To read Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series is to have your trust tested over and over. Almost twenty-five years ago, Turner first played on ingrained fantasy tropes to trick readers with The Thief—subverting expectations so skillfully that it earned her a dedicated readership. Part of the pleasure of reading subsequent installments has been the act of granting that trust again and again, only to be caught off-guard anew. Each book is its own unique magic trick, the misdirection and narrative sleight of hand delightful rather than demeaning; readers can try to keep up, but Turner, and Eugenides the Thief, are always a step ahead.
But it’s not just about offering up oneself to be fooled. Readers must also understand that they will not always get everything they want. The Queen of Attolia quickly made that clear, with its devastating opening that changed the course of the series. Yet that was a sequel, tasked with expanding its world, while final book Return of The Thief has the far trickier job of wrapping it all up, with two decades’ worth of nostalgia and expectation to fulfill. To experience the ending of The Queen’s Thief is to accept that there is a reason why not everything we hope for comes to pass—starting with Eugenides not returning to narrate the end of his own story—and to trust in that most unlikely of outcomes: a happy ending.
Spoilers for Return of The Thief and The Queen’s Thief series.
At some point in the last few years of waiting for the final book, I had gotten it in my mind that of course Eugenides’ first-person narration would take up at least part of the story. It’s called Return of The Thief, for the Goddess’ sake! Who better than Gen himself to document his inner turmoil at fulfilling his people’s expectation that he be Annux, king of kings, while still remaining true to his identity as the Thief?
But that’s not who we get. Instead, the first-person narration belongs to Pheris, who is both the disgraced grandson of Attolia’s treacherous house of Erondites (due to his congenital disabilities) and, much later in life, a great historian. Return of The Thief is presented as two volumes of The Book of Pheris, chronicling the Lesser Peninsula’s war with the Mede empire—the first indication that our beloved forces of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis defeat the Medes, as history is most often written by the victors. It’s a canny choice to frame Eugenides’ story as a historical epic, a primary source supplemented by secondhand accounts of the rare crucial events at which Pheris was not present.
It also immediately raises the question of whether Eugenides’ story outlives him. Because I cannot be the only reader who expected that The Queen’s Thief would end with the death of the Thief, right?
Not even just because of Gen’s propensity to get gravely ill, or the ominous reminders that his namesake god Eugenides will keep him from falling only until he decides to let go, or the actual prophecy about the king falling—but also, this is a final book and a war story. If series endings have taught us anything, it’s that key figures must be sacrificed for the sake of finality, that a story doesn’t truly end if everyone survives.
But Eugenides lives, and I’m the one who feels thrown dangerously off-balance.
Since The King of Attolia, Eugenides has seemed to be living on borrowed time. How many times have Costis and now Pheris observed the Thief unexpectedly take ill and be confined to his bedchamber for days, royal physicians fluttering over the feverish king, with no discernible cause for the latest illness aside from Eugenides’ pure bad luck? Every chill wind seems to tank Eugenides’ health, and every convalescence seems to pile on top of the ones that came before. How long can one man last until he is whittled away to nothing? During the last year’s wait for Return of The Thief, we had to start preparing ourselves for that possibility that Eugenides’ lifetime would last only until his worst episode…
…and what a coincidence that the phrase is to fall ill. Poor Costis had his entire worldview lifted and turned on its axis when he witnessed Eugenides lose his footing and literally dangle over the side of the Attolian palace roof, held in place by otherworldly forces that shattered the laws of physics. Thieves enjoy the protection of their patron god, until they don’t. Eugenides’ mother died senselessly, dancing on the roof of Eddis’ palace until her feet slipped, or the godly Eugenides’ grip did. Despite the legend that anyone who dances with the Thief will be safe, his mother, alone, was not afforded that same protection. This pivotal scene with Costis wasn’t Gen’s time to go, but that was also three books ago.
