I’ve found myself with a real craving for fantasy stories lately. Perhaps it’s to hide from the bleak horror of reality, or perhaps it’s because I’ve been listening to a staggering amount of D&D podcasts lately, but for whatever reason I’ve been needing something a little fantastical. I had hoped to scratch that itch with one of the more popular fantasy books of the year, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, but I just couldn’t connect with that book. I’ll give it another shot in a while, but it just wasn’t working for me, so I ended up picking up a different fantasy book from this year, which was rather different. I didn’t know much at all about An Illusion of Thieves other than some positive word of mouth and the general idea that it was a fantasy story that featured thieves and a heist. Which, let me tell you, is a concept that I’m very much interested in. I’ve written quite frequently on the site about my deep love of heists and capers as well as fantasy stories, so this seemed like a match made in heaven. And, while it didn’t end up being quite what I was expecting, it was nevertheless a really fun little read.
The novel takes place in a rather low-key fantasy world, not unlike out own with one major difference. Other than the fact that it’s not Earth, the biggest thing that sets it apart from our world is that there are some people who are born with innate magical abilities. Not much is know about these powers or how they work, largely because having them is a sign of demonic blood, usually leading to the execution of the child, and those who manage to survive into adulthood have to hide their abilities, pretending to be normal citizens or else get arrested. And one such person with magical blood is our protagonist, a young woman named Romy who has an ability to manipulate people’s minds, making them believe whatever she wants them to. She has hidden her ability, and lives as a courtesan of a powerful leader in her city-state of Catagna. But, when she learns that her brother Neri has used his powers to walk through walls to steal something, implicating their father, she uses her influence with the Shadow Lord to get leniency, in exchange for leaving his graces. The rest of their family are forced out of the city, but Romy and Neri are forced into the worst section of the city, given parole, and tasked with leading new and productive lives. Which, doesn’t go smoothly. Romy is able to make a slight living as a scribe, but Neri is sullen and bitter, unable to find anything he’s passionate about. Until the meet a local duelist named Placidio, who they pay to teach Neri how to fight, and along the way learn he two has magical abilities.
But, their lives are changed when Romy is approached by the young wife of the Shadow Lord, who essentially blackmails her into service. The wife has gotten herself embroiled in scheme to gain favor with a powerful outside lord, using a rare artifact that he wanted, and ended up stealing the artifact from a man attempting to overthrow the Shadow Lord. She now wants Romy to fix the situation, or else she will reveal her magical abilities. Romy then begins concocting a plan with Neri, Placidio, and another magical person named Dumond. Together they take the artifact, make a duplicate of it, and begin an elaborate game of subterfuge, making it appear that they have the original, while the scheming lord has a counterfeit, all so the Shadow Lord, who is relatively progressive, can remain in power. There’s quite a bit of scheming and complications, but they eventually are able to all utilize their secretive powers for good, keeping their kingdom afloat and pulling off the elaborate con, complete with a purposefully failed heist. And, since it was all a success, they agree to consider working together in the future. Which is good, because the Shadow Lord ends up realizing what actually happens, and approaches Romy about a possible second caper.
Like I said earlier, this book wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But, I ended up liking it a whole lot, and will definitely be checking out any further adventures of these characters. I maybe was expecting a more traditional heist story complete with fantasy archetype characters, but what I got instead was a really clever little story that managed to take a lot of fantasy tropes, and use them in a way I don’t think I’ve ever quite seen before. Anyone attempting to do a more traditional fantasy story is probably going to have to figure out how the mechanics of magic work in their universe, and the idea of making it essentially function the same way that mutants work in the Marvel Universe is pretty great. People are born with magic, and it does a very specific thing, seemingly random depending on person. That’s great, and it ended up really working well with the caper aspect of the story, assembling a team with specialized skills to pull off this fun little caper. There were certainly elements of the story that didn’t fully connect with me, a lot of Romy pining her her love the powerful prince that just kind of fell flat. But, a novel doesn’t have to be 100% designed for me, and the parts I liked completely outshone the parts that I didn’t. Plus, as I’ve said before, any story becomes a lot more interesting to me if it’s given the structure of a caper. It’s just a fun little fantasy story, and I really recommend checking it out if you’re in the mood for a traditional fantasy that does things a little differently.
An Illusion of Thieves was written by Carol Berg (as Cate Glass), 2019.
Categories: Page Turners