The Thief (1996): Megan Whalen Turner


The Queen’s Thief: Book I

By popular demand (usually from Melita), I’ve finally got round to Megan Whalen Turner! I understand from Kerstin that the Queen’s Thief books are loved by Dunnetteers, among many other readers, for their twisting plots and intrigue, and so I’d really been looking forward to them. At the end of this first novel, however, I can’t help wondering when that promised court intrigue is going to get underway. The Thief is an enjoyable young-adult quest novel, throwing together the traditional bunch of ill-assorted companions in search of an ancient relic, but I don’t feel it’s hugely out of the ordinary. I’m not about to give up, though, and am sure things will warm up later in the series.

We first meet our hero Gen in prison, where he’s contemplating the irony of the world’s greatest thief being unable to free himself from chains. When the prospect of freedom does arise, however, it does so from the most unexpected quarter: the King of Sounis’s chief adviser, ‘the magus’. It just so happens that the King has ambitions to expand his territory by marriage with the queen of neighbouring Eddis. In order to force her hand, he wants to be in possession of Hamiathes’ Gift, a stone from ancient legend, which is believed to confer the kingship of Eddis on the bearer. Of course, the Gift has been lost for centuries; but the magus thinks he’s figured out where it is. And so Gen, grumbling, intransigent and permanently hungry, finds himself trotting off on horseback (he hates horses) with the magus, the soldier Pol and two inept assistants, Sophos and Ambiades.

The story functions as an introduction to Turner’s world, plotting outlines which will (I suppose) be filled in by later books. Sounis borders the sea, while Eddis lies to the east, up in the valleys of the Hephestial Mountains. Further east still, and down to the south, is Sounis’s ancient enemy Attolia. We have at least a glimpse of all three kingdoms in this book, setting the stage for Gen’s future adventures. As the travellers break their journey, they also tell stories which reveal the world’s myths and its pantheon of gods, from the thief-god Eugenides (after whom Gen is named) to the goddess of Fate, Moira. But their enforced companionship doesn’t extend to sharing their own stories and, for all the magus’s brilliance, he doesn’t realise that his thieving prisoner has an agenda of his own. Nor do any of them realise that the gods are watching…

There was much I enjoyed about the book, which has a delightful light humour, but it feels like the work of an author still finding her feet. The world-building doesn’t yet feel entirely secure. For example, are we in our own world or not? The map included at the end of my edition shows something that looks like a skewed version of the Mediterranean and Aegean, and the names back this up. Attolia occupies the same place on the map that Anatolia would; while to the south there’s the empire of Mede, which matches the location of Persia (the Persians were also called Medes). Gen and his companions have names taken from or based on Greek. So far so clear. But Turner picks and chooses from Greek history and myth, keeping some figures – Moira, Archimedes – but transforming Hephestus into Hephestia and ignoring the rest of the Olympians. This kind of cherry-picking annoys me slightly: using our own world in fantasy is all well and good, but one should either refer to it openly (the presence of Classical authors in Prince of Thorns, for example), or create an entirely alternate world (for example, The Lions of Al-Rassan). So I remain to be convinced about the integrity of Gen’s world.

At times, I also didn’t completely buy into the characters. The magus’s attitude to Gen is fairly inconsistent: threatening him with death one moment, and being a jolly good, caring chap the next. Fortunately, Gen himself is charming and, as we discover towards the end, fully as good a thief as he claims to be, for all that he spends most of the book lounging around eating. I suspect this is probably one of those books that grows on you with each reading, as you understand more of what’s going on between the lines. So don’t despair of me just yet. I’ll get my hands on The Queen of Attolia in due course and, with luck, the knotty politicking will start in earnest, and I’ll be as happy as a pig in a great deal of mud.

And if you’re disappointed that I don’t yet love this as much as you do? Remember that I didn’t initially think much of The Game of Kings when I read that either…

Buy the book

Queen’s Thief fans, take a look at this rather lovely fan-made trailer for ‘The Thief’, using footage from various other films and programmes. Very cleverly done.

6 thoughts on “The Thief (1996): Megan Whalen Turner

  1. Kerstin Hehl says:

    I’d say read the second book at least, and if it still doesn’t grab you, then it’s probably not for you 🙂
    I wonder if some of the lukewarm response might also be due to different expectations. I think when most of us first read it, we probably didn’t expect much apart from a somewhat historical/fantasy children’s/YA story from it, and were pleasantly surprised, whereas you came to it with the burden of all those recommendations and the associated sky-high expecations piled on to it.
    That said, the first book does come along feeling somewhat like a rather simple children’s adventure story, and that is quite deliberate, I think, though a reread (especially with the hindsight of revelations in later books) did reveal things I’d missed or had thought not important. Books 2 and 3 are my favourites though.
    Unlike you, I also liked the way the world-building positioned itself somewhere between the real recognisable world of Ancient Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean and a fantasy world. Lois McMaster Bujold (in her Five Gods/Chalion series) uses a somewhat similar technique – let’s see what you think of that if you ever get round to reading those 🙂
    Oh, and Gen remains pretty high in my (somewhat crowded) pantheon of favourite literary heroes 🙂