Return of The Thief is obsessed with wording, with finding the loopholes within prophecy and sneaking the same ambiguity into royal treaties. Attolia makes sure to precisely phrase the treaty between her country, Eddis, and Sounis so that all are swearing an oath of fealty to Annux—to her chronically ill and perpetually endangered husband—so that if he dies, peace dies with him. In doing so, she traps him into a level of self-preservation he might not otherwise demonstrate. Even as he accepts this canny cushioning, Eugenides returns to the temple of Hephestia over and over, to implore the gods to make all things plain to him, so that he might know what to anticipate. Instead, they tell him what we already know:
You will fall, as your kind always falls, when your god lets you go.
I (and many readers, no doubt) spent most of Return anxiously peering between the lines, searching for the subtext that characterizes all of Turner’s books, but especially for the loophole that would fulfill the gods’ cryptic pronouncement. After all, this world is modeled, however loosely, on Greek mythology, which is rife with devastatingly clever augury. Oedipus and his birth parents each went to incredible lengths to not fulfill the terrible prophecy of his lineage, yet in twisting themselves around they lost track of who was who, and wound up playing out exactly the violent and incestuous roles assigned to them. Orpheus was permitted to journey to the underworld and bring Eurydice back, and all he had to do on their return to the light was not look back. But when he didn’t trust that his beloved was still with him, he turned and witnessed her anguished face as she was wrenched away.
It seemed all too obvious that Eugenides would triumph over one foe—the Pent ambassador, or the scheming barons—only to fall at someone else’s feet. That he would best enough of the Eddisians in their trial to earn their respect, then drop dead from an aneurysm, or slip down the stairs, or fall ill one too many times. There are so many ways to fall, dramatically or matter-of-factly, and it simply seemed a case of when, not if.
As disappointing as it is not to get Eugenides’ voice again, we have to remember that the one time Gen did talk directly to us, he was lying the whole time. Or if not outright lying, then obscuring a lot of significant information. It did not benefit him to be an entirely forthcoming narrator, and that aspect of his personality has not changed. Instead, we needed a third party that was impassive enough to collect all of the necessary details. Not Costis, who was so thoroughly duped in The King of Attolia due to his inability to get past his biased dislike of who he thought Eugenides was. And even Pheris gets drawn in by one of Eugenides’ disguises—that of the sobbing, surrendering king as the Medes’ “prisoner”—but what differentiates him from dear Costis is that telling this story is literally life-changing for him.
Writing these journals gives Pheris purpose, and helps him establish himself, as much as Annux, in history, when in another lifetime he might have been exposed to the elements as an infant. Yet it’s because of that societal ableism that Pheris is able to tell the story in the first place, adding in the final aspect of why he is the perfect narrator for this final book: He gets away with observing everything. Long used to acting like the drooling, limping, silent fool they believe him to be, he utilizes people’s automatic dismissal of him to hide in corners and under tables, eavesdropping on court intrigues and witnessing the private moments in which Attolis and Attolia and Eddis and Sounis get to be normal people.
Pheris gifts us with one of the series’ very best scenes: Eugenides beneath the window, his obnoxious rendition of the song mocking both his wife and his cousin, Sounis retaliating by tossing water on him, culminating in their wrestling match. It’s a sweet interlude, long before they march to war, that reminds readers (both of The Queen’s Thief and of Pheris’ in-universe histories) that these rulers, sure to be memorialized as epic figures, were also just normal young people, with inside jokes and nuanced relationships that allowed them to swear fealty in public and prank one another in private. It is vital that a chronicler capture these moments of humanity as well as the glorious tableaux of battle. Eugenides could not be remembered only as Annux.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I had made my peace with losing Eugenides. For twenty-five years, he’s stolen increasingly precious treasures in stunningly savvy fashion: Hamiathes’ Gift. Time. Peace. Attolia. Doubt. And the one thing he didn’t steal, but earned: respect. It seemed only fitting that the price for this incredible story would be that in the end he would be stolen away from us.
