Sunday, August 22, 2010

“The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice”, by Stephen Deas (Gollancz)


The beginning of an intriguing new fantasy series

Berren has lived in the city all his life. He has made his way as a thief, paying a little of what he earns to the Fagin-like master of their band, Hatchet. But there is a twist to this tale of a thief.

One day Berren goes to watch an execution of three thieves. He watches as the thief-taker takes his reward and decides to try and steal the prize. He fails. The young thief is taken. But the thief-taker spots something in Berren. And the boy reminds him of someone as well. Berren, not that he has much choice, becomes his apprentice… And is introduced to a world of shadows, deceit and corruption behind the streets he thought he knew. A city where he must learn to take not purses, but lives…

The first part of The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice describes how Berren came work for Master Syannis, Deephaven’s most feared thief-taker. Master Sy is an interesting character – clearly high-born with a mysterious past that led him to flee his home country. As two main characters, both Berren and Sy are pretty solid.

Berren dislikes parts of his training (learning his letters), and is chomping at the bit to get on with other elements of what he perceives to make up an integral part of a thief-taker’s life and trade. Namely, swords!

“He wanted to see swords flash and blood fly... The elegance of it. He wanted to see it over and over, again and again, until he’d learned to do it himself.”

At the same time, Berren’s nature is not that of a killer – he has a romanticised image of the dashing, gallant sword-master he thinks he will become, without following through in his head to logical conclusion and necessity of such a thing: death. It makes for an interesting glimpse into a young person’s hopes and dreams, seeing only the end result without the necessary in-between steps. Ultimately, Berren feels uncomfortable with his new life (certainly at the start, though he comes to accept it more as the novel progresses). He does not really fit in to Master Sy’s world of politics and intrigue, but equally is unable to return to his earlier life with Master Hatchet. This problem is less acute in the second half of the book, when they venture out of the city.

The relationship that develops between Berren and Master Sy is interesting: mainly a result of Sy’s erratic moods – at times he is the kindly uncle or god-parent, advising Berren on women; at other times he’s the harsh, angry task-master, Berren fearful and on the receiving end of Sy’s ire. The relationship is interesting, and it’s clear that a father-son-type bond does develop over the course of Berren’s training and his apprenticeship.

For a brand new world-setting, Deas has done a great job at making it inviting and familiar, introducing us to the city and its politics gently and without overloading the reader with information. Using Berren’s education to become a thief-taker as a device to inform the reader about the world is a good decision. Life in the city is richly observed, different quarters and the various neighbourhoods’ characters – dangerous and plush alike – are brought to life on the page.

The novel’s not quite as fast-paced as the blurb would have you believe: it is not quite the “hectic progression of fights, flights and fancies”, in my humble opinion. There are fights, for sure, but this is not the be-all-and-end-all of the novel. The book had a more languid prose-pace, which I enjoyed, and allowed for a little more world-building and gentler introduction to the characters.

If I had one issue, it would be Berren’s surprising, inconsiderable knowledge of his city before he’s sold to Master Sy – as a cut-purse operating in the city (in a specific quadrant thereof or otherwise), it seemed unlikely to me that he wouldn’t know at least a little more about the religions and politics of the place, not to mention the different characters of the various neighbourhoods. On the other hand, given the complexity and sheer size of the city, I suppose it’s not entirely unlikely (after all, how many of us actually know all about local politics and so forth, without being either in law enforcement or a criminal...?)

The novel ended well, setting up the rest of the series with just enough ambiguity to keep us guess as to where Berren and Sy will go next. There’s more about Berren’s own battles with his past, rather than Sy’s work as a thief-taker. This, while fine, was still a little disappointing – as the stuff hinted at with regards to Sy’s mission was tantalising stuff, potential fantasy gold. Perhaps in the future, now that Berren’s going to grow up and presumably embrace the life of a thief-taker, we’ll see and learn more of this world, and more about the politics and intrigue of Deephaven.

I really enjoyed reading Thief-Taker’s Apprentice, and I’ll definitely be looking out for future novels in the series. It’s a fantasy about a young man’s coming of age in a city dangerous with and from politics and intrigue, rather than epic battles. It therefore suited my tastes perfectly. One could perhaps describe it as being a bit like a seriously stripped-down Daniel Abraham (author of The Long Price Quartet).

As an introduction to Stephen Deas’s writing, this is perfect, and I’d be really surprised if reading this didn’t make you go out and buy The Adamantine Palace (or, if like me you already own it, move it up nearer the top of the ‘to-read’ pile). I was left wanting more – more novels set in this world, but also more detail (it’s a short novel, after all: less than 300 pages). I was also not sure, upon finishing, if this was YA fantasy or not – I’ve read that it is, but there are some pretty dark and/or graphic scenes in the story, which makes me question if this is accurate. Not that it really matters one way or another.

This is very well realised and written fantasy. If you like your fantasy with a pace that is a little less breathless, a little more languid (with a few action sequences thrown in for good measure and to keep you on your toes), then this is definitely recommended for you.

Very enjoyable.

For fans of: Brent Weeks, Col Buchanan, K.J. Parker

No comments:

Post a Comment