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Oh, no fear, Kerstin: I’ll definitely read the rest! The heightened expectations can work two ways, I think, and not only negatively. Had I not seen so much love for this series among people whose taste I really respect, I might have thought, “Well, good fun, but a little flat,” and stopped here. But I now have the luxury of being pretty sure that good things are coming up. 🙂

      Regarding the world building, it’s not that it’s *recognisable* that jarred with me… I don’t think I expressed myself very well. Recognisable is fine – look at Kay, look at Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, for example – but it’s the fact that Turner uses *some* authentic names and not others. She’s not just saying, “Here’s my pantheon of twelve gods and I’m giving them Olympian attributes but different names” – nor is she saying, “OK, I’m going to keep the Olympians as is,” – but she takes some and leaves others and ends up sitting on the fence about what her world is actually meant to be. In the greater scheme of things, this doesn’t matter at all, but I’m an awkward so-and-so and it just stuck in my craw a little. Does that make any more sense? I’m feeling extremely inarticulate today. I think it has something to do with being in a foreign country at the moment (Vienna) and feeling that my linguistic abilities are even more stilted than usual.

      Oh, and I think it highly likely that I will get on to the rest of Lois McMaster Bujold, but I need to read the Vorkosigan books first. Thoughts on Barrayar coming up soon, as a matter of fact. Crush on Aral still not abated 🙂

  2. Kerstin Hehl says:

    Regarding the world-building: I understood what you meant the first time round – as if you ever could express yourself badly – and it was probably me that wasn’t explaining my take properly! 😉

    We clearly just look at it differently – I actually quite like it when there are only bits and pieces that are taken from the “real” world so that in some aspects it could be our world, while others are different. For me it creates a somewhat disconcerting feeling somewhere between familarity and the unknown that I like and it keeps me on my toes, but I can see that others might experience it differently and might see it as “half-arsedness” and get frustrated by this approach 🙂

    I actually like the usually very recognisable worlds GG Kay for example creates much less – for me, those are the easy cop-out: it’s all pretty much history, just with the names changed.
    But everyone likes different things, which is a good thing, or all books would be the same! 😀

    Ooh, Barrayar. Probably the best of the very early Vorkosigan books (in internal chronology, which I assume you are reading in, and not publication chronology?). I came to those books arse end first and read them all in a confused order as and when I could get hold of them, so I’m afraid I was head over heels for Miles before I even got to meet Aral properly… (my favourites are Memory and A Civil Campaign, which you’ve got to bit to go before you get there…)

    Enjoy Vienna! Hope there is some pleasure involved in your trip and it’s not all work!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I’m currently eating Mozartkugeln while listening to the Blue Danube waltz, after having spent all afternoon in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, so I’m probably in danger of becoming a complete cliché 😂

  3. Melita says:

    I managed to wait until evening to reply when I had access to a laptop (versus my cell where I do most of my blog reading) but I wanted to reply immediately this morning when I read your entry.

    I’m glad you read it! I was wondering if I should look you up and nudge you again if I manage to visit London later this spring.

    I agree with Kerstin that you should try 2 and possibly 3. I feel 4 is one of the weaker books (although Sophos is darling). I read Queen of Attolia first. When I backed up to read The Thief, while I enjoyed it and was still surprised by most of the twists, it reads to me as if it’s written for a younger audience with some of the simplification that entails. I had the same problem with Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives, written for the young adult market. I felt there was too much explaining going on compared to her other work.

    I adore King of Attolia. I’m still up in the air about Thick as Thieves. It’s another travel story with characters that will be introduced in books 2 and 3.

    I never made the Attolia / Anatolia connection. I haven’t read much set in the eastern Mediterranean unless it’s ancient Greek or Roman historical fiction.

    The quasi-Greek/Mede world doesn’t bother me but again I’m not that familiar with the area. to me, it immediately felt like alternative history because of the mix of technology. I’m more familiar with Japanese history and Lian Hearn’s treatment of it, 99% Japan with a few names changed in Across the Nightingale Floor, just made me grit my teeth through the entire book. I think I read book 2 and then gave up. It was also a bit of I-don’t-care-what-happens-to-these-characters. GG Kay’s alternative history/secondary world/shadow earth books don’t bother me either. His main-male-character-who-can-do-anything-and-attracts-attention-from-multiple-women sometimes strikes me as Marty Stu-ish (Warning: addictive but only mildly.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Glad to hear you don’t despair of me yet, Melita! And please *do* look me up when you’re next in London: it’d be a pleasure to see you and I’m always in need of a coffee and a chat about books 😊 Sorry for the brevity as I’m in transit today but I’m relieved to hear that you felt a similar frustration with the Japanese side of things in Hearn. As I said to Kerstin, I will definitely continue and I’m looking forward to seeing how things develop with Gen and his friends.

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