Book Review: Thieftaker

D.B. Jackson presents a compelling tale with his novel Theiftaker, a pre-American Revolution historic fiction…with magic.  On paper, nothing could sound better.

In Jackson’s novel, Ethan Kaille is a down-on-his-luck thieftaker in colonial Boston. A theiftaker is someone who retrieves stolen property for money.  Ethan’s dirty secret is that he is also a conjurer, and can use organic material around him to cast spells.  The novel opens with Ethan tracking down a target he’s been hired to pursue, in which we see Ethan’s extent of mental, physical, and magical ability.  This opening chapter does well to establish the character and his broad range of skill.  We also see right from the start that the magic in Jackson’s world isn’t the clean-cut magic we’re used to seeing in the likes of say, Harry Potter.  Jackson’s magic is crude, and doesn’t always work for novice conjurers.  It requires energy and effort which gives the conjuring characters a taxing factor in their ability, and are by no means invincible.  In addition, we learn that Ethan has to cut himself whenever he conjures because blood produces the most effective spells, so use of magic always comes at a sacrifice.  This raises the stakes for the character to the extent of forcing Ethan to choose between self sacrifice or what is an otherwise more comfortable journey.  The big question is always which will grant him his life.

Once the story gets moving, we learn of Ethan’s hardships as a theiftaker, and that he’s new to the business.  He faces the challenge of dealing with a substantial rival theiftaker, Sephira Pryce, who essentially has mooks all over Boston hunting Ethan down to keep him from stealing her work.  This takes a dark turn for Ethan when he is hired to retrieve a stolen article from the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who is willing to pay him substantially for his efforts.  Ethan has never taken up the task of solving a murder mystery, but is willing to try.   Not only does he discover how threatened he is by conspirators of the murder, but Sephira Pryce is out for blood since he has accepted a high-paying contract which would otherwise belong to her.  Throughout the story, whenever Ethan is close to finding another clue, Sephira and her mooks get in the way and he has to start from square one again.  And whenever Ethan encounters Sephira, it’s no quick beat 'em up.  Ethan is almost always outnumbered 10 to 1, and he must refrain from using magic or will otherwise be accused as a witch.  When Sephira’s men beat him, he suffers the consequences.  This isn’t like the movies where our hero can take a beating and get back up again unscathed.  When Ethan is beaten, he is practically immobilized.  His bones break, he gets bloodied up, and has trouble breathing.  His injuries get in the way later in the novel when he’s at his most desperate.  While Spephira and her men are a substantial threat in the story, it’s rarely explained how she has so much power.  We understand that she essentially owns the streets of Boston, but we never know why.  Additionally, while it’s mentioned multiple times that she’s a thieftaker, we never see her do any theiftaking, which I feel would’ve made her character a little more fledged out.  I may be getting ahead of myself as there are more Thieftaker novels after this, but it would’ve been nice to see her style of thieftaking in this book.  Even then, this is only a minor nitpick compared to the rest of the novel.

Ethan also goes to bat with another conjurer throughout the story who quickly proves to be far more skilled than himself.   The conjurer is never physically visible, which makes thwarting him all the more difficult.  In these instances, Ethan has to get creative with his conjurings, and readers witness the full extent of magic within Jackson’s world.  The conjurer never allows Ethan to walk away on two feet.  The spells this mysterious figure uses on him are violent, and Jackson’s descriptions make the reader feel the pain Ethan is going through.  These are some of the best and scariest portions of the novel, which strangely enough make the reader feel like their in Ethan’s shoes.  

Jackson’s Boston is one of the most believable reading environments I’ve ever been placed in.  Having taking place nearly 250 years ago, it feels like I’m actually there and can talk to the city’s inhabitants.  I can feel the grime and dirt, and can smell the smells.  Jackson’s similes and metaphors are also kept within the time period.  There are no modern-day comparisons or comparisons that could work for any point in history.  For example, there’s a part where Jackson describes a character’s dialogue as "a statement that would’ve made King George wince".  Something like that ins’t necessary per-say, but it keeps the story within it’s setting, and is a nice little touch.  The believability of this world is once again thanks to the way Jackson describes it. We see authors do this all the time, but Theiftaker feels like a place I can actually go to and interact with.  Jackson takes us to every nook and cranny of Boston through Ethan’s adventures, meeting colorful characters and exploring new locations, which only adds to the believability of the world.  

Thieftaker lends readers to a vast number of characters, which most fantasy novels would have issues handling for casual readers.  However most every character in Thieftaker feels genuine because they add weight to the story.  No character is shoe-horned in simply for the sake of adding something that wasn’t there before, or as a cop-out to advance the plot.  It’s because they hold so much weight that we feel that they’re actually there.

For a novel that takes place in Revolutionary America, there aren’t that many references to typical American Revolution tropes, and for me, that’s a good thing.  Most settings in this era would have Ethan amidst the Boston Tea Party, or fighting redcoats as a vigilante.  Ethan is most nearly the exact opposite.  He simply doesn’t give a damn about taxation without representation, and is just trying to do his job.  He will take sides with the patriots or loyalists if it means not having to discuss politics so he can get on with business.  This is a fresh look at a character in this era, as most Revolutionary characters always side with the patriots, and it’s interesting to see someone who’s neutral for once.  There are also few major historical figures of the time.  There are no George Washingtons or Thomas Jeffersons here.  Rather, most figures of this status are given as little as a mention, such as Paul Revere or John Hancock.  The most significant figure who appears is Samuel Adams, and even then he isn’t front and center throughout the novel, and is instead used as a means to relay information to Ethan in the latter half of the story.  This is how it should be.  Theiftaker is willing to stick to it’s own story by using its setting as a backdrop, and not rely on historical figures for history class nostalgia.  While I’m sure that Ethan will encounter more historical figures in future novels, as there are more in this series, for a first installment this was a very smart choice.  It shows readers that the story knows what it is doing independently, and doesn’t have to rely on nostalgia for the sake of getting history buffs’ attention.  

Thieftaker is an engaging novel which engulfs readers in a believable world, and manages to stick to it’s plot throughout.  There’s no fluff in the story, and every character adds weight, which is a rare thing for novels with such a vast number of characters to achieve.  Though a lack historical characters, any red-blooded American fantasy lover should get a kick out of this novel, as well as casual readers who aren’t into fantasy.  Definitely a tale for the ages.  

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2016

Purchase Theiftaker from Amazon.