When the daughter of one of Boston’s wealthiest is murdered with no apparent cause of death, her family goes to the only person they can: Ethan Kaille, conjurer. Upon investigation, it is readily apparent to Ethan that the girl was murdered with magic. However, he has competition that doesn’t appreciate his being hired for this particular job.
Throw in two opposing factions, rising tensions both political and personal, a murderous antagonist so far out of Ethan’s league that he’s the next city over, and you’ve got the basics for a pretty typical kickass urban fantasy.
Except Thieftaker isn’t your typical urban fantasy. I’ve got two words for you:
You say you want a revolution…
I’m not typically a fan of period works. When I am, they’re usually infused with elements that put the historical aspects on the back burner. A prime example of this is Namoi Novik’s Temeraire novels. Sure, it’s the Napoleonic war, but with dragons. Dragons. ‘Nuff said. Another example is Devon Monk’s Age of Steam, a steampunk-slash-magic-slash-werewolf tale set in expansionary America. Again, the time period takes a back seat to everything else.
Thieftaker is different than both of those. The magic is subtle enough that you don’t get pulled out of the setting. Not only that, but the reminders of the period are nuanced enough that they impart information, add to the story, and are a character in their own right—all while keeping the reader aware that this is not a recent time period. This is due in part to the style of prose Jackson writes. While he could have gone overboard and delved into the English syntax of the time, he didn’t—at least, not for descriptions and narration. It’s this combination of modern language patterns and period authenticity that really allowed me to stay enraptured.
History has its ghosts
However, I bet you weren’t thinking of ghosts like these—for the ghosts in Jackson’s alternative Boston seem to be the central part of magical power in the world. Whenever Ethan conjures magic, a ghostly spectre dressed in the garb of a knight appears to… help things along, I suppose. In this, the audience is limited by how much the protagonist knows, which isn’t much more than expressed here. In my opinion, that’s a smart move—I want to learn more about the magic in this world, now. However, the ghosts aren’t the source of magical power, necessarily. Many things may be used to fuel a conjuring, from grass to herbs to blood, and we get to see Ethan experiment with all of these throughout the novel.
The primary antagonist of the novel is a big-league conjurer, someone way out of Ethan’s depth. It’s intriguing to see just how much more potent this conjurer’s spells are than Ethan’s. In turn, this forces Ethan to play smarter, not just harder—though that in and of itself is no guarantee of survival. All in all, Jackson has made some smart choices, but I was left wondering where else this world could go in terms of antagonists. Honestly, I don’t know that there’s really anything to top that sort of conflict, so I’m interested (and a little worried) to see what happens in a sequel.
So real, you could touch it
Thieftaker exhibits one of the most “real” environments I’ve ever experienced in a book. While partially due to the fact that I am fairly familiar with Revolutionary-era Boston because I actually paid attention in school (and am an American), I believe this is due mostly to Jackson’s command of his craft. Most of the characters seem, well, like actual people. Shocking, I know. Yet even those who got very little screen time read as very vibrant people with whom I could actually see myself having conversations, were I in this particular world. This isn’t just for characters of Jackson’s creation—this is 1765 Boston, after all, and major players of American history are basically required to make appearances.
I love Samuel Adams. That is all.
On another note, Thieftaker features a cast with a decent portion of female players. Now, not all of these characters are strong, brook-no-nonsense women—because, let’s face it, that didn’t happen a lot in the eighteenth century. However, I will give Jackson this: he has a very accurate mix of personalities in his characters. There is the tough-as-nails innkeeper, who is absolutely brilliant, but then there is Ethan’s ex, who is a more timid, stay-at-home-don’t-ask-questions kind of woman, but is equally perfectly portrayed in her own right.
And then there’s my favorite: the woman essentially in charge of Boston from the shadows. You know, devious, malicious, and utterly without many morals. If you’ve read Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, she’s akin to how Marcone would be if he were female and in 1765 Boston.
Why should you read this book?
There’s a lot of good in Thieftaker with only a little bit of not-as-good to mix things up. If you’re a fan of urban fantasy looking for something a little different, read this book. If you’re a fan of mystery looking for something a little different, read this book. Heck, if you’re a fan of fantasy in general looking for something a little different, read this book. With solid worldbuilding, magic system, and characters, Thieftaker is an engaging and intriguing blend of history, fantasy, and mystery that pulls you in and immerses you in its environment until you can’t put it down. I eagerly look forward to the sequel, Thieves’ Quarry, out on July 2, 2013 from Tor Books.