Jan 24, 2013

The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner

The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
Megan Whalen Turner’s brilliant Queen’s Thief series is a little difficult to describe, but I shall do my best. There are four books in the series so far – The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings – and they follow more or less the same group of characters, though each novel has a slightly different emphasis and they most work as stand-alones. This can be a little heartbreaking, especially when you finish one of them, pick up the following, and realise it’s not going to be about the same character you’ve spent 300 pages falling in love with. But never fear: it won’t take you very long at all to also fall in love with the new characters, because Megan Whalen Turner is just that good.

The Queen’s Thief series takes place in a world loosely inspired by Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean region, although, as Whalen Turner points out in the afterword, it’s not actually the Classical world. There are similarities in the landscape and in the mythology, but the technology is more advanced and the countries are entirely fictional. The series focuses on three small nations – Sounis, Attolia and Eddis – and on their rulers, who are trying to resist takeover by a hostile empire and who slowly realise that putting their historical differences aside and coming together may be the only way to survive. But of course, historical differences run deep and trust can’t be gained overnight, so this is no simple thing.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, because the Queen’s Thief series is very easy to spoil. These are actually character-centred rather than plot-centred novels, but they’re also the kind of novels where learning certain things about the characters reconfigures the story you thought you were reading, and revisiting it once you have that knowledge will always be very different from reading it for the first time. I’ll stay clear of spoilers for the rest of this post – at some point I’ll have to make allusions to certain events in the story, but I’m confident that they’re the kind of allusion that will only make sense if you have context for them. This means that if you’re read part of the series but not the rest there will be spoilers, but probably not otherwise. Of course, keeping this post mostly spoilers-free means there’s a lot I won’t be able to say, but I’ll be reviewing The Thief along with Jodie for Lady Business, and we’ll be able to get into more detail then.

One of the most interesting things about this series was the characters’ relationships with their pantheon of gods. As I said, the influence of Greek mythology is clear, but Megan Whalen Turner was able to speculate about how these gods would work as divinities people actually believed in rather than as characters in stories, and to capture a sense of awe in the oldest sense of the term. The religious elements are used to explore ideas about choice and individual agency and fate, but not in a simplistic sort of way. These novels are very much about individuals whose lives are constrained by factors beyond their control – the responsibility of government and all it implies, public duty and what it means to accept it, etc – so there’s a lot of metaphorical resonance to Gen’s relationship with his gods.

But what I really, really loved was the fact that this series is a masterclass in subtlety and in trusting your readers’ intelligence. Some of the best things about these novels are things we only glimpse here and there, but that’s more than enough. Megan Whalen Turner leaves us longing for these characters, sort of in the same way you’re left wanting more of a person you’re growing to really, really like – you want to learn more about them and see different angles of them, and the moments of their time you manage to steal here and there just don’t feel like enough. The writing does a wonderful job of balancing leaving readers craving more and giving us enough detail that the characters feel like real people.

This is never more noticeable than in the romance, which is absolutely brilliant. I was reminded of Dorothy Sayers and of the very brief but wonderfully effective glimpses we get of Peter and Harriet’s intimacy in Busman’s Honeymoon, for example. In the Queen’s Thief series we have Irene’s ruby earrings, or the way we’re briefly told both Gen and Irene cried on their wedding night. The rest is left to the imagination, but oh, it’s enough to break your heart. There’s plenty of sexual tension and of emotionally charged scenes, but again, it’s all very subtle. This is a series that really rewards close reading, and I love that.

When looking for reviews of this series to link to, I came across an old post of Jenny’s that perfectly expresses why I’m in love with these books and that shows that I wasn’t the only one to have made the Dorothy Sayers connection:
A very true story about me: I love subtext. I’m mad for subtext. Considering the epic crush I have on words, I am mighty appreciative of things left unsaid. Subtext. The simmery-er, the better. When I find an author who can make me quiver with tension during a scene where it’s just two people sitting around talking, I’m hers for life. (Or his, of course!) I will overlook a lot of flaws in a book that knows how to play its subtext.

Take, for example, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, a very imperfect book, God knows, but I love it quite passionately for its dialogue, every line of which means at least one thing other than the actual words being said. Or take nearly any scene between Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries, and you will see it is rife with beautiful, crackling subtext: see in particular the scene by the riverbank in Gaudy Night. You know that one? Damn good scene.

