Review: Thief’s War, by Hilari Bell


The Knight and Rogue books are among my favorites that I’ve reviewed here. They have everything going for them. Excellent worldbuilding, solid if occasionally oddly paced plotting, and absolutely fantastic characters. Michael and Fisk themselves are deeply excellent, complex bundles of emotions and motivations with enough tragedy to be intriguing and sufficient wit that it’s never a drag on the story, and I really regret that the structure of the narrative means that all the delightful side characters of one book are unlikely to ever appear in a second. And it’s not only the kind of YA fiction that’s appealing even after high school is a distant memory, bu accessible to a precocious ten year old (with occasional stops for vocabulary clarification of plot review, as we are discovering in my household).

So I was happier than a badger in an abattoir when I was offered my very first ARC of the fourth book in the series to review. And by Hilari Bell herself, increasing the honor manyfold. I’ve had authors read my ramblings on the subject of themselves before, but to have my insights considered clever enough for this sort of official endorsement just makes me bounce up and down a lot.

Of course, this means the estimable lady also read about how clearly Michael and Fisk are in love and how much of a hurt/comfort fic their entire existence is, but I’m pretty sure everybody thinks that. So.

Theif’s War. Taken on its own I suspect it would be a very good novel of magical crimes and plotting in a richly imagined, early-modern city, though I confess it’s hard to try and view it as though I’d never met the characters before. You certainly could read this book without reading any of the others before it, but why would you? Without the background of their previous adventures and the relationship that grew up over the years, the large portion of the story that hinges on Michael and Fisk’s emotional entanglements with each other and everybody else would be a lot less rich, even if you could follow the parts of the plot with stabbing and poisoning quite well. And it’s just a world worth spending time in.

The magic system of this universe continues to be fascinating as the reader spends time there. Animals and plants can have magica, a power that enhances their natural abilities beyond the possible, so that a magica rabbit hiding from pursuit becomes actually invisible, for instance. And if humans interfere with magica, especially in accidentally killing the plant or animal, they get punished. Usually quite nastily, sometimes in a very deadly fashion, and always with irony. However, magica plants and animals treated well are exceedingly useful, and we meet such luminaries as a violin made of magica wood that the deaf can hear and a magica horse that can leap an ox cart—with oxen attached, and the long way. Humans normally do not have magic, and those that do tend to go insane. If they’re born with magic they do not develop normally, and are considered to be able to use magic because these “simple ones” are closer to nature, a nasty bit of ableism that I suppose fits the culture, which also seems to be at a stage where anyone outside itself is savage. The less pleasant part of writing an approximately European early-modern culture, I suppose.

And it’s worth noting that evidence does not bear out these popular explanations for magic. Magica flora and fauna are attributed to the gods of the two moons, the green moon and the creature moon, but from what this book and others present, it does seem to be, as postulated by the villain of book one, something genetic, and even something that can be artificially triggered, a sort of latent ability. Now it sounds like I’m talking about the X-men, but the point stands. Magic seems as though it could be quite scientific!

I’m also impressed that a world that seems to lack entirely for firearms has figured out the concept of genetics, but they do have reason to keep track of heredity, so that’s presumably why. Because in addition to what’s recognized as magic, there are human Gifts, which are more like particular knacks, and especially the ability to sense magica, which can only pass from mother to child.

I ended up talking way too much about magic in my first review, too. Oops. Well, it’s very interesting. I don’t apologize. In any case, Thief’s War opens with Fisk and Michael wandering the countryside looking for good deeds to do, as do they all, thus far, and within the first few chapters the plot has thoroughly entangled the hapless adventurers, as is its wont. The story has been described to me as darker than previous books, and I suppose there is might be a higher body count, and a few details like a pack of vengeful orphans are a bit unnerving. What stuck out more than tone to me was scope. Michael and Fisk break up lots of evildoers, but previously these have been relatively petty, local crimes, dependent on one deranged baron or scheming merchant or whoever it happened to be, but this story was set up like an old pulp crime story. Everyone defers to the mysterious crime lord, if you go to the police they can’t help, the plans are much bigger than you ever expected… The story would have worked just as well with Michael in an incongruous mask and fedora with Fisk as his trusty chauffeur.

The other thing that sticks out to me with this book versus its predecessors is that Michael and Fisk spend a lot of it apart. They’ve been separated before, but only for a chapter or two, whereas they spend about half this book plotting separately. It’s a wonderful chance to see how each one works, Fisk really flexing his con-man muscles and Michael trying to be honorable and ending up sneakier than even his criminal squire. Thief’s War dredges up a lot of Fisk’s grim past, but Michael finds plenty to invest himself in without the reappearance of old enemies and painful loyalties. There are those orphans, after all. Their separation makes the structure of the book—one chapter from Michael’s perspective, one from Fisk’s—really pay off even more than usual. The narrative voices are great, but getting inside their heads is really important for the large part of the book spent scheming quietly.

So do I recommend Thief’s War? Absolutely! The series just keeps getting better. The world and characters are as awesome as ever if not moreso, the writing is solid with the added trick of switching narrators to keep you engaged, and this is the most twisty-turny-unreasonably-huge plot they’ve encountered yet. And it ends on a cliffhanger. Next book, please!


Urban Fantasy and Plotting

As I observed in the Smoke review, urban fantasy is kind of a heavily tread path. It’s hard to do anything new with it, since it’s pretty much “some magical thing interacts with the real world, shenanigans ensue,” and print. I’m very aware of this, having run an urban fantasy and fairies game for years. I can come up with  a half dozen plots for such a setting in a few minutes. In fact… I’m timing myself.

The city’s homeless population begins to disappear. Young vampires are flocking to follow a strange figure who claims to have the secret for circumventing the weaknesses that come with their form of immortality. You spot out of the corner of your eye a figure that seems to be yourself or your friend, but in a place or a time that doesn’t make any sense. Widespread mechanical failures throughout the city correspond with unexplained citings of shadowy beings.

Two minutes. Slowed down by my being an absurd person who was correcting typos despite the clock running.

And yet it’s awesome. We keep coming back to it. Some of that is certainly wish fulfillment, to be found particularly in the vampire and author insert have sexy adventures subgenre, of course. But wouldn’t it be cool if tomorrow you witnessed something impossible and were swept into the world of ghouls and marauding werewolves and ghostly happenings? Of course it would. Don’t lie. Sure, we’re all picturing ourselves as the heroes of the story, not the side characters who get bumped off or injured, certainly not the random mooks who learn about vampire fangs via thorough exsanguination. But we’re allowed.

It’s a great genre to relate to. And it’s a hard one to write, I can attest. You have to get things right (though you should do some research if you’re making up your world, too, of course). The author may decide that in this reality, the supernatural things have come out of the closet, or always were, or are sneaky and secret, but there’s always a sense of a parallel world, a secret place you get to get into if you’re cool enough. And it creates a real demand on the characters, too. Most urban fantasy I really like is character driven. There’s drama and adventure, but the people have to be truly awesome, because otherwise they won’t live up to it. It’s easier to say “you’re doing it wrong!” to the snarky beat cop who knows a thing or two about werewolves than to the barbarian riding the dragon.

Though the fact that Twilight is around kind of busts up my theory. Oh, well. Urban fantasy. It’s all been done and will be done again, and I’ll read it every time. Unless it’s boring vampire sex. Blah.