Finally, Eugenides does fall—but then he comes back. And initially it feels not like a cunning bit of narrative misdirection, but like a cheat. He falls off his horse after hoodwinking the Medes into letting him into their war camp, where he sabotages from within: killing general Bu-seneth, scattering the elephants, and setting ablaze the powder stores. After parleying with ambassador Nahuseresh, when Eugenides demands to see the baron Erondites—the true mastermind—and is refused. After calling down a bolt of lightning from Hephestia’s quiver itself to strike Erondites’ tent, in front of stunned mortals from both sides, like something terrible and awe-inspiring from a story that should never have happened in real life.
Thieves don’t have breaking points, Eddisian ambassador Ornon says in The King of Attolia, they have flash points. While they are less likely to crack under pressure—as we witness during the Medes’ interrogation—they can be sparked like gunpowder, the threat of senseless destruction making them so dangerous.
Do not overreach, the gods tell Eugenides when he returns to their temple begging for a clearer answer than last time. Well, they don’t exactly say that; that’s the Oracle’s mistranslation of the archaic tongue. Nor is it cautioning danger in excess, as Eddis supposes from her own shaky translation. The best that Eugenides can parse the message is, it’s a warning against self-indulgence. That self-indulgence, he knows then but we don’t realize until he’s chasing Nahuseresh in a blind rage in the middle of a battlefield, is about giving in to the violent impulses Eugenides has long rejected.
Since The Thief, we have witnessed Eugenides struggle with his talent for the sword and his revulsion at what it allows him to do. Yet even his father, who always wanted his Thief son to be a soldier, finally recognizes the error of pushing Eugenides toward battle. But it’s Attolia who soothes him, by saying, “All wars make men monsters, all wars and all men.”
Return of The Thief does a fair bit of retconning of Eddisian culture, revealing that it’s a lot more violent and trophy-based than readers might have realized: The first kill is a coming-of-age, it and other significant life moments commemorated with distinctive tattoos. That Gen does not have any Eddisian ink, while still having committed Eddisian acts, makes him dangerous; his people don’t know how to engage him, because he has more information than they do.
Pheris records these new cultural details, as well as the highly charged conversations between Attolia and Eddis, and between Eddis and Sounis, which shade in more of the narrative all the way back to The Thief: The Eddisians feared Eugenides taking over Eddis’ throne, even though she is his queen and he has no interest in ruling, which is why he was sent to find Hamiathes’ Gift. Yet even then there was fear that Gen would use the stone to seize the throne; Eddis suspects its Thieves of wanting to steal power, on top of everything else.
These revelations are difficult to take in, partly because there are so many and partly because they describe a Eugenides that doesn’t exist; it’s others’ fears about his hunger for power, when even now he fights to be seen as more unkingly than kingly. But what does completely track is that Eugenides is the most dangerous Thief that has ever existed, and that his greatest fall would be preceded by a meteoric rise—a powder keg sparked, a rocket ignited—and fueled by mortal anger and just a touch of godly fire.
After bearing his god to the point where he becomes a human vessel for divine retribution, Eugenides falls off his horse and passes into a liminal space. It’s not exactly the afterlife, though he is visited by the shade of Lader, the first man he killed in Eddis as a boy. But Lader is not there to ferry him to either a peaceful heaven (for a job well done) or a punishing hell (for doing the job too well). He simply bears one more cryptic prophecy, about the ways in which the house of Erondites will destroy him.
Following those three days in something of a coma, Eugenides is free to return to his life, armed with this ghostly warning. Yet because Pheris is the one writing this history, we have to anticipate that Eugenides does not turn on him; indeed, the king reflects that this message is not an enigma from the gods, but a cruel riddle from a man who hates him. And while every single thing that Lader foretells does come to pass, each line of the prophecy is its own clever prediction, to be dismantled and then utilized for victory against the Medes.
After agonizing over the various meanings of the word fall, it feels almost too easy for Eugenides to see through Lader’s trickery. The fall is supposed to be something that undoes Eugenides, that radically changes his world, that takes something away from the characters and/or the readers. Instead, it’s like we’re back in Hephestia’s temple in The Thief, and Eugenides has found his way past yet another booby trap. After all this buildup, a fall is just a fall.