Megan Whalen Turner is also very good at this, so I may have been too high on subtext to spot any flaws. I have seen reviews that found the plots of (some of) the books in this series slow, but I didn’t mind. I was too busy enjoying the lovely character interactions. The central character is a person with a tendency towards self-concealment, and many of the twists in the plot arise from your (or other characters’) (or both) not knowing him as well as you think you do. This is a very cool kind of plot twist – the kind that makes you go back and reevaluate actions and words that you thought you understood the first time around but you really did not. (Unless you’re me. If you’re me, you did. I sneakily find out plot twists ahead of time by causing my sister to tell them to me.)
Jenny, you are so, so right! I should have listened to you back then and ran to get these books, instead of depriving myself of them for another three whole years. The way Megan Whalen Turner handles subtext is nothing short of brilliant, and that means that I, too, am hers for life.

Oh, and I haven’t even told you about all the political tension in these books – the world is wonderfully intricate and nothing is black and white or oversimplified. If you’re a Discworld fan and especially if you like the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, you absolutely must read these books and meet Eugenides. And also, of course, the Queen of Atollia. The way she’s gradually humanised in the book named after her is absolutely amazing. So many other writers wouldn’t have bothered to do that. But in Whalen Turner’s very capable hands we see her loneliness and how her choices are constrained and who she is as a person in addition to a ruler. Her story arc is essentially about trust, and there’s something so moving about her coming so far as to hold Helen’s hand when she says goodbye to Sophos in A Conspiracy of Kings. Sigh, my heart.

In short, these books are amazing and you should read them as soon as possible if you haven’t yet. And then you can join me in agonising for the next one. Dear Megan Whalen Turner, please write faster?

They read it too: The Book Smugglers, Jenny’s Books, The Sleepless Reader, Booklust (books 1, 2, 3 and 4 with Kelly), Stella Matutina, Angieville, and there’s a whole Queen’s Thief week with lots of amazing content at Chachic’s Book Nook

(Have I missed yours? Let me know and I’ll be happy to add it.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

34 comments:

sakura said...

I've had this on my wishlist for a while. But your comparisons to Pratchett and Sayers is tempting me. Does this mean I have to run out and get them???

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Yes. Like a young Lord Vetinari! Surely you can't resist that? :D

Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

You'd think that trusting your readers' intelligent would be a given to all authors, but if it's that common why are we still surprised when it happens, especially in YA? Hummm...

I'm very glad you also enjoyed them!

My thoughts: http://thesleeplessreader.com/2012/11/12/the-queens-thief-series-by-megan-whalen-turner/

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Alex: Already added you! I wouldn't say I'm especially surprised to see this happen in YA (although yeah, a lot of people condescend to teens), but I'm always excited and appreciative because it's one of my favourite things and it doesn't happen enough :P

Michelle (intoyourlungs) said...

This series gives me All The Feels. I love it dearly. I really need to re-read it though! There was one Big Thing in The Queen of Attolia that kind of bugged me but I'm wondering if it wouldn't anymore because of what I know now that I've read all four books. Like you said, these would make wonderful re-reads.

I also love love love that these are classified as Middle Grade (at least they are here in Canada.) The publisher and author obviously have a lot of trust in younger readers and that makes me really happy.

I'm a little sad that the books are released so far apart from one another, but I think I'll be even more sad when the series is complete, so.

Ana said...

A SHOWER OF HEARTS ALL OVER THIS POST.

That is all.

chachic said...

"But what I really, really loved was the fact that this series is a masterclass in subtlety and in trusting your readers’ intelligence." -> THIS! Love everything that you said about the series. :) So now you know why I've been pushing this series to everyone?

Amy said...

:D These books are so wonderful. I'm glad you finally read them and loved them! I now want to read the series from start to finish, again. Maybe I need to consider this as a re-read project later in the year. Hmm....

Angiegirl said...

Oh GOSH. The scene where she holds Helen's hand is one of my absolute favorites. MWT is utterly brilliant. So delighted you've joined our ranks.

Amy said...

Angie has been evanglizing for these books ever since I've been reading her blog, but I tried to read the first one and couldn't really get into it. I've been told once I make it through the first I'll just like them better? So they are still on my "one day" list. I actually own them all, I think!

