Sarah Prineas, author of the young adult fantasy novel, The Magic Thief, takes a considerable risk in the novel’s early chapters — one which threatens to scrub the entire story, but one which pays tremendous dividends in the end.
I should note what might be a conflict of interest in this review. Erin knows Ms. Prineas via livejournal, and Ms. Prineas has given Erin some advice on the publishing business.
The story is set in a fantasy world, in a sort-of Victorian city known as Wellmet. Instead of gaslights, magical werelights illuminate the streets. The Duchess is nominally in charge, but her influence extends primarily to the well-kept, upper class “Sunrise” section of the city. On the other side of the river, the “Twilight” is a gritty haven of oppressive factories, largely run by the criminal underground, headed by the master criminal Crowe.
In between Sunrise and Twilight, in the middle of the river, are the various buildings of where the Magisters live, learn and work. The Magisters are essentially wizards, who monitor the magic that keeps Wellmet functioning — or would, if they didn’t hold so many pointless meetings and enjoyed the sound of their own voices so much.
Into this setup arrives Conn, a young but expert thief and lockpick just scraping by in the Twilight. Taking a chance, he picks a Magister’s pocket and comes up with the man’s locus magicalicus — a precious stone which is the source of that magister’s magic, and something which, by rights, should kill Conn pretty much instantly. It doesn’t. And the fact that it doesn’t intrigues the owner of the locus magicalicus, the magister Nevery Flinglas who, after retrieving his stone before it finally manages to kill Conn, decides to take Conn on as his apprentice. Conn jumps at this opportunity.
The great risk that Sarah Prineas takes with her novel is Conn himself. The story is told primarily by Conn in the first person, but you’ve never had a first person narrator who keeps so much of himself so close to his chest. At first I thought that Conn simply didn’t have much of a character, and by the tenth chapter or so I confessed to Erin that I was losing interest in the tale. But as I went on, I realized that Conn had character, and one of his characteristics was being very circumspect about his personal history, and who he shares it with. And this is entirely realistic. If Conn is unwilling to talk about himself to the other major characters in the story, why on Earth would he be interested in sharing this information with a bunch of strangers who happened to be reading along?
Gradually, Conn’s character takes form in how he reacts to things, what he enjoys doing, and the little snippets of his past which become major moments of revelation. Conn has never told a lie in his life? Interesting. Conn has never been sick, despite his life in the streets? Fascinating. Crowe has “a word” out on Conn, and was responsible for the death of Conn’s mother? Tell us more! No? Awwww! Conn simply doesn’t express his feelings easily, and isn’t self-aware to know that the stranger aspects of his character are, in fact, strange, and Prineas walks the fine line between this being an annoying oversight, and an integral part of Conn’s character. Finally, two-thirds of the way through the book, the readers are familiar enough with Conn that the further revelations about his past hit with a lot of force.
A similar approach is taken with the relationships, between Conn and Nevery, and between Conn and Benet — hired muscle that Nevery takes on board as he returns to Wellmet. Initially, Conn and Benet are stand-offish and Benet comes off as unlikeable, but just as Conn grows on the readers, so to does he grow on Benet and Nevery, and Benet, like Conn, is shown to have hidden depths that are well worth waiting for.
In the meantime, while we wait for our understanding of Conn’s character to mature, Prineas entertains us with the magical design of the world Wellmet resides in. Sometimes she engages in the cardinal sin of “as you know Bob” from the Turkey City Lexicon (moderated only by the fact that the Magisters, including Nevery, do like the sound of their own voices; it’s in their character), but by and large the world is shown to us in an interesting way.
Of particular note is the locus magicalicus, the precious or not-so-precious stones that become the source of each magister’s power. These stones have to be found before a magister is really accepted as a magister, even as an apprentice, and the fact that Conn has become Nevery’s apprentice before discovering his locus magicalicus presents all sorts of problems for Conn, including imposing a deadline by which time he must find his locus magicalicus, or be drummed out of his apprenticeship.
Nevery has returned to Wellmet from a twenty-year exile, at the behest of the Duchess who exiled him, because the levels of magic that support Wellmet appear to be waning. The mystery of this deepening threat provides the bulk of the story for The Magic Thief, but a lot of interesting details remain that should provide good fodder for the second book of the trilogy (due this coming May). Why was Nevery exiled in the first place? Why can Conn apparently not tell a lie, and what is the reason behind his spectacular health? The story turns on Conn’s revolutionary understanding of the nature of Wellmet’s magic, so will more be made of this in coming novels? Also, the Duchess has a daughter who is about Conn’s age and, in contrast to her mother’s suspicious nature, immediately befriends Conn and clearly thinks the world of him. How will that relationship develop in the future?
All of the hidden depths of The Magic Thief make it a hard book to rate. It’s enjoyable fantasy that holds its own against other titles in its genre. It chooses not to stand out, but the book still surprises you with subtle details that come together in unexpected ways, and it leaves you thinking about the tale weeks after you put the book down. Prineas, like Conn, is keeping her cards close to her chest as the trilogy develops. However, if my experience with The Magic Thief holds up, this may be a book series to watch.