JOINT REVIEW: Moira’s Pen by Megan Whalen Turner
Janine: Megan Whalen Turner completed her Queen’s Thief series two years ago, and the essays, stories and vignettes in Moira’s Pen, a new collection of set in the same world and featuring some of the same characters, are a bit like the big crumbs and smears of ganache left on your plate when you’ve finished an amazing slice of chocolate cake. The cake was so good that even the crumbs are tantalizing and you can’t let them go uneaten.
This is my perspective as a huge fan of the series. With that said, the book feels padded and it is short to begin with, just 180 pages if you don’t count the glossary (I don’t).
Jennie: The book did feel surprisingly slight to me.
Janine: I expected some slightness but I do wish there was more.
Of the works of fiction, I recognized a number of reprints. Here is a rundown of those. “Eddis Goes Camping,” “Knife Dance” and “Alyta’s Missing Earrings” are bonus short stories from previous print editions. “Breia’s Earrings” could be considered either a short story or a vignette and appeared in a publication many years ago. “The Destruction of Hamiathes’s Gift,” and “Wineshop,” are paperback edition bonuses that I would characterize as vignettes. “A Trip to Mycenae” is a travelogue that and a rather boring one for me (it was also an extra in one of the paperbacks). “Envoy” is the last chapter / epilogue in Thick as Thieves and “The River Knows,” a poem, was part of Thick as Thieves as well.
(The poem makes its appearance during a private conversation in palace gardens of Attolia, when Irene asked Kamet to recite it to. Its themes run along Ecclesiastes 3’s (“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven / A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted […]). Turner’s version is just as lovely IMO and it broke my heart all over again, because that scene in Thick as Thieves takes place after Irene’s miscarriage and the poem is written as a dialogue between mother and child. Rereading it moved me so much that I opened my copy of Thick as Thieves and reread these lines: “The queen looked down at her hands, stroking the soft velvet of a cushion, and said, ‘It was not her time. We will welcome her when she comes again. […]’”)
Of the reprints my favorite is probably “Alyta’s Missing Earring” and after that “Eddis Goes Camping” and “The River Knows.” “Alyta’s Missing Earring” is the first is a magical half timeless myth, half-story that takes place in Gen’s time, and a meditation on the nature of fate. The ending circles back in a resonant and romantic way. I loved this one the first time I read it too.
Jennie: I love “Alyta’s Missing Earring” precisely because of the resonant and circular nature of the story and characters.
Janine: I also thought it was delightful that there four pieces about earrings—it was fitting since they were Gen’s favorite item to steal.
I’ve read “Eddis Goes Camping” more than once in the past. We see Helen’s first encounter with the gods as a child of nine. I’ve always loved stories where a child forgets something magical and important that they once knew and the memory is lost to them for a long time or even forever.
I am glad to have the reprints collected in one place with nice illustrations but I was disappointed that there wasn’t more new material. Did you feel that way too?
Jennie: A bit, yes. The illustrations were nice, and it’s not like I was expecting substantial new material, necessarily. But these pieces mostly had an ephemeral quality that went beyond their short length and the fact that they are mostly reprints. I guess I would have liked a story that was “behind the scenes”, or something like that – a new look at a part of the saga seen from a different perspective, perhaps.
Janine: Among the new (I think) stuff are nine short (often less than a page long) essays about ancient objects that inspired things in the novels. The one I liked best is “The Royal Game of Ur” which is about an ancient Mesopotamian game and how its rules were deciphered through translation of a clay tablet. It caught my attention enough that I looked it up online and discovered that it bears some similarities to backgammon, was played as early as the beginning of the third millennium BC, and that the man who translated the tablet later discovered that it was played in the Jewish community of India up until the 1950s. All that was fascinating but most of it was on Wikipedia and in The Hindu, not in the book.
Jennie: That piece compelled me to do a little research too!
Janine: It was fascinating. Some of the other essays were interesting as well but as with the reprints, I was disappointed that they weren’t new works of fiction about the characters I love, which is what I come to Megan Whalen Turner’s books for.