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Michelle: Yes, ALL THE FEELS! Would love to hear more about what that thing was if you want to share. But yes, the books are just not the same when you return to them. After The King of Attolia I was tempted to go back to The Thief, because it would be an entirely different book. I actually didn't realise these were published as MG - awesome.

Ana: :D

Chachic: Yes! I should have listened to you sooner, too :P I've been slowly going through your posts from last year and they've been a delight to read.

Amy: We should all reread them before the next one comes out, whenever that is. I guess the good thing about not having picked them up sooner is that now I don't have quite as long to wait.

Angie: I KNOOOW. Such a perfect scene.

Amy: I enjoyed The Thief, but it wasn't until the second book that I fell in love with the series and understood what everyone had been going on about. So hopefully the same would happen for you!

Zibilee said...

I bought the first in this series due to Aarti's rapturous love for them, and I do also have a copy of the last book. There is really no reason why I have waited this long to read them, but the waiting stops here!! I will get to them very soon! Excellent and non- spoilery review today, Ana!!

Meghan said...

I *loved* the first three books in this series, then decided I would wait until the fourth came out to reread them. And then I never did. :(

In fact, I agree with you on every element of your post. I loved the subtlety, the intelligence, and the trust that the author puts in her readers to see what's going on even as she doesn't explicitly tell you. Love love love.

Aarti said...

Obviously, I love these books.

I admit I don't love Irene, though. That is, I don't dislike her, but I just don't KNOW her enough, and I hope that she gets a POV soon so that I can GET IN HER HEAD.

Tasha B. said...

I love this series. The Queen of Attolia still ranks as one of my favorite novels of all time. And I love that Turner has twists in every novel. Gen is the best!

youbookmeallnightlong said...

Great post -- I love this series! I completely agree with you about the subtlety; there's always so much going on beneath the surface! I think it would be really interesting to reread the series knowing all I know now...haven't gotten to it yet, but I hope I will soon!

Celine said...

SQUEE'S for Megan Whalen Turner and her subtlety and respect for readers!

(I've skipped the review, though, because I've only just started KoA and - considering the beautifully twisty plot og QoA (such plotting!)- I don't want even a fractional spoiler)

Celine said...

BTW - can I just say I can understand why people say you need to read Thief in order to get the best out of the series, but, at risk of being murdered here, it actually almost put me off continuing? I think it's ok to skip it tbh! Or to at least go into it knowing it's a very different book to what comes after.

Jeanne said...

I read these pre-blogging, but that seems impossible because they are so alive and seem new in my memory. The first one--oh, the surprise! It was wonderful! And The Queen of Attolia--I could have sworn there was no way that woman could have told me anything that would lift the black hatred of my grudge against her, and yet...

Heidi said...

This series is so difficult to talk about as a whole without spoiling it, but I totally bow to your ability to capture MWT's themes here--yes! These books are so intricate, it's easy for me to understand why MWT takes so long to write a single one. So happy you're on board.

jessicabookworm said...

This series sounds right up my street and your post has twisted my arm into adding them to my wishlist :-D

Anonymous said...

Ana, your posts always flip the happy switch in my heart. It's now been several years since i read the first three, and I never did get the last one (How? Why? Was I crazy then?), so it is obviously time for a re-read of the whole series. Sadly, my library card has gone missing. Curse these slippery inanimate objects.

Mumsy said...

Oops! Didn't mean to skulk and be anonymous - that last comment was me.

Tiina said...

I haven't even heard of this series before now! It sounds wonderful! Runs to check if her library has it... :D

Jenny said...

I was hoping Mumsy's comment would include some variant on "Jenny is VERY OFTEN right, which is one of the many reasons she is my favorite daughter." That she didn't will form the basis of a lot of future therapy.

I am SO HAPPY that you liked these as much as I thought you would. You have given me so many amazing recommendations over the years, and I love it when I'm able to give you good ones too (even though of course it was the totality of the blogosphere that swayed you in the end, not just me).

(I am also happy that you said "Jenny you were right." That is maybe my favorite thing to be told in all the land.)

I will close my self-aggrandizing comment with this: Megan Whalen Turner reports that in the next book (the legendary next book! oh when will it be in my life?), Gen meets an elephant. It is meant I think to engender in him awe for the power of the Mede, but instead he is like, Hm. How can I steal this?

