Topic #10: Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
Book: Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, 2012
It’s 1765 and the city of Boston is somewhere between a proper British city and a patch of lawless wilderness. Although there are many wealthy men who live in the city’s richer neighborhoods–most of them with connections to the old world–the city effectively has no dedicated police force to protect their property and interests. Ethan Kaille is a thieftaker, his job to recover stolen items and–if possible–dispose of those who stole them. He’s a conjurer as well, capable of healing his injuries or producing illusions with only a few words and a bit of blood, but he tries to use his powers carefully; they may not hunt conjurers as stubbornly as they did during the witch trials, but he’ll still end up hanging from the gallows if the wrong person sees him casting a spell. However, after accepting a job from a particularly well-connected Bostonian whose daughter was murdered in an apparent street-robbery, Ethan may no longer have the choice to lay low. As the streets boil over with increasingly violent resentment toward the Crown and a mysterious conjurer with frightening powers enacts a deadly plan, it will take all of his spells, his courage, and his wits if he wants to keep himself and his loved ones alive.
I picked up this book because I’ve lived near Boston my whole life, and I’m always happy to have an excuse to read about it. Life in Jackson’s ever-so-slightly-alternate colonial Boston maintains a comfortable middle point between overly detailed and vague. Little passages about the feel of the cobblestones underfoot or how tasty this new “clam chowder” dish tastes are peppered throughout the story and give the reader a sense of the city without ever really dropping into exposition. The fact that the real colonial Boston didn’t have any wizards living in it (or indeed, any thieftakers, as Jackson himself notes in a brief afterword) does nothing to disrupt the fact that the Boston we’re reading about seems very real, at least to a layman.
Sadly, Thieftaker is a crime procedural that seems ill-equipped for the job. There’s nothing really wrong with any single part of the mystery; it makes perfect sense, there are a number of suspects, and our hero figures out the truth based on the clues he finds. But it hardly matters, because the investigation is equal parts uneventful and predictable. Ethan wanders around Boston interviewing a set of forgettable characters, most of whom have little to say that will help his investigation, and more than one of which Jackson could have cut without changing the mystery in any way. Whenever there’s an important clue, its ramifications on the case are immediately obvious. It doesn’t help that the book is front-loaded with the most important clues first, so the reader is likely to solve the crime with half the book still left to go, leaving our lead detective far behind. The identity of the culprit is the one mystery that isn’t particularly obvious, but it’s not an especially interesting reveal either, since the killer is one of a dozen characters that leave almost no impression. To be sure, Thieftaker isn’t only a crime procedural, but that’s easily the largest component of the narrative, and the fact that it’s no good at it sabotages the reader’s engagement with the story as a whole.
Thieftaker is much more successful when it turns thriller, with Ethan running for his life from hardened criminals and cold-blooded conjurers. Ethan spends most of the book avoiding rival-thieftaker Sephira Pryce, who already has a habit of beating him half-dead and robbing him blind and is plainly starting to wonder if she should get rid of Ethan for good. She’s not the only one hunting Ethan through the cobbled streets. A conjurer whose powers completely outclass Ethan’s is lurking in the shadows, and whoever they are, they want Ethan to give up on the case and they’re willing to make his life hell until he does. The conjurer and Pryce are probably the best things Thieftaker has going for it. Together, their aura of menace hangs over everything, and regardless of where Ethan is, or what spells he is prepared to cast, he never seems truly safe.
There are a number of characters in this book whose presence seems intended to make Ethan’s life feel more real: friends, lovers, ex-lovers. Ultimately, most of these characters simply feel out of place since there isn’t enough time to get to know them. None of them are actually annoying or poorly written, but several of them–like the people Ethan interrogates about the crime–could have been removed without making much difference. For example, Ethan has a sister who disapproves of his spellcasting on religious grounds, which may sound like a recipe for character conflict but after she’s introduced in a scene within the first sixty pages, she vanishes from the rest of the book completely. Worse, about halfway through, Ethan visits his ex-fiance and her children–the former having been vaguely mentioned and the latter having never been mentioned before–and we learn that he has a deep emotional bond with the children. The fact that one of the pillars of Ethan’s emotional life goes unmentioned for the first hundred and thirty pages is frankly baffling, and the message it sends to the reader is disastrous for the characterization of the protagonist: don’t bother trying to understand Ethan on a subtextual level, because at any moment, the author might introduce a new relationship that will change everything.
The system of spellcasting in this world is simple, satisfying, and has some fun little details. To cast spells, you must offer something as fuel. Ethan specializes in using his own blood, but it’s possible to draw magic out of almost anything from the natural world, albeit with varied results. We don’t see many other sources for magic, but I get the sense that the world is full of conjurers whose magic is entirely different from protagonist’s and that bit of world building makes everything just a little bit more exciting. I’m particularly fond of the fact that every conjurer has their own pet ghost who appears whenever they cast spells and stands mutely behind them, visible only to other conjurers.
In the end, a couple menacing villains and a fairly promising system of magic isn’t enough to make this book work. I was never annoyed or tempted to stop reading, but I can’t say I had a great time. If you desperately want to read a magical crime story set in colonial Boston, you could do worse. Otherwise, I’d forget about this one.
Final Grade: D+