Thieftaker is the first book in the Thieftaker Chronicles, a new historical fantasy series by D. B. Jackson (also known as epic fantasy author David B. Coe). The second book in this series, Thieves’ Quarry, will be released in 2013.
Thieftaker combines fantasy and mystery with historical fiction set in Boston, Massachusetts in 1765. While there is magic, it almost seems as though the events in this novel could have happened due to both the inclusion of real events and the fact that those who practiced magic were tried for witchcraft. The novel is set during the beginning of the unrest and political turmoil leading up to the American Revolution. Both the Stamp Act riots and the division between those who believed they should adhere to England’s rule and those who did not add to the believable setting. There are some liberties taken with the time period as the author mentions in the historical note at the end, but many of the occurrences aid in making it seem authentic despite the spells.
The main protagonist, Ethan Kaille, is a thieftaker and a conjurer. His ability with magic aids him in capturing thieves and returning stolen goods to their rightful owners. This allows him to manage to take some more minor jobs while trying to stay out of the way of Sephira Pryce, the primary thieftaker in Boston and a very powerful woman. After successfully completing a job for a merchant, Ethan is paid enough that he doesn’t need to take another job for awhile. Yet his plans quickly change when he is approached about recovering a brooch – and finding the murderer of the girl who was wearing it. At first, Ethan is reluctant to take the job since he goes after thieves, not murderers, but when he suspects conjuring may be involved, he realizes he may be the only one with the experience to stop him or her. The deeper he gets into the mystery, the more dangerous it gets: not only does there seem to be more at stake than bringing a killer to justice, but Sephira Pryce is not happy with Ethan’s involvement with this particular wealthy client.
When an unsolicited copy of Thieftaker showed up in my mailbox, I was very intrigued by the setting and the general premise. I loved the idea of fantasy set during the time of the American Revolution with a main character who went after thieves. However, this novel didn’t entirely work for me even though it’s not at all what I would call a bad book. The word I keep thinking of to describe Thieftaker is “adequate.” While it blends historical fiction and fantasy very well, it’s average in terms of storytelling, characters, and dialogue. I felt it was a decent enough book but was missing that special spark that moves a book from merely readable to memorable.
While it is a blend of genres, I’d say that Thieftaker is first and foremost a mystery story and that may be where a large part of my inability to get excited about it is coming from. I do like a good mystery, but it has to be a really compelling mystery to hold my interest if it doesn’t have some good characterization or dialogue to go with it. This murder mystery about a girl we never saw or had reason to care about didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat or constantly guessing. It mostly consisted of Ethan interrogating people who knew the girl or who may have had knowledge of what happened to her. Throughout his investigation, he occasionally butts heads with Sephira Pryce, who must make sure he is aware of his place and her own as Boston’s primary thieftaker. Of course, asking questions and looking for clues is how one solves a mystery, but there was no real sense of urgency or engagement with this storyline for me. The scenes with Sephira provided some of that action and urgency, but at the same time, I just didn’t care enough about Ethan to be anxious about what would happen to him.
As a character, Ethan is likable enough, but I felt he lacked the sort of flaws, struggles, and internal conflict that makes a character vibrant and engaging. This may be due to the fact that he is no longer a young man and a lot of his trials are referenced as being in his distant past. Years ago, he was involved in a mutiny and lost the woman he loved, but he seems to have come to terms with his conjuring ability (which played a role in both these events). On the one hand, I liked that Ethan seemed to be a mature character who knew how he should behave and had principles. On the other hand, I felt like every decision he made was too predictable because he always did the good and decent thing – for instance, he looks out for his friend, learns from his mistakes in his past relationship, tells thieves to leave town when his employer would prefer he kill them, and commits to solving a murder when he has no experience with these types of crimes. There is one point where he had a tough choice to make, but at the same time, it was not such a difficult choice that I felt he could have done any differently than he did. Toward the end, Ethan did show himself to be intelligent and able to think on his feet. I liked Ethan. I admired Ethan. Yet his steady character kept him from being a memorable character, especially since he didn’t have any personality traits that really stood out to me other than being very honorable.
Though lacking in internal conflict, there is plenty of external tension for Ethan in the form of Sephira Pryce and the danger involved in solving a murder mystery. It also exists as a result of his conjuring ability since conjurers are considered witches, yet I didn’t find that entirely believable or intense. It seemed as though it was pretty well-known that Ethan was supposed to be a conjurer. Some might view him with disapproval because of this, but no one really cared deeply enough to do more than talk about it. Perhaps they were just level-headed and not giving in to rumors or they truly feared a conjurer’s power, but I don’t really expect people from this era to be rational when it comes to rumors concerning witchcraft. This is perhaps not entirely fair of me since it is fantasy fiction despite being set in the real world. However, one of the pitfalls of using realistic settings in fantasy is that readers will have certain expectations about that time that may not mesh with the reimagined setting. The lack of major consequences for someone known to be a conjurer was the one thing that seemed out of place to me in what was otherwise a very well-done blend of history and fantasy.
The actual magic and its rules were intriguing, but it was told through a lot of infodumps. Ethan utters Latin phrases when he casts spells, but every single time he spoke a phrase it was translated into English even though there was usually enough context to figure it out. There is a lot of telling instead of showing, which doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, but I did feel this book told a lot more than it needed to. It made the entire magic system, which had some tradeoffs and interesting rules, seem very systematic.
Thieftaker had some different elements I can appreciate, such as melding fantasy with the American Revolution, a main character who is not the usual young person, and a powerful female for the protagonist’s rival. However, it seemed like a rather bland melding of all these elements that was lacking in heart and any truly distinctive feature. Thieftaker was readable, but it lacked compelling characters, excitement, fast-paced plotting, great dialogue, or anything that would set it apart from the other books available to read. I can see some enjoying it as a fun mystery with some historical and fantasy elements, but it needed more to have an impact on me.
My Rating: 6/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.
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