This week the blog takes a break from the Hugo nominees to focus on D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker Chronicles, because I would much rather talk about Jackson’s series than any more about the Hugos, and because book 4 in the series, Dead Man’s Reach, is out tomorrow. My review of book 1, Thieftaker, is below, with reviews of Thieves’ Quarry and A Plunder of Souls to follow before I review Dead Man’s Reach. So this is officially Thieftaker Week at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.
Thieftaker combines two of my great loves—American history and fantasy. It is also a mystery. It has been said that speculative fiction is the fantasy of changing the world and mysteries are fantasies of justice. This I think makes the two somewhat incompatible. The prototypical mystery novel investigator (usually hardbitten, unlike the greenshoe fantasy hero) doesn’t act prospectively to change the world; he’s trying to piece together past events to redress a discrete wrong (or perhaps only to find the truth and provide closure). It’s that tension that causes Thieftaker most of its (very limited) problems.
D.B. Jackson has previously written fantasy as David B. Coe. He also has a history PhD, and it shows. Thieftaker begins in late August, 1765 in Boston. I’ve long been of the opinion that we need more fantasy grappling seriously with the ideas of the Enlightenment, but at this point in the series pre-Revolutionary politics largely provide background.
Ethan Kaille is a thieftaker (never thiefcatcher, presumably) operating in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He’s a man with a dark secret and a dark past. He has a very particular set of skills; skills that make him a nightmare for people like…well, thieves. You see, Kaille is a “conjurer.” Conjurers “spell” using a familiar (in Kaille’s case, a ghost dressed in medieval armor who may be one of his distant ancestors), some physical element (most commonly a few drops of their own blood, but leaves will do in a pinch), and a few words of Latin. He also spent time in penal colony (shush!) for his role in an infamous mutiny.
Jackson tries hard to give Thieftaker a pre-Revolutionary flavor. Details of dress, dinner, and décolletage are frequently mentioned. Historical events and figures are alluded to (and appear). It works to give the novel that “feel” that historical fiction demands, although the tendency of any lower-class character to speak apostrophese is grating (yes, I just invented that word), but Jackson is hardly the only one to commit that particular sin.
Hardbitten mystery novel protagonists tend to fall into two camps: an everyman sort along for the ride (thus providing a vehicle for the audience to experience the mystery unfolding) or a super-genius solving the mystery through superior brainpower. Kaille is definitely an example of the former. He will literally get in a carriage with or follow anyone who asks. I would like to have seen the former with a touch of the latter (everyman with a bit of brilliance), but rest assured that when push finally comes to shove Kaille can shove back (and Kaille’s reluctance to shove back initially is well grounded in guilt, morality, and fear of being burned at the stake). The resulting action sequences are very good, not the least because Kaille is forced to rely on his wits as much as his wizardry.
Kaille is a well rounded, fleshed-out, flawed protagonist. But what really sets Thieftaker apart—the single strongest point of the book—is how well rounded, fleshed-out, and flawed the minor characters are. Whether young or old, rich or poor, black or white, female or male, Patriot or Tory, they come off as real people, no matter how quickly they flit in and out of the story (apostrophese aside). And Jackson has the rare ability to do so with just a few quick brushstrokes.
My review of Thieves’ Quarry, book two in The Thieftaker Chronicles, is here.
My review of A Plunder of Souls, book three in The Thieftaker Chronicles, is here.
My review of Dead Man’s Reach, book four in The Thieftaker Chronicles, is here.