For today, Halloween, and this, the first of our posts for this year’s Witch Week, we have an introduction to a fantasy series set in a classical world.
The Queen’s Thief series:
Lory Widmer Hess
Once upon a time, a young debut novelist wrote what she thought would be a standalone middle grade novel. She had studied English literature at the University of Chicago, home to the world-famous Center for Children’s Books, and been a book buyer for the children’s department in various bookstores, so she knew the field well. And she was deeply inspired by the authors she admired — Diana Wynne Jones and Rosemary Sutcliff being high up on the list.
Her primary concern was with character, with writing out of a notion that had been brewing in her mind for some time, “the idea of a person traveling in the company of other people who entirely underestimated him and failed to recognize who he was and what he was capable of doing.” But she also wanted to get the setting right, making it somewhat familiar while avoiding the overdone Middle Earth type of world, and it took her quite some time before she settled on a land with more than a passing resemblance to the former city-states of Greece. Given that Ancient Greece is a unit commonly taught in schools, she was “pretty sure that most of [her] audience in this country would be able to imagine this landscape, with just a few important cues – and that it would fire their imaginations.” 
Once that was finally settled, the book took off, and The Thief was duly written and published by Greenwillow in 1996. Narrated by its central character, Gen, it captured readers, educators, and reviewers with its freshly imagined quasi-Mediterranean setting, complete with a new pantheon of Gods headed by the formidable goddess Hephestia, and a surprising, tricksy plot involving not just one but a number of personages and events that are not what they at first appear. And the author, Megan Whalen Turner, was likewise surprised one day to receive an exciting phone call: her book had been selected for a Newbery Honor.
Turner hadn’t been planning to continue writing about this world, but when readers started asking when the sequel was coming out, she realized that she did have more stories to tell, and a lot more of her imaginary land to explore. She’d trimmed some of the political backstory and character nuance that lived in her own imagination from the first book, to keep it from weighing down a one-off narrative aimed at younger readers. But in the second book, The Queen of Attolia, she took the gloves off, making a giant leap in terms of maturity and complexity, and adding depth and richness to a narrative that had been entertaining and well-written, but somewhat slight.
Over the course of four further volumes, Turner worked in more detail, more characters, more history, more legend, and more intrigue, creating a place of convincing solidity out of the threads of pure imagination. As the series slowly unfolded, it attracted a rabid group of fans who awaited each new book as though it were news from our distant homeland. Its ending last year with the final volume, Return of the Thief, was bittersweet, but not in any way a letdown. Many authors can create a dramatic or intriguing setting and characters, but few can sustain a narrative over such a long sequence, with such consistently high-quality results.
What about “treason and plot”? You’ll notice I’ve not really told you much about the plot at all, and that’s because it’s really much better for you to experience it yourself, starting from page one of The Thief, without spoilers of any kind. But I will tell you that the books take place within three neighboring kingdoms named Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. The names belong to their rulers as well as to the land, and all are engaged in a struggle for power, ascendancy, and sometimes survival – with each other, and in later books against the much larger and more powerful Mede Empire. The struggle leads to some hard decisions and painful betrayals, along with shifting alliances and relationships. Treason and plot are these kingdoms’ bread and butter.
And Turner makes the most of this. As Natalie Zutter wrote in her appreciation for Tor.com, “there is, incredibly, a twist in every single book. Whenever you think you’ve caught on to Turner’s cleverness, she mines a new perspective or practices a new bit of narrative sleight-of-hand.” But the twists never feel manipulative or false; they arise as if inevitably out of the situation each novel presents, and out of the human beings at their core. They are not the kind of “twist” books one throws away after a first read-through; rather one reads them again with increased appreciation, admiration, and even amusement, wondering at the way we can still manage not to see what is in plain sight.
Turner also, most remarkably to my mind, manages to maintain a kind of integrity through her core characters that keeps the books from becoming bitter or cynical. Power struggles form the mechanism that drives the plot, but love is the beating heart that makes it live. We reread the books not just to admire their construction, but because it’s the only way to visit a place and a people we grow to love and care for, and whose relationships matter to us as much as to them.
While Gen remains the central figure, after the first book he is not the narrator — a wise authorial decision, I believe, that widens our perspective and reminds us that there are many ways to look at any situation or event. Getting stuck in one point of view, one rigid way of seeing, is often the way characters get into trouble in the books, and it’s our privilege as readers to always be striving to escape from that trap. Each book challenges us to change our perspective, to look at things from a different angle, and that’s part of what makes the series so rich and so satisfying. Readers who just want a cookie-cutter replica of the first book may be disappointed, but they are free to go elsewhere.
Why “The Queen’s Thief”? You’ll find out why in the first volume – and this deliciously ironic appellation will show you why “treason and plot” are so central to the series. Every political structure needs a bit of chaos and disorder, to keep it from growing stale and overly rigid, while remaining attentive to a higher ruling order. I think our own world could use a bit of this kind of beneficial thievery, and maybe reading Turner’s wonderful books can help us to make it happen.
 Four Questions at Publishers Weekly – https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/71678-four-questions-for-megan-whelan-turner.html
1996 The Thief
2000 The Queen of Attolia
2006 The King of Attolia
2010 A Conspiracy of Kings
2017 Thick as Thieves
2020 Return of the Thief
Lory Widmer Hess blogs about life, language and literature at Entering the Enchanted Castle (https://enterenchanted.com).