Jennie: I think everything being *so short* affected my enjoyment – just as I was getting into a piece, even in the case of the essays, it was over.
Janine: Good point. Here’s what was new to me:
“In the Queen’s Prison” is a poem (it includes Gen’s desperate invocation of the great goddess for help, which has made notable–and powerful–appearances in The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia). “The Game of Kings,” “Music to Delight the Ear, and “Melheret’s Earrings,” might be vignettes or deleted scenes, it’s hard to say. “The Princess and the Pastry Chef,” “Burning Down the House of Kallicertes,” “The Watch Takes the Thief,” “The Cook and the King of Attolia,” “The Arrival,” and “News from the Palace” are all vignettes IMO. “Eddis’s Earrings” and “Ina and Eurydice Borrow a Beehive” are excerpts from scenes in a play, the first only four lines long and the second perhaps a page. “Immakuk and Ennikar at the Gates of Heaven” is Gilgamesh-style epic poem in a similar vein to the ones in Thick as Thieves (Kamet references its storyline in Thick as Thieves but does not recite it) and “Brinna’s Almond Cakes” is a recipe.
Jennie: As for the poems, “In the Queen’s Prison” confused me a bit (it has an odd structure) and “Immakuk and Ennikar at the Gates of Heaven”, I hate to say, kind of bored me. But I don’t really have the patience for epic poems; that’s part of the reason I’ve never tackled The Iliad.
Janine: I have the same patience issue, LOL. I was not a fan of either, but especially “In the Queen’s Prison.” It didn’t live up to the power of the scenes it alluded to.
And re. brevity, how did you feel about the tiny little dialogue only excerpts? The absence of description there really bothered me.
Jennie: Again, the word that comes to me is “ephemeral” – they felt like bits and pieces, fleeting and insubstantial. I guess that was the intent.
Maybe this relates to why I don’t consider myself much of a short story reader – I like to sink into a story. That was really impossible here – blink and the story was over. It made for an easy read but not one that will stay with me, I don’t think.
Janine: It can be argued that there is not a single bona fide short story among the new material. It’s hard to know how to classify the penultimate piece, “The End of Eddis.” Is a short story when there is no real plot involving a beginning, middle and end, and when it doesn’t stand on its own? Is it a vignette, since it packs a bigger punch than vignettes almost ever do? In my view it reads like an epilogue to the series, and “Gitta,” the last work of fiction here, reads like the prologue to a much longer new work.
Jennie: “The End of Eddis” was poignant, but I don’t think someone who hadn’t read the series would get much out of it (though it’s fair to say that this collection is definitely not for those who haven’t read the series).
Janine: Agreed. I recommend that readers who haven’t read the earlier books yet start with The Thief or (if you’re looking for something more adult) The Queen of Attolia.
The material in the book is organized in chronological order, beginning when Gen is four (he doesn’t appear in that story) and ending most likely generations after his death. I read parts of “Gitta” twice. There’s a lot of new information to glean from it, some spelled out and much only alluded to. It took rereading it and discussing it with other readers as well as pondering “The End of Eddis,” for me to construct an almost complete theory for what events might have taken place on the Little Peninsula after the ending of Return of the Thief as well one for what is going on under the surface in the palace in (I think) Brael, where Gitta, a thirteen-year-old descendant of Gen and Irene’s, lives.
If the theory I arrived at is correct, then “Gitta” is a far more complete story than it seems at first, but it still leaves the door wide open for more books set on the Little Peninsula and I really hope we get them. A lot of loose ends are dangled for the reader to theorize or wait for more about, only it’s not clear if the author plans to write more about the characters she introduces here.
“Gitta” also left me a bit in turmoil.
Janine: These things aside, I loved the complexity of “Gitta” and all the little Easter eggs in it (for example we learn the Magus’s name at last!). “The End of Eddis” and “Gitta” are my favorites among the new material. The first is powerful and poignant and the second moves the story of forward considerably, which is not something I was expecting at this point. There’s something undeniably satisfying about that even with all that is left unresolved.
(DA readers, I’d love to hear your theories on “The End of Eddis” and “Gitta” in the comments. Put a spoiler warning in all caps above your thoughts.)
