If you, like us, have voracious readers always eager for, sometimes demanding, new reading material, Margaret Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series is definitely worth a try. Set in a fictionalized version of Greece in something like the sixteenth century, the series continually reveals Mrs. Turner’s love for Greece, its landscape, mythology, learning and even politics.
The stories are set in three small adjoining countries, Sounis, Eddis and Attolia. Political relationships among these three kingdoms drive the macro-plots, with their internal struggles influenced by the encroachments of the powerful Medean Empire. The central characters present a wide variety of personality, each heavily formed by the political role they must play as leaders of their nations. The ambitious, not terribly clever but committed King of Sounis; his diplomatic advisor, the learned Magus, trying to serve his King while looking to the broader interest of an anti-Mede peace in the region; the down-to-earth, good-hearted, understanding Queen of Eddis who rules through her barons’ love and loyalty; the cold, beautiful Queen of Attolia, driven to ruthlessness by the need to assert her rule over barons who would use or destroy her. Mrs. Turner effortlessly develops what could be merely stock characters into unique individuals, rich, interesting, believable.
Her masterpiece is Eugenides. His office is an ingenious creation of Mrs. Turner’s – the Queen’s Thief. Part spy, part saboteur, yet a hereditary office of nobility and no creation of the state ruler, its powers and responsibilities mold Eugenides’ character. In many ways immature, or liking the freedom of playing the immature role, Eugenides enjoys pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, which his intelligence and wit allow him to do. Yet his commitment to his office and his queen leads him to greater and greater sacrifice as the stories unfold. Eugenides’ pain, more prominent in the second and third books than in the first, is intense and convincing. He grows into maturity through difficult choices and sufferings until, in the most recent installment, he becomes a model and guide for a young friend thrust into a kingship he did not want.
Tremendously important to Eugenides’ development are the gods. Like other aspects of her stories, Mrs. Turner’s presentation of the gods reminds me in some ways of CS Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. First introduced through myths shared around the campfire by the Magus and Eugenides, the gods become real participants through their providential interaction with and on behalf of Eugenides. Mrs. Turner’s gods are providential yet not comforting, demanding not by commanding but by their stern, austere, simple superiority. Eugenides encounters the gods not as a child or a favorite. He is someone from a different world, out of step, unsure of what is expected or how he is to relate to them. I think of Oedipus at Colonus when I read Mrs. Turner’s account of her presentation:
What I wanted to create was a pantheon that might have inspired in my characters the same feelings that the ancient Greeks had for their gods....or would have had if a civilization like theirs had developed for another thousand years without the rise of monotheism.
Eugenides cannot manipulate the gods, or fool them, or cajole them. He simply has to obey them--not because of threats or rewards, but because they simply belong to another plane of being that must be obeyed. Nor is it that he doesn’t revolt, or at least drag his feet. His relationship with them is fascinating, and at times ruefully funny in a way that many Catholics can understand. In The King of Attolia, Eugenides gripes about the way they treat his many sacrifices:
"No 'Glory will be your reward for me’. Oh no, for me, it is, 'Stop Whining' and 'Go To Bed' …I should know better. Never call on them, Costis, if you don’t really want them to appear.”
Amazon considers the books appropriate for the 9-12 age group. This seems to indicate the vocabulary level, and perhaps reflects the light-heartedness of much of the first book in the series, The Thief, narrated by Eugenides himself. But the wit and fun of that book will certainly entertain older children, and themes, plots and characters of the rest of the series are satisfying to adults as well. Like Eugenides, Mrs. Turner likes to keep a light, self-deprecating tone in her storytelling and yet knows how to intensify the writing as appropriate. The series has become favorite read-aloud material for our family, who keep me going much past what I know should be the time to stop. Mrs. Turner excels at leaving little clues about the deeper layers of the plot in such a way that continually surprises us at its unmasking, and rewards our re-reading with a delightful sense of “I get it now” and “How clever!”
I accidentally discovered The Queen's Thief series through reading an application essay for Thomas Aquinas College. I am grateful to that student for introducing me and my family to an excellent reading experience.