There are deaths. Eugenides’ father falls in battle, one of the rare instances that Pheris does not either witness or fill in with someone else’s recollection. The most we get is Eugenides numbly relating the news, saying that he watched his father get cut down from across the battlefield, early on in the fighting. Instead, we remember the two at wry, tenuous peace with one another (“I lied.” “I know.”) before readying themselves to face the Medes. Teleus and Pheris believe that Relius has been kidnapped, tortured, only-the-gods-know-what behind enemy lines. The war takes its casualties.
But there is also life—an astonishing amount of it. Attolia gives birth to twins, the stereotypical fantasy set of a boy (named for Gen’s late father Hector) and a girl (named for Eugenides’ patron god, but the feminine version Eugenia). Eddis is also expecting (some fan theories think that child might be Gitta Kingsdaughter). Costis and Kamet return, safe (enough) after another harrowing road trip. Even Relius and Teleus are eventually reunited, though not without weeks of mourning. All of our faves make it through, a shockingly high survival rate for the end of a fantasy series. Despite the threat of the Medes and the anxiety-inducing prophecies from the gods, the world that Eugenides and his friends have worked to protect will continue on, almost completely unchanged.
And then the book—the entire Queen’s Thief series—ends with Eugenides pulling Attolia, then Eddis and Sounis, then the entire court, up to the palace roof to dance. The gods slyly cut in as well, lending an even more divine air to the mortals’ entertainment, even though it was already a blessed endeavor: Legend has it that anyone who dances with the Thief on the roof of the palace will be safe.
It’s a suspiciously neat ending, more like something out of a fairy tale (and they lived happily ever after) than the last-minute gut-punch reversal of a Greek tragedy. And to my shame, I feel ungrateful for questioning this good fortune. I can’t help but feel like this series deserves an ending that is… my mind goes to words like stronger (meaning full of loss) or more final (meaning something emotionally devastating) or static (frozen in time), with the impulse to reject an ending that is gentle, that is open-ended, that can continue to grow.
As readers we are trained to believe that a quiet ending to an epic series isn’t delivering on some narrative promise. But this series has always been about Eugenides chiding others—readers, foes, allies, mentees—for underestimating. These books, ostensibly written for young adults, make steelier and more permanent narrative choices than many books for adult audiences. There’s no explicit sex on the page, yet these novels depict one of the most mature, dynamic, hopelessly romantic, even kinky, partnerships in something so simple as a hand on a cheek. The Queen’s Thief plays on the genre expectations that a thief could never be a king—or, if he does manage to steal the throne, a king could never go back to being a thief—and proves them wrong.
And so, Megan Whalen Turner challenges us once more to adjust our ingrained biases, this time about a war narrative and a series finale. The protagonists don’t have to die just to make an ending. Attolia is able to comfort her husband about his discomfort with his skill at killing because first she talks to Eddis. When Attolia pushes Eddis about the culture that trained her and Eugenides to fight in battle, to feel it as a calling more than an obligation, the other queen—nowhere near as beautiful, but so much kinder—says that yes, she and Gen will fight if they have to: “But the call of life is as powerful as the call of death, and it is no weakness to answer to it.”
Eugenides has been through so much in his short life that there was no need for his story to end tragically. Each Queen’s Thief novel has been so consistently and distinctively compelling, the stakes as high as they needed to be, that character deaths for the sake of character death would have detracted from rather than added to the finale. There is no weakness to ending on a hopeful note.
I opened Return of The Thief already pre-mourning Eugenides. But this book has taught us, once again, that we cannot predict where his story will end up—and once I’ve processed that, I imagine that I too will feel like dancing.
Natalie Zutter will be curious to see how her experience of Return of The Thief changes on the inevitable reread, now that she knows how it all ends. Mourn/celebrate/speculate on the ending of The Queen’s Thief series with her on Twitter!