I first encountered Megan Whalen Turner‘s remarkable Eugenides in her 1997 Newbery Honor The Thief. I was hooked and, since then, have read and reread this title and the following four in The Queen’s Thief series: The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and Thick as Thieves. Now, in preparation for the May 2019 publication of The Return of the Thief, the final of the series, I have just finished listening to the first five. While I have reread the books numerous times I had never listened to them and I must say doing so was a treat. Narrator Steve West was outstanding, managing to inhabit the different characters beautifully.
Listening to the books made me regularly sigh in contentment for, among other things, Turner’s plotting is remarkable. I did not listen to these in order, but started with The Queen of Attolia, went on to The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings before going back to the beginning with The Thief and then finishing up with Thick as Thieves. By doing this, knowing the storylines, I was able to appreciate even more Turner’s assured and shrewd managing of each book’s individual plot along with the overall arc of the series. These are mysteries, thrillers, and smart novels with sneaky twists and turns. Seeing how cleverly Turner seeds her stories, throwing a teeny moment in here or a small clue in there (if you know what you are looking at) is an incredible pleasure. I suspect after reading the final book I will go back and listen to them all again.
I once asked Turner if she was someone who wrote without knowing where the story was going or someone who planned. She told me she did the latter and I can’t imagine her pulling these books off any other way. What struck me especially when listening to The Thief after several others was how perfect it was as the first in a series. I have no idea if Turner planned the whole series before starting the first book, but whatever she did, the development of characters, politics, and world feels seamless.
Speaking of the fictional world of these stories, her building of it is impeccable. From descriptions of places, garments, and culture, it is completely and consistently believable. One element that listening really elevated for me was the mythic stories that are told throughout the books. In Thick as Thieves, they are from the predatory Mede Empire. These felt inspired by such sagas as Gilgamesh while those in the previous books of Attolia, Sounis, and Eddis seemed more along the lines of Greek mythology.
Something else that came out when listening was Turner’s elegant wordsmithing. After reading and listening to the Harry Potter books I became hyper aware of adverbs. At one point I felt Rowling, having been oft-criticized for her use of them, was overly using them in spite. Since then I’ve been very conscious of authors’ use of adverbs and when they do it well, I cheer. Such is the case with these books; Turner uses adverbs judiciously, purposely, and perfectly. I recommend looking at these if you want a lesson on how to use them well. Also, there is the way she uses figurative language. Too often I’m distracted by fantasy authors’ use of our-world imagery for their imagined places. And so when someone is described as the color of ebony, I start wondering if that wood exists in that world. Turner keeps everything believably within the world of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounes. Her images, metaphors, and similes are from that world. It’s these little things that raise a work from good to great.
I’m a character-driven reader and those in these series are so elegantly developed. We are never told about them, but always learn more about them through their actions — sometimes from their point of view (not always reliable when it comes to Eugenides), but often from someone else. Using a bystander or a smaller actor in the complex developments in these stories is such a clever approach. Each is fully realized while also helping develop even more the main characters of the series — the royals, the thief. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Finally, the themes of these books, oh the themes. They are big ones indeed, relating to power, to politics, to concerns about bigness and smallness, to how to be a person, belief, and more. I’m thinking and reading a lot these days about African enslavement during the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and so re-experiencing Thick as Thieves had me marveling at Turner’s consideration of slavery from within and without.
For those who are not yet familiar with these books, you have a treat in store. For those who already know and love them, we wait together for the fate of those three small kingdoms and the wonderful characters we’ve gotten to know and love. Thank you, Megan Whalen Turner, for creating such a memorable and brilliant work of art.