Cornelia Funke’s children’s novel, The Thief Lord, is an odd duck. It calls up deep themes that it doesn’t quite explore in depth. It has wonderful and complex characters standing alongside very simplistically drawn ones. It tackles dark issues, without actually getting very dark. Thanks to Funke’s adept writing, strong characterization, and some nice humourous touches, the result is that The Thief Lord is fun fluff, but you are left wondering how much better the book could have been if Funke had dug deeper.
The story begins when private detective Victor Getz gets a call from the aristocratic Esther Hartleib and her husband. Esther’s slightly flaky sister (in Esther’s opinion, anyway, but we really don’t care much about that) has passed away, orphaning her twelve-year-old son Prosper and his brother Bo. Esther has offered to take Bo in, but intends to send Prosper off to boarding school because, frankly, she wants an angelic baby-faced child, but not the task of taking care of children once they cease to be cute.
Prosper, alarmed at the prospect of being separated from his brother, has snatched Bo and run away across Europe to the city of Venice (where Victor works) — drawn by his mother’s colourful stories about the city of canals. Esther has tracked them here, but cannot find them in this city of hideaways, so she hires Victor. Victor knows that Prosper and Bo face a terrible situation with Esther, but he’s more worried about Prosper and Bo alone on the streets of the city. For that reason, he agrees to help find them.
Fortunately, Prosper and Bo are not sleeping on the streets. By an amazing stroke of luck, they have been taken in by a special gang of street children, and are now sleeping in relative comfort inside an abandoned movie theatre. With them is bookish, twelve-year-old Hornet (not her real name, but called that because her hair is pulled back in a long braid so tight, it pokes out behind her like a stinger). With her are Riccio and Mosca, former pick-pockets, now under the protection of the mysterious young Scipio.
The children can hardly believe their luck. Scipio, who wears a mask and calls himself the Thief Lord, provides for them. They don’t even have to risk being caught by the law for pickpocketing; the only criminal activity Scipio asks of them is to fence the goods he himself steals, and they live off the money his activity provides. Scipio’s break-ins on the rich palaces of Venice are quickly attaining legendary status because of his apparent abilities to walk past complex security systems without detection.
Of course, this strangely idyllic world cannot last. Scipio is commissioned by a brutish antiques dealer (and dealer in stolen goods) named Barbarossa to take on a special assignment: steal a wooden wing from a modest house. But is Scipio really who he seems? And why would anybody pay five million lire to steal a simple wooden wing? Prosper and Hornet know that something doesn’t feel right, but Scipio seems eager to take on the job, as five million lire would set each of these children up for life. And while the children ponder this development, Esther’s net tightens.
The Thief Lord has many dark elements: the plight of street children, the tragedy of having loveless parents, the tragedy of having no parents at all, and the dangers of living in a criminal underworld. Funke touches upon the dark histories of Scipio and Hornet, but never does more than imply. In many cases this works very well. The way that Funke hints at Hornet’s backstory through quick references, and subtle nuances in the girl’s character develops a story in the reader’s mind that is harsher than Funke could easily show. For this reason, Hornet ends up almost stealing the show, in a book that’s supposed to focus on Prosper and Scipio.
But too often, Funke pulls back from taking us into the dark. The perils that afflict our heroes end up being dealt with quickly, with few lasting consequences, and then soothed with a bit of comic relief. It’s almost as though Funke is afraid of scaring away her younger readers. And while I can understand the need to write something that’s not all doom and gloom, Funke’s whitewashing of certain elements in her book gives it a somewhat unsatifying, incomplete feel.
Then there are the interesting differences in characterization. Prosper is well drawn as a conflicted youth, desperate to stay with Bo, and overwhelmed with the responsibility of being his de-facto father. He accepts the help and protection of Hornet and Scipio, not only because of their genuine offer of friendship, but he really has no choice between this and destitution. However, he (and the readers with him) cannot help but be concerned by how five-year-old Bo takes to admiring Scipio’s thieving lifestyle. This is very well done. Likewise, Scipio’s motivations, once his mystery is revealed, are well handled, and contribute to the theme of the novel: children wishing to be grown ups, and grown ups wishing they were children again.
It’s interesting, though, that in this book about children playing at being adults, some of the adult characters don’t fare as well. Esther is basically a caricature, and it is hard to take Victor seriously (although his utter disdain over Esther’s attitude to children is a highlight). More frustratingly, after setting up Barbarrossa’s client, the mysterious Conte, as a powerful criminal element, Funke backtracks on the Conte’s power and emnity and hands the main villain duties back to Barbarrossa. Unfortunately, Barbarrossa is not nearly as interesting, nor really connected, as the Conte is, to the book’s theme. Some characters go against character, or act with half of their initial IQ in order to resolve plot points quickly.
Another example of this unfocused and rushed approach to this novel is the use of the setting, and the use of magic in the story. It’s hard to place when this story takes place because, while it is unquestionably Venice, and mention is made of today’s technology (a cellphone is mentioned), it’s hard to tell whether this take actually takes place today or in some older, more rough-and-tumble period. If this is today’s world, I would have thought that there would be more mention of social services and foster parents being avoided, rather than a Catholic-run orphanage.
More frustratingly, the book turns on an element of magic — the only element of magic in the entire book. Given that the rest of Venice is generally unmagical, using magic to bring about the climax is a bad cheat, and it throws the story into a loop of happy coincidences and people acting out of character in order to bring things quickly to a close.
I’ve heard it said that young readers don’t mind if you take them into dark places, so long as you take them out again, but Funke doesn’t do that. In many cases, she just points to the dark places without taking you there, and I fear that the trip isn’t as satisfying.
There is much to recommend The Thief Lord. In particular, the characters of Prosper, Hornet and Scipio make this story such a fascinating read that one hopes for a sequel. But one hopes that the next story is a little more focused, and follows through on the themes that are raised. The Thief Lord is a fascinating read, but one feels that there could have been so much more.