REVIEW: The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
Dear Ms. Turner,
Since in reality, our reviews are at least as much for readers as they are for authors, let me begin this letter with a warning to readers who haven’t embarked on your YA fantasy series beginning with The Thief. The book I am about to review here is The Queen of Attolia, second in this series, and because of the way the series is constructed, any review of this book would be chock full of spoilers for the previous one.
(So readers, if you haven’t read The Thief yet, and have an interest in doing so, you might want to bypass this review entirely, and if you haven’t done so yet, go read my review of The Thief instead.)
As The Queen of Attolia opens, Eugenides, also known as Gen, master thief, is in Attolia, a country that is enemy to his own homeland of Eddis. Not only that, he is in the palace of the Queen of Attolia, which he has infiltrated many times, and is now trying to escape undetected. But this time, the Queen of Attolia is one step ahead of Eugenides at every point, and for the second time in his life, he is captured.
Having been humiliated by Eugenides when he escaped from her earlier, Attolia, as she is known (the monarchs in this world all bear the names of their kingdoms), is determined that Eugenides will not escape again, and that she will mete out a punishment that will impress on everyone the folly of humiliating her.
At first Attolia thinks to execute Eugenides, but when the ambassador from the Mede Empire suggests that the Queen of Eddis, on whose behalf Eugenides’ greatest theft in Attolia’s kingdom was perpetrated, would prefer that he die quickly and painlessly, and reminds Attolia that she could ransom Eugenides for a tidy sum, Attolia decides to cut off Eugenides’ right hand instead.
And thus, Eugenides, Queen’s Thief of Eddis and cousin to the Queen of Eddis herself, is returned to the palace in Eddis, wounded both in body and in spirit, grieving for his lost hand and his lost art, and desperately afraid of being maimed forever in the afterlife, as well as of what further vengeance the Queen of Attolia might wreak on him before then.
In Eddis, Eugenides isolates himself in the palace library and only rarely comes out. Even after his physical injury heals to the extent it can, he still finds the most basic social interactions painful and suffers from nightmares in which he relives the moment when his hand was cut off.
The Queen of Eddis, who loves her cousin and Thief dearly, is greatly concerned about him — and about the precarious situation that his capture has plunged her kingdom into. For Eddis is a small but strategically placed kingdom wedged between Sounis and Attolia. And not only does the threat that Eugenides might slip into his castle and kill him no longer prevent the King of Sounis from attacking Eddis now that Eugenides has lost his hand, but Eddis’ retaliation for the cutting off of her cousin’s hand has incited a threat of war with Attolia, and the Mede are hoping that this war will give them power over Attolia, Sounis and Eddis.
Eugenides is kept in the dark about the turmoil that surrounds his country, but when the magus of Sounis visits him, Eugenides learns that war is brewing, and realizes that no matter how terrified he might be inside, he must now conquer his fear and embark, one handed, on the greatest theft of his career on behalf of his Queen: stealing nothing less than peace.
The Queen of Attolia makes a good continuation to The Thief, but it is clearly aimed at a somewhat older audience than the earlier book. Whereas in The Thief, Eugenides was referred to mostly as “Gen,” and portrayed as a boy on an adventure, here we see him mature into a man who is far more aware of his own vulnerability and limitations, a man who, due to his amputated hand now has to rely less on the dexterity of his fingers, and more on the cleverness of his mind to pull off the feats of his heroic thefts.
For this reason I was more interested and engaged in reading The Queen of Attolia then I was when I read The Thief, but that is not to say that I was always thoroughly entertained. As much as I enjoyed reading about this more mature Eugenides, I also felt that the book lagged somewhat in the first half while I was waiting for the main character to come out of his depression, and especially for the romance I had heard about to take off.
Yes, there is a romance and it is quite wonderful, but it doesn’t really become the focus of the book until two-thirds of the way through. There are a lot of things I could say about this relationship, especially in regard to some fascinating dynamics that emerge from it, and to its freshness and originality, and the ways in which it, to quote a friend, runs counter to the usual romance tropes, and is so unexpected and yet quite romantic. But I’m limited by the fact that since it comes so late in the book, to describe it further would be to lean into spoiler terrain.
Therefore, instead I’ll talk about the nitpicks that (sorry Michelle!) keep this book from being an A for me. While I loved the final third, I felt that the The Queen of Attolia took a bit too long to get to that part of the story. As in The Thief, the first half, though interesting, was less exciting than the second.
There were also, interspersed with Eugenides’ story, some summaries of the battles between Eddis, Attolia and Sounis. These were dispensed out in a rather dry fashion, without dramatization, and seemed to me to be examples of what is sometimes known as info dumping. Fortunately these sections weren’t that long, but as I read these paragraphs, I was forced to resist the urge to impatiently skim them and return to the characters I cared about.
I also want to mention the narration. The Queen of Attolia is written in third person, and while I do feel that this was probably the right choice for this book since it adds the diversity of multiple viewpoints, I nevertheless missed the liveliness of Eugenides’ chatty first-person voice from The Thief.
Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed The Queen of Attolia more and more as the book progressed, and I loved the maturation of Eugenides as well as the many colorful and clever secondary characters. I liked the fact that beyond the made up kingdoms, the fantastical elements in the story were kept to a minimum, so that when they did come into play they were all the more potent. The marvelous romance in its final third left my mouth watering for the third book, The King of Attolia, which lies on my desk as I write this and glance at that book longingly. Other reviewing commitments are keeping me from getting to it right away, and oh, how I want to pick it up right now!
Assigning a grade to this book is a conundrum. Yes, The Queen of Attolia was slow in places but the romantic elements were terrific. Only I wish there were a whole lot more of them. Oh, but what there was in the way of romance was so smart, so mature, so very worth reading! If only there had been more…
In evaluating The Queen of Attolia, I keep wanting to section it into thirds. The first third would earn a B-, the second a B or B+, the third an A-. But I have to grade the entire book, and so, I end up in that awkward midpoint between a B and a B+, and those are the categories under which I file this letter.
This book can be purchased in mass market.