I’m curious, Jennie, did you have any favorites besides “Alyta’s Missing Earring” and (I think) “The End of Eddis”?
Jennie: I really liked “The Cook and the King of Attolia” because I felt like it gave us another glimpse of Gen as he appears in the series – both a little of him as the mischief-maker and a little of him as the king.
Janine: My final thought for readers is that if you have read the series and enjoyed it but aren’t a major fan, you might want to wait for the book to go on sale. Major-fan and series completist me gives it a B.
Jennie: I gave it a B as well. I am a big fan of the series but don’t have nearly Janine’s capacity to remember characters and events from all of the books, which I think makes a difference in appreciating how intricately Turner plots these stories.
Janine, can you elaborate on your theory about what happens after the end of the Thief books that leads to the circumstances mentioned in “Gitta?”
Okay so this is going to be long! There are some things here I’m certain of and others that are more of a theory.
1. Gitta is the daughter of a royal family. The woman referred to as “the old queen” (now dead), was Gitta’s great-grandmother.
2. The country she was queen of and that Gitta lives in is probably Brael. I think this because in an argument with the old queen, Gitta’s father insisted that she be given a Brael name, and it was also that of a relative. In addition, when Gitta is unhappy about moving to Ephestalia (the united Little Peninsula, once the area that comprised Eddis, Sounis and Attolia), one of the reasons is that there’s no snow there, an indication that Gitta’s homeland is north of the peninsula.
3. Speaking of names, the Magus’s name was Tykus. We know this because Gitta’s tutor, nicknamed Tycho, says that his actual name is Tykus and he was named after his great-grandfather, who wrote a history of the first invaders of the Peninsula. The Magus stated (in The Thief) that he either intended to write one or was already writing it, I think. I think there may have been a later reference to his having written it but this I’m not positive of. This would mean the Magus had kids pretty late in life, though.
4. Gitta’s great-grandmother is Gen and Irene’s daughter. This is likely because we know that (A) she’s from Ephestalia, (B) she is named Eugenia, which is what Gen named his daughter, (C) Tykus states that she left Ephestalia before Eddis died and was assisted by Pheris, which would make her the right age, and (D) the old queen’s brother, it’s stated, “never became king and she was never his Thief” — toward the end of Return of the Thief, after Gen names his children, he says something like “a king and his Thief.”
5. Something bad probably happened in Ephestalia that caused Eugenia to run away, and it was probably political. This is suggested by the fact that a confluence of factors happened at the same time:
(A) Eugenia’s twin, Hector, disappeared, and he was the heir of the throne of Attolia (Gen referenced him in “a king and his Thief”; an arrangement was made after the war for each of the three countries to have its own monarch, and above them, a high king for the entire peninsula).
(B) Eugenia ran away from Ephestalia shortly after her brother’s disappearance.
(C) Pheris helped Eugenia run away, and we learned in an earlier story that Pheris was made the Secretary of the Archives (of Attolia, I’m pretty sure) — this was Relius’s role previously (advisor to the monarchy).
(D) In addition, after Gitta says that Hector (Eugenia’s twin) never became King and she never became his Thief, Tykus says, “That is a sad part of the story.” Whatever happened was not happy.
6. Gen and Irene were probably dead by this point, or at the very least no longer in power. This is just an inference, but I don’t think they would have allowed whatever bad think it was to happen if they were alive, especially since it drove Eugenia away and likely caused Hector to disappear instead of assuming the throne.
7. I think they died fairly young because Eugenia ran away long before Eddis witnessed the volcano’s explosion. This was all very sad for me.
8. As for whether Hector ever returned, I don’t think so. There’s a mystery about that and the answers may be in missing volumes of Pheris’s writing. If he’d returned, it wouldn’t be mysterious.
9. Given the above, I suspect Hector is dead or at the very least, imprisoned. Twins are close and it doesn’t seem to me that he wouldn’t get in touch with his sister otherwise.
10. So what happened to cause all this? This is only a theory, but I suspect that either there was a coup from within or the peninsula was invaded again.