So there's that to look forward to.

Brandy said...

But what I really, really loved was the fact that this series is a masterclass in subtlety and in trusting your readers’ intelligence.

YES! I love everything about these books but this especially. And I love that you made the BUSMAN"S HONEYMOON connection because I think there are similarities too. Interestingly I read once that MWT had not read that one yet.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Zibilee: You know Aarti and I can't both be wrong ;) Read them soon!

Meghan: It's so good, isn't it? As for not reading it right away, I've done the same with new books on series I love so many times.

Aarti: Fingers crossed that that happens in the 5th book!

Tasha: I can't decide if my favourite is The Queen of Attolia or The King of Attolia. The twists are so smart and satisfying <3

youbookmeallnightlong: It'll probably be a few years before I reread them myself, but I'm already looking forward to it!

Celine: Eek, I'm so sorry you were almost put off! I think I liked The Thief more than some readers do, which is why it didn't make such a different to me. Reading it after the second or third book would be a completely different experience, but then again different doesn't necessarily mean worse. I think MWT herself has said that The Thief kind of spoils KoA, so it should be really interesting to start there! I think that whatever you do in terms of order, though, it's important to read The Thief before A Conspiracy of Kings. Hopefully you'll be able to tell me whether you agree soon!

Jeanne: Yes, same here. I grew to really care about her in a way that completely caught me by surprise.

Heidi: Aw, thank you! And it's nice to finally be on board :D

Jessica: yay! Hopefully you'll soon join the fan club :D

Mumsy: Haha, I know. Sometimes I come across something that reminds me of how much I love a series, and I wonder the same about what could possibly have caused me not to read the newest book as soon as possible. Fingers crossed that you find your library card soon!

Tiina: I hope it does! They're so, so good :D

Jenny: First of all, you crack me up :D I may have noticed your fondness for the words "Jenny, you were right", but DON'T worry - they're 100% deserved in this case and I wasn't saying them just to please you :P And oh, Gen stealing an elephant! I want that book noooow.

Brandy: I think it's a case of great minds thinking alike. She and Sayers are completely different in some ways, but you can sort of tell they approach writing romance in similar ways.

Quirky BookandFilmBuff said...

Several of my students have written book reports on the first book in this series, and I've been interested in these for a while. I am intrigued by what you said about Grek gods being deities the characters actually believe in rather than characters in the story.

Cheryl @ Tales of the Marvelous said...

I love (LOVE) the first book in this series, for a lot of the reasons you mentioned--the twists, the characters, the portrayal of the gods.

I really wanted to love the second book, so much so that I actually read it twice. But I don't. I just...I tried!

So I haven't attempted the others. You make me want to, though...maybe eventually!

Ali said...

My boys and I loved this series so much! Unfortunately, by the time A Conspiracy of Kings was published, both boys had moved on. I finally returned it to the library after constantly renewing it for over a year. I probably should have just read it for myself, but I kept thinking that Evan, at least, would want to pick it up with me.

Holly said...

"But what I really, really loved was the fact that this series is a masterclass in subtlety and in trusting your readers’ intelligence"=>Yes! I'm so happy to read this because this is one of my favorite series of all time. I just about died when I found out MWT will be in my city next month. Seeing her will definitely be the highlight of this year so far.

Charlotte said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed these, because I love them!

King of Attolia is the only book I have three copies of--the ARC, because it's special, the hardcover, that's signed and not for reading, and the paperback, because of the bonus story and to have a re-reading copy. I do so enjoy re-reading this one in particular--I find some new meaningful detail every time.

Have you stopped by Sounis, the fan discussion site? There have been some great conversations there, about the meaning of a particular gesture or the color of someone's dress or the quirk of someone's eyebrows in a particular scene...

Shelver506 said...

Typo. Couldn't let it stay. Let's try this again:

Welcome, my dear, to the side of enlightenment. ;-) Seriously, I love meeting new MWT fans. As someone else mentioned, you should check out the Sounis fansite, because we have great discussions. ( sounis.livejournal.com )

I also wrote a love letter to MWT that you might appreciate. http://shelversanon.blogspot.com/2012/02/love-letter.html

Kathleen said...

When you gush this much about a series I know it is one I need to read!