appearance—though the broken nose and scarred lip certainly help toughen him up.

With his uncle having died in the interim, Sophos has become Sounis. Knowing that the rebel barons are unlikely to accept him, he goes first to Attolia to beg his friend Gen to help aid him in winning Sounis’ civil war. (This is where the book shifts from Sophos’ first-person account of his whereabouts, told to Eddis, to third-person.) Instead of his former travel companion, however, Sounis finds the strangely impersonal Attolis, who talks to him as one king to another, as if they share no history. And rather than loan Sounis the gold he needs to fight, Attolis proposes that Sounis pledge his and his country’s loyalty to Attolia.

It’s not until Sophos gets him alone that he finally gets to glimpse Eugenides, with the two old friends getting only one private moment to plot how Sounis will earn the respect of his barons and fight off the latest Mede ambassador, Akretenesh. At the formal Barons’ Meet, Sounis watches with dismay as the majority of the barons vote to install an experienced regent to rule for him, effectively making Sophos the puppet ruler as they always intended.

So he pulls out Attolia and Attolis’ gifts, two pistols, and shoots his greatest rival among the barons, as well as Akretenesh. After the barons re-vote unanimously to install Sounis as their king, he leads them in what he expects will be a suicide mission against ten thousand Mede forces—only to find that Attolis, who had initially sent only a small force, sent more soldiers to help.

Having driven the Mede empire off yet again, and back at Attolia, Sounis formally binds together their nations under Attolis’ control, giving up a measure of control in order to protect his people. When he plans to follow through on his intentions to marry Eddis, however, Attolis reminds him that as his sovereign, he cannot allow Sounis to be beholden to both Attolia and Eddis. The solution, then, is for Eddis to give up her throne—which at first horrifies Sounis, until he learns that this was Eddis’ intention. She too has been seeing visions of the Sacred Mountain erupting, and knows that this is the only way to convince all of her people to move out of Eddis.

Mythology: While Sophos’ stories are all epic poetry written by mortals, he does dream of the goddess Moira, who tutors him in what turns out to be Attolia’s library. Eddis, in turn, watches him in these dreams, which is how she knew he was alive.

Series Moment: At this point, while we share Sophos’ frustration at Attolis giving him the cold shoulder, we know that Gen is still in there. So the series moment is the guns, hands down.

The present that Sounis initially receives is the single gun from Attolia, inscribed with a message that translates to “the queen made me.” It’s the ruthless, violent decision, one that Sophos hopes to avoid by opening the false bottom of the gun case to discover an alternate solution—but when he does, he discovers a second gun, this one engraved with “I make the king.” The message being: There is no other way to convince Sounis’ barons than through violence.

As clever as ever, Turner embeds several mentions of the strange, narrow pockets in Sounis’ new wardrobe from Attolis, but he doesn’t realize it until he finds both guns. There is even a small passage in which Attolis tries to hint about the pockets and Sounis just does not get it, which leads to a classic Gen moment of throwing his wine cup in private frustration. But as always, it all pays off.

Eugenides is… formal, removed Attolis, and later Annux, king of kings.

 

Thick as Thieves

POV: Kamet (first-person), briefly Melheret (third-person)

Summary: Having been outsmarted and driven out of Attolia, Mede ambassador Nahuseresh returns home with his proverbial tail between his legs. While Kamet tries to manage his master’s rage and hopes for regaining favor with the Mede emperor, he instead gets thrown into an odd-couple, road-trip story that ends with his freedom.

When Nahuseresh is poisoned, Kamet is forced to flee; he didn’t poison his master, but knows that he will be framed nonetheless. An Attolian soldier (who we all know is Costis, even if he isn’t named for the majority of the book) endeavors to spirit him away to Attolia, but they run into all manner of setbacks as they make their way around the Mede empire: fleeing the emperor’s highly skilled Namreen assassins; impersonating escaped slaves; fighting off a lioness; freeing other slaves; and occasionally stopping on the way for a hot meal, soft bed, and some live theater.

While Kamet initially plans to ditch Costis at the earliest possible point, they slowly form a friendship as equals, each overcoming his biases about the other’s homeland and culture, that gives Kamet pause. By the time they arrive in Attolia, where he assumes the best possible fate is a humble living as a street-corner scribe, he is instead stunned to learn that he is no hostage or exile, but an honored guest of Attolis and Attolia. Despite the king and queen grieving their recently-miscarried child, they welcome him to Attolia for his expertise on the Mede empire, so that they can turn away yet another ambassador, Melheret, and be ready for the eventual invasion.

Once he has provided intel to the advisors, and comforted the queen that her time will come, Kamet gets to leave the capital for the town of Roa, to work as a scribe with a new sense of purpose as a free man… and to be with his new best friend Costis (!) after their incredible adventure.

Mythology: Immakuk and Ennikar, as translated by Kamet: This riff on Gilgamesh and Enkidu forms the backbone of Kamet and Costis’ journey through the Mede empire. First it’s a way to pass time on the road, for Costis to learn more about Kamet’s world and compare with his own mythologies. Then both Ennikar and Immakuk appear to them in mortal form at key moments, helping them avoid detection and inspiring Kamet to turn back and save Costis when he is already convinced that his new friend is dead.

Series Moment: There is, of course, the reveal that Nahuseresh was not dead at all—that it was all part of the Attolians’ ploy to get Kamet out of his master’s household. So used to being considered only as a valuable tool in his master’s employ, Kamet never considers that he as a person is important enough to risk all of this for. Instead, he spends the book trying to keep Costis from finding out the truth that he is sure will have him killed, only to reach Attolia and see that all of this subterfuge was for his sake. Including one particular disguise…

In a sly throwback to The Thief but also a reversal, Kamet discovers that the humble servant boy with whom he had become friendly in Attolia’s kitchens—who he gave a coin out of charity, who knew all about Kamet’s hopes and dreams beyond being a slave—was actually Eugenides. Kamet’s poor eyesight, from years scribing by candlelight, gets plenty of mentions throughout the book, but it does not click until he is staring at Attolis on the throne. It’s gratifying to see that Eugenides can still get away with fooling someone while revealing more of his identity than they realize.

Eugenides is… Annux, king of kings… but also a lowly sandal-cleaner.

 

Who Eugenides will be by the end of the series is anyone’s guess. He never stopped being the Thief, but he’s also become an epic ruler out of legend without losing any of his cleverness. With the final book titled Return of The Thief, we can only hope for Eugenides to succeed in stealing at least one more surprise.

Make your guesses while reading this excerpt (with a mystery first-person narrator), and here’s the teasingly vague summary for Return of The Thief:

Megan Whalen Turner’s beloved and award-winning Queen’s Thief series began with the acclaimed novel The Thief. It and four more stand-alone volumes bring to life a world of epics, myths, and legends, and feature one of the most charismatic and incorrigible characters of fiction, Eugenides the thief. Now more powerful and cunning than ever before, Eugenides must navigate a perilous future in this sweeping conclusion.

Neither accepted nor beloved, Eugenides is the uneasy linchpin of a truce on the Lesser Peninsula, where he has risen to be high king of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. As the treacherous Baron Erondites schemes anew and a prophecy appears to foretell the death of the king, the ruthless Mede empire prepares to strike.

Return of The Thief is available October 6 from Greenwillow Books.

Natalie Zutter cannot believe she crammed this whole series in a week, but she is so ready to talk to you about Return of The Thief. Until then, share your favorite Queen’s Thief series moments with her on Twitter!

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