Book Reviews

Review: The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

I was so excited when I saw this book, which I really enjoyed as a kid, was getting a rerelease!

Book: The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Publication date: 5th May 2022 (originally published 1996)

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Harper Voyager. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: violence, injury, and death (of minor characters); main character is beaten up a lot.

Eugenides, the queen’s thief, can steal anything – or so he says. Then his boasting lands him in the king’s prison, and his chances of escape look slim.

So when the king’s magus invites him on a seemingly impossible quest to steal a legendary object and win back his freedom, Gen in no position to refuse.

The magus has plans for his king and his country. Gen has plans of his own . . .

This sits in that awkward 90s bracket somewhere between middle grade and YA fiction; it’s not as complex as a lot of modern YA, but the themes are pretty dark and it’s quite violent, though not too graphically described. I’d say it was probably suitable from about 10+, which is about when I read it. I vividly remember borrowing this from the library, and enjoying the Ancient Greek-inspired world, but never managing to find the later books; it was really interesting coming back to it as an adult, because I’d forgotten a lot of it, but remembered the vibes! Mostly I remembered how cool it was to have the myths of the world being told by the characters while on their journey (plus one particular scene) so most of the plot was fresh for me, which I think was the perfect way to read it.

Gen’s narration is just fantastic. He’s a charming, cheeky, often cynical guy, and if his voice wasn’t so entertaining, a lot of this book could be quite boring, as unless you really love travelling sequences, you’d be forgiven for thinking the journey in the first half of the book is pretty long. It’s Gen’s sparky observations that keep things flowing; I loved seeing the growing mutual respect between him and the magus, the leader of the party. I was less a fan of the constant violent bullying Gen faced from the other members of the team; it’s pretty unrelenting, to the point that he’s almost always recovering from some injury or another. That kind of leads me into my other issue with the book, which is the lack of significant female characters. It’s only in the very, very last section that we meet any women at all, let alone important ones – if you’re at all familiar with my reviews, you’ll know that this is usually a real problem for me. I think it is actually somewhat mitigated here by the very small cast of the book and the evidently negative patriarchal setting of Sounis (as opposed to the other countries depicted, which both have powerful queens), not to mention the fact that Gen’s narration never seems to see women as lesser, but it’s worth bearing in mind. The character work is excellent, so it would have been nice to see a couple of female characters given the same depth; it seems like that might happen in later books, though.

There’s a strong theme of storytelling and handling stories in this book, whether that’s in the different versions of the myths that Gen and the magus exchange, or in the layers of archetypal roles the characters play. The main bulk of the story is a traditional quest: gather your party and take a treacherous journey to find a magical object for the king. But while you can read this as just a straightforward quest story, it also plays with your expectations, which humanises the characters, taking them from legendary types to real people – contrast the magus, who is always referred to by his role, never a personal name, and Gen, who takes great pains to remind the reader that while he might be ‘the thief’ of the title, he’s also a very human person. I can’t say too much more without spoiling it, but the reflection of myths and the truth behind them really offers a fascinating parallel to the way Gen presents his own story; are the gods, like him, just people caught up in adventures that become legend?

If the idea of a classic adventure quest in an Ancient Greek-ish world, full of legends, snark, and great character work appeals to you, then this is definitely worth picking up – and the rerelease is the perfect time, because this new cover is lovely. The story is satisfying as a standalone, but also feels like it’s setting up for something really interesting in the later books, so I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the rest of the series. Four out of five cats.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

  1. I just relistened to this on audio and enjoyed it again! Trying to get into the next couple books, which are more solidly YA and have much higher stakes.

    Liked by 1 person

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