Monday, 31 March 2014

Review: Thieftaker

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard the author of this book interviewed on a podcast (I forget which one), and it sounded interesting: an urban fantasy set in pre-revolutionary Boston. It's certainly different from the usual, and I enjoyed it, but it does suffer from an excess of research in some areas and an apparent shortage in another.

Let's play the trope-spotting game first. We have the "protagonist has magic in a society where magic is forbidden" trope. That's usually an eye-roller for me (it's Standard Fantasy Plot #3), but because it's only one element here, rather than a large slice of the premise, I give it a pass.

Actually, saying that magic is "forbidden" is a bit strong. It appears that magic is about as forbidden as, say, prostitution: it's disapproved of, respectable people don't like to talk about it, the church opposes it, and under some circumstances you will be arrested for it, since it's technically illegal (though you're unlikely to ever be burned for prostitution, and that is a possibility for "conjurers"), but most of the time people uncomfortably look the other way. This set up a situation in which the possibility of being revealed as a "witch" was a threat that kept being used against the protagonist, but it never seemed as if it was going to be a real problem. (Also, why use "conjurer" as a name for a user of real magic? It seems odd.)

Trope number two comes from the noir detective story: the protagonist gets beaten up, a lot, in the course of his inquiries. The official police are both corrupt and incompetent, and are more of a threat than a help to his investigation; his professional rival, though, is responsible for most of the beatings (and, incidentally, most of the crimes she claims to solve).

The protagonist is also overmatched by a more powerful opponent, and only determination and cleverness enable him to stand up against the antagonist at all, but that's a trope I thoroughly enjoy, so I approve of it.

Other than that, the story wasn't too troperific. Magic has a cost, which is something I like to see. The mystery pace is good: not too drawn out, with progress always being made, but also not too quick and easy. The main character has a Tragic Past (which isn't fully gone into, and at the end of the book we still don't know the full circumstances of his fall), and it makes him empathetic and sets him up with a lost love and a full bundle of regrets. This helps him to be a fully rounded character, with contradictions and weaknesses as well as strengths. I liked him by the end, although there were moments when I didn't in the course of the story.

The minor characters are less fleshed out, but play their roles effectively and aren't simply cardboard cutouts. I got a sense of individuality from them, because they have characteristics which aren't just there because of the roles they play in the story or in the hero's life.

The problem is their names. I'm picky about names, and pay a lot of attention to them. Among the secondary characters that we meet early on are Kannice Lester, Devren Jervis (known as Diver), and Kelf Fingarin, which sound like made-up fantasy names to me, not names you'd encounter in eighteenth-century Boston. The author's note at the end reveals that he initially set the story in a secondary world, and I wonder if these names are left over from an early draft that wasn't in eighteenth-century Boston at all.

The first murder victim (at least, the first we encounter) is called Jennifer, a common name now, but very uncommon before it appeared in George Bernard Shaw's 1906 play The Doctor's Dilemma. I'm not saying a eighteenth-century Bostonian couldn't have been named Jennifer, but it's pretty unlikely unless her family were Cornish, and their surname, Berson, is German. I suppose the mother could have been Cornish, though.

So the research behind the names may not be up to the level of the historical and geographical research, which is, to be frank, at flood level sometimes. I appreciate a book set in a historical period which has a genuine sense of the time, but very few authors, having spent a lot of effort hauling water from the research well, are able to hold back from making the reader drink from the bucket. This author is not always one of those self-restrained authors.

That's a minor annoyance, though, in what is, overall, a well-written, well-edited, original and different book with a protagonist who I would follow through a series. It isn't my new favourite, but it's a worthy entry into the urban fantasy (and historical fantasy) field.

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