Coup from within theory: perhaps Hector and Eugenia had a younger sibling who wanted the throne. After the last of their parents died (hopefully of natural causes for Irene, we know that Gen would have fallen to his death because that’s how all Thieves die), the sibling enacted a coup from within, made his older brother “disappear.” Eugenia ran away because she was next in line and didn’t want the same fate.
The peninsula was invaded again theory: the Medes or someone like them came in, killed Gen and Irene, made Hector disappear, and wanted to marry their heir to a daughter of one of the royal families, preferably Eugenia, because she was the daughter of the Great King. Eugenia ran away (assisted by Pheris) to evade a such a marriage, and if this theory is true, then probably Pheris would have contracted a marriage to the heir of Brael’s royal family for her before she escaped there from Ephestalia. I actually think this is the more likely theory but it makes me very sad because it would mean that Gen and Irene were killed.
In support of the second theory, but not very strong support, there’s the fact that Tykus, the Magus’s great-grandson, lives in Brael. Could the Magus have left Ephestalia? If so, could he have fled there seeking safety? If there were invaders and they wanted to control the peninsula, killing him would have been on their list.
In opposition to the second theory: Would Gen really be called “Eugenides the Great” all these years later if his actions only held off invaders from taking over the peninsula for a generation at most?
In support of a coup theory (either one): the speculation that Eugenia must hate everyone in Ephestalia, posited by Gitta’s sister Hennis (although Tykus says they don’t know Eugenia’s reasons). This is a weaker one too.
11. If the second of these theories is correct, then I have another theory to go with it, though this one is perhaps a product of my imagination. After Eugenia ran away, the invaders still wanted their heir to marry a daughter of an Ephestalian royal family, so they threatened Sophos and Helen with the same fate that Gen, Irene, and Hector met. Sophos and Helen married their own daughter to the invaders’ heir. The child of this union, Eddis’s grandson, was made High King (we know that her grandson became High King from “The End of Eddis”).
Incidentally, he also appears to have been / be a bad king, because in “The End of Eddis,” Eddis thoughts suggest that her grandson didn’t view the Eddisians as Ephestalians and didn’t want to evacuate them before the volcano blew its top. (This BTW reminded me of how Trump treated the US’s Puerto Rican citizens after the hurricane).
12. Gitta is a Thief. Reasons I think so:
A. Eugenia wanted to name Gitta after herself, that is, to name her Eugenia, which is the name given to Thieves. She fought tooth and nail with Gitta’s father over it. Further, Eugenia only agreed to the name Gittavjore (a Brael name from another side of the family) after she learned that Gittavjore not only meant not only “God’s gift” but also “well born.” The names Eugenides and Eugenia also mean “well born.” This is discussed in The Thief and will turn up in a Google search as well.
B. Tykus references a look in Gitta’s eye that her great-grandmother had seen the day she was born. Gen was able to identify Eugenia as a Thief upon her birth, just by looking at her. So was Gen’s grandfather able to identify Gen (this is stated in at least one of the books, but I can’t recall which). Combined with the name thing, this is a strong indication that Gitta is a Thief.
13. Eugenia is sending Gitta back to Eddis to steal back her homeland or to right whatever wrong happened there.
Eugenia refused all proposals of a marriage to the heir to Ephestalia for her daughter, her granddaughter, and her great-granddaughter Hennis (Gitta’s older sister), yet she agreed to a match between Gitta and the heir. Not only did she agree, she’d looked very pleased with herself after the match was agreed on, and died peacefully in her sleep.
What Tykus thinks about the name “Gittavjore” also meaning well born comes near the very end, immediately before Tykus’s statement that Gitta would be “a great queen.” This is probably an allusion to the role of Thief, since Gen was a great king because he was also a Thief.
If theory 13 is correct, then it’s likely that Eugenia refused the other matches because she was waiting for a Thief to be born. In waiting for the birth of a girl who could steal the country and sending her there as soon as there was a proposal (even though she’s only thirteen!), Eugenia was participating in the theft. So maybe she died having, after all, fulfilled the role she was destined for according to her father.
I would love to hear what other people think!