Continuing my summer reading binge, I recently finished reading D. B. Jackson’s Thieftaker, the first in a series of historical urban fantasy novels. Now, a little bit of background as to how I ended up reading this book. I actually met D. B. Jackson (also known as David B. Coe) at JordanCon several years ago (I believe it was my first JordanCon, back in 2011.) At that time, I had yet to commit myself to majoring in history, let alone go for a Master’s degree as I am now, so I probably didn’t talk to him as much as I should. More recently, I’ve read a number of great articles on the writing of historical fantasy by him, and with about a year or so left in my Master’s program, I’ve been brainstorming more about my own story ideas, so I decided I should probably read some more historical fantasy, if only to see how successful authors have tackled the genre. (Though unfortunately there is next to nothing set in the time & place I would be working in, 1920s & 30s Hungary–the closest I’ve found, the Lady Lazarus series, which I’ve reviewed on this site, was actually recommended to me by Jackson.)
So, on to Thieftaker, I’ll once again use my sectioned review style, because I like it, though I may switch formats at some point as I get better at this. Off to Boston (of the past)!
Setting: So, as I just mentioned, this book is set in late 18th century Boston, which is still during the colonial period, though by this time the tensions that eventually would lead to the American Revolution are simmering and starting to boil over a bit (as a side note, having not yet read the rest of the series, which I believe is not at this point finished, I wonder if the stories will continue into and through the Revolution–that would be quite awesome). D. B. Jackson has a Master’s degree and a PH.D in American history, so we can safely assume that he knows his stuff as far a the history goes. It definitely shows in the depiction of the setting (not that I’m expert enough in colonial America to have noticed if anything was off). Interestingly, in some articles he’s written on the books, Jackson actually goes into some detail about his depiction of the setting, and the things that are patently fictional and were added for the sake of the story (examples include the magic, obviously, as well as the titular thieftaker profession). Either way, however, the setting felt very fully realized, with plenty of detail, and I never forgot what time period we were in. I also liked that Jackson didn’t fall into the trap of making too much use of major historical figures (though it should be noted that even a number of the side characters were real people), and only had a few appear for a relatively small portion of the story. I imagine that’s always a difficult balance, as it’s natural to want to have one’s fictional characters meet all these intriguing historical figures, but that often does harm to the story.
Characters: Thieftaker is written in the third person, but remains focused on a single viewpoint, that of Ethan Kaille, our thieftaker. The fact that the book is written in third person was interesting for me, as I’ve almost always seen urban fantasy done in first person (and as such I’m very much on the fence regarding what to do when I get to my own historical urban fantasy), and I was glad to see a good example of it in third person. Of course, it does make it a little less personal, and as a fairly straightforward guy, Ethan isn’t the most ‘ colorful’ character around (though it should also be noted that he’s older already–I think in his 40s–which is quite different from the usual young protagonist, and someone who’s pretty much a private investigator would be a more calm, collected person, and he wouldn’t want to stand out. I liked Ethan, and I hope that in future books we get some more stories from his past, and maybe see things from his busy past come into play in the plot–I think that would add a bit more depth and maybe force him to react differently to things.
Since Ethan was the only viewpoint character, everyone else is by definition side characters. The most significant of these are two of the three women in Ethan’s life, Kannice the bar owner and Sephira Pryce, another thieftaker, who also acts like a mob boss in many respects. Kannice is Ethan’s love interest and close friend, and she also owns a bar, which works very nicely for the plot, and the scenes that take place there allow us to get a good sense of her personality despite her relatively limited screentime. She’s a fun character, and I look forward to seeing what else she ends up doing in the series, since I doubt she’ll be limited to scenes in the bar forever. Sephira Pryce is a different matter entirely, serving as essentially the primary antagonist (though she isn’t the main villain, due to the nature of the plot’s mystery there really isn’t a ‘present’ villain related to that, so Sephira gets the job. She is a woman in charge, essentially acting like a mob boss while also doing thieftaker work, which is where her issues with Ethan come in, as she doesn’t like competition–his only pass is that he can do magic, which she can’t. In a world with characters that are a bit subdued and down-to-earth, Sephira gets to stand out as a very loud, in-your-face person who is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants, and she is good at what she does, as Ethan is unhappy to see at certain points in the book. There are two other side characters worth mentioning, though both are fairly simple and not all that crucial to the plot. The first is Diver, Ethan’s best friend, who seems to have a habit of getting into trouble. He works well as someone for Ethan to interact with that is less careful than he is, and he does manage to get somewhat wrapped up in the plot for a bit. The last is Marielle, Ethan’s former betrothed. His relationship to her and her children is actually very interesting, and he seems to have taken on a sort of father figure position (their biological father is deceased) even though both he and Marielle have no thoughts of ever rekindling their relationship. Her character and relationship to Ethan probably does the most to build on his history, and I can imagine a lot of interesting plot threads coming from that eventually.
Plot: The plot of Thieftaker is actually fairly simple. It’s at its core a murder mystery, though of course it is determined to be much more than that, and the investigation becomes tangled up in the increasingly heated political situation. There really isn’t too much to say there other than that, as someone who admittedly doesn’t often read mystery books, that the mystery was well done and well paced, and allowed me the time to try and figure it out along with Ethan. And of course, I liked the connections to the politics, which allowed them to play a role while not making the real history too front and center. I don’t know if the plots of the rest of the books in the series will be as mystery-centered as this one, but I don’t think I’d mind if they were. I don’t need (or want) every book to be some huge, Dresden-scale plot that culminates in a big, messy fight. Smaller, simpler stories (and fights) work just fine, and I definitely didn’t mind reading a book that was under 500 pages for once (or at least books that aren’t YA).
Magic: Like the plot, the magic in Thieftaker is fairly simple, though unlike the plot, the magic is fairly minimally used, and doesn’t become the center of everything, and get thrown around a lot. This fits in well with the world, as well as with the fact that in reality this didn’t exist. The magic Ethan uses consists of spells he speaks in latin, and they can powered by sources ranging from blood (which he uses most often), to plant life, to animal or even human life. Also, it’s tied somehow to a ghost that appears whenever it’s used (Ethan calls his silent companion Uncle Reg), and each conjurer’s magic apparently has a distinct color, which works well with the mystery plot, as Ethan tries to figure out whose magic was used at the start. The magic is very creatively used, and lends itself well to cool fight scenes, while leaving plenty of room for later expansion.
All in all, I quite enjoyed Thieftaker. It was a fun, shorter story that made use of an interesting historical time period, and it compares well to the other urban fantasy I have read, I look forward to reading the rest of the series and seeing where it all goes. Check it out!
And that ends this review. I still have several more books in line to be read soon, and I plan to review them here as well, though I’d also like to get up a non-review post at some point…I guess we’ll see. Until then, keep reading and writing, and maybe look up some bit of history you’ve always found interesting! History is always fun. (But then I’m biased.)