Thieftaker – D.B. Jackson – Jonathan Davis

This review needs a Foreword, I think; I was writing this as I listened, enjoying the book less and less, until at a certain point about two thirds of the way in I gave up, closed the player, went to the link in my Audible library that says “Didn’t like the last book you listened to? You can return it” – and got my money back. I’m going to discuss why with spoilers at the end of this, so be warned.

On the author’s website it says that this series is “sure to appeal to readers who enjoy intelligent fantasy and history with an attitude.” Unfortunately, the intelligent, the attitude, and the history all are lacking.

Intelligent? I don’t think that pertains to the Hero, Ethan Kaille. A child, eight or nine years old, approaches Ethan out of nowhere, and proceeds to talk to him with a canniness and vocabulary well beyond her years, and apparently with an accent that is not that of a waif. Yet it takes Ethan till the end of a pretty lengthy conversation to realize that there’s anything off about the child – the kid doesn’t cast a shadow, and he never does seem to take any notice of anything else odd about her.

He is beaten soundly by his rival thieftaker’s men, and uses his conjuring skills to heal some of his injuries. He refrains from healing more because his landlord, who doesn’t know he’s a conjurer, saw him right after; if all the bruises disappeared it would give him away. But … why not heal all of the injuries that aren’t visible? He continues to straggle about aching and stiff, when … well, it’s the 18th century. People wore a lot of clothes. The only things visible on a regular basis would be his face and hands. There’s no earthly reason why every other injury couldn’t be made to just go away. There’s no reason in the world to traipse about with broken ribs.

And why, almost immediately after the beating, refrain from casting a spell because it meant drawing blood – when he was covered with injuries, since he did refrain from healing himself? There had to be a way to surreptitiously reopen one of his many cuts or scrapes and use that. (Which reminds me: instead of constantly hacking up one’s arms with a knife, why not keep a hangnail open or something – so that every time one is cornered one doesn’t have to draw one’s knife, or get prevented from doing so?) And I have to say, blood magic makes me extremely uncomfortable, as does holding a ghost in thrall. It seems such a very short step from using one’s own blood and whatever life is held in leaves and grass – to using something else’s blood, or someone else’s blood, and whatever life is held in more complex life forms. (The idea of a man using his own blood in spells, which means that if he is injured he can use blood from that injury to not only heal himself but to attack, and then can use his opponent’s shed blood against them as well – it’s fun. I like it. But it’s not well used here.)

And I’m not too sure about the intelligence of the writing and the story. Example:
Page 175 – “…Those who paid for her services assumed that she used her powers to find matches for them. Ethan had asked her once if this was in fact true. Janna refused to answer.”
Page 180 – “‘Killed a goat once. For a love spell, I think it was.'”

(Then there’s the rest of that last speech: “‘Some wealthy man wanted a girl, an’ she didn’ wan’ him. Took all th’ power I’ve got.'” Really? That’s pretty dark. Not only the animal sacrifice, but the fact that she agreed to coerce a girl into a match with a man she didn’t want. She doesn’t say anything about marriage, either, or that little thing called love (remember “love is magick”?); he wanted her. He apparently got her. What he did with her is left to the imagination. J.K. Rowling had it right with love spells – that’s fairly evil.)

“Sephira Pryce had me to supper today.” No, she didn’t; it was midday. She had you to dinner.

“He heard the bone in the man’s nose break.” No, he didn’t; there is no bone in one’s nose. It’s cartilage.

The humor in the book, like a little practical joke Kannis plays on Ethan … it’s … not funny. At all. It’s the definition of lame.

Apart from the predictable “shipping” of Ethan and Mr. Pell I’ve seen other reviewers talking about, I honestly see no reason for Pell to be brought into the story. His predicament – being a young minister who is capable of magic – I mean magick (sigh) – is the most interesting thing about him, but if the relationship between him and “look how straight I am with all these girlfriends” Ethan isn’t going the way of the shipped, then … I don’t know. “Ethan needed to speak one last time with Mr. Pell” – why? What could the boy possibly know?

As to the “attitude” mentioned above … I don’t see it. Ethan’s not exactly a badass. He starts out pretty well, with a brief fight and a nifty illusion, but before long he’s being beaten to a pulp for … really, no good reason except to make sure the reader knows Sephira Pryce is a stone cold bitch. It’s the first of several beatings. Ethan’s magic seems lightweight, severely limited. And, to quote a moldy oldy, he’s “torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool”. He occupies himself in Kannice’s bed and is quite fond of her, and decides that he doesn’t love his erstwhile fiancée anymore, but the former continues to be green-eyed hissing-and-spitting jealous of the latter anyway. Is this why some reviewers out there hate love triangles so much? I’ve never felt strongly one way or another about them, but this – this just feels worn and dusty. Oh, lord, there he goes again – is this the fourth or the fifth time, at 62%, that Ethan is confronted by/threatened by Sephira’s men? It’s so boring. (And why don’t they pinion him? I mean – duh. After the first time he manages to do his magicke without using his knife, um … duh?)

And surgeons make him queasy? A man who routinely cuts himself and uses the blood in spells is made queasy by a healer? How … odd.

In the middle of one of his fights, he creates a ring of fire around himself, and then realizes that wasn’t such a great idea. Brilliant. I’ll bet he’s prone to painting himself into corners, too. Why wouldn’t they just start shooting into the ring? Why wouldn’t he carry the makings for spells with him? You’d think after the first – or second, or third – time he was set upon in the streets that he would take some kind of precautionary measures. You’d think.

And oo, how original: a female Black Hat who attempts to use sex as a weapon. It would have been so much more impressive if she had been a middle-aged spinster with mousy hair and the mien of a librarian. And spectacles. That I would read, and happily. Instead, there’s hot-stuff Sephira – God, as I was writing that in some disgust, still listening to the book, came the line “Even now as she was threatening his life, she was as beautiful as any woman he had ever seen”. Gag. She’s petulant (of course! She’s a woman, after all), ham-handed, as subtle as a sledge-hammer, and … really, really boring. And … why, exactly, does she have Ethan beaten up for taking a job when it was she who recommended him for the job?

“‘I’m beginning to think you’re not as good as thieftaking as I first thought.” Right??

And going back to the history: I read Alexander Hamilton, and then re-watched the HBO John Adams miniseries, and found myself craving more. I wanted good, meaty fiction set in and around the Revolution. I had realized a long time ago, after reading a very dear old favorite called The Sherwood Ring, that there just isn’t that much out there. I wanted gossip about Washington and Revolutionary zeal and tricorne hats and all that. I didn’t want April Morning, or Johnny Tremain. I wanted something as good as Blindspot. So I was delighted when I remembered Thieftaker. Fantasy set in 18th century Boston? Perfect!

No … No, it’s not. It’s 1765, and those madmen who are beginning to talk about breaking away from England are just troublemakers and rabble-rousers. (Oh, look, there’s Sam Adams. I didn’t know he had a palsy.) Ethan is certainly not “one of those so-called Sons of Liberty” – he wants nothing to do with them. And apart from that, the setting, the incendiary time and the significant place, has very little impact on the story. There seems to be no real need to place this story in Boston in 1765. Ethan served a term of forced labor on a Caribbean sugar plantation – but he could very easily have been a thieftaker in 3rd Era Lorbarrow City, and not long ago forced into Dreamsalt excavation in the Lightmarshes. Or something. What a wasted opportunity.

It simply seems off that Sephira strides the streets in breeches, and Janna all but advertises herself as a conjurer, with absolutely no repercussions.

A lazy-sounding, muted, leisurely narration by Jonathan Davis – positively drowsy, at times – did not help matters. While children’s voices can be horrible, he read that afore-mentioned young street urchin’s part as if the eight or nine year old girl was a middle-aged upper-class businesswoman. It’s not a terrible narration – character voices are nicely done, for the most part, though I questioned a few accents – but it’s extremely low-key. The touches of Bahston in a couple of his character voices are the only (probably anachronistic) things that tie this thing at all to a particular city.

There is only a weak back story for how Ethan comes to wield “dark arts” in a time and place where just about everyone assumes magic – oh, sorry, “magick”; that’s one of the benefits of audio, not having to look at that spelling – is one of the “forces of hell”, and if he’s doing good it’s almost accidental. (“T. Windcatcher, Marriage Smith. Love is Magick.” I’m going to be ill.)

The writing leans heavily on common tropes and phrases. Ethan is attacked (for the umpteenth time), hears a scream, and – say it with me – realizes it is his own. *sigh*

Interesting that Ethan refers to the Evil Conjurer as “he”. That made me believe it’s a woman.

Names are odd for Colonial Boston – Kannice Lester? Sephira Pryce? Kelf Fingarin? Even Jennifer doesn’t seem right. (From Wikipedia: “Before 1906 the name was fairly uncommon, but it gained some recognition after George Bernard Shaw used it for the main female character in The Doctor’s Dilemma.”) Tarijanna Windcatcher has some basis in its character’s background, but it’s still oddball. And all the men’s names are soft: Ethan, Devren “Diver” Jervis, Trevor, Holin, Nigel, Abner, Reginald. The fact that Nigel is a big rough tough thug just feels off-kilter.

Speaking of names, Ethan isn’t exactly stellar in his creativity in that area. He sort of has two dogs named Shells – creatively nicknamed Shelly – and Pitch. Pitch is – wait for it – black. Shells is named for similarly-colored shells on the beach. Seems like there was another example, but I can’t find it.

“Dressed only in his breeches, shirt, and waistcoat” – why, he’s practically a streaker. It meant that he was out on a cold night without a coat – – but it sounded foolish.

I still don’t understand the need for a ghost like “Uncle Reg”.

I don’t understand why an evil spell caster would decide to kill the girl who started this whole thing. Jennifer Berson was a rich girl, and – more importantly – a rich man’s daughter. When she turns up dead, of course he wants to move heaven and earth to find out who killed her, and he has the resources to do it. Why would a smart Evil Conjurer not use street kids or prostitutes or others who either would not be missed or who would be missed by those who could do nothing about it, in the time-honored tradition of the serial killer?

“‘Get him already!’ Sephira shouted”… Indeed. Please. And finish the job, you incompetent idiots.

I was writing this review as I listened. And here come the spoilers, in case you’ve made it this far into a long review and still care.

So… Here’s the thing. Ethan is getting beaten up YET AGAIN (the book went beyond italics or boldface and required caps there), and he’s lying there on the ground, all hope is lost, the ghost/illusion Anna is looming over him in classic scary child fashion, a child is in trouble, oh dear oh dear whatever will happen. Then one of those dogs Ethan sort-of kind-of owns (though not really) comes along for no particular reason. My first reaction was “But the dogs hate the ghosts”, which may or may not be valid; this Anna thing could well have been an illusion and not a ghost like “Uncle Reg”, so – fine. But the dog shows up, and stands across the street. I … well, I’ve never had a dog that would have just stood there. In my world, when one of my dogs saw me on the floor, the first response has always been “Woo hoo! We’re playing!” – I would have expected Pitch to at least come trotting over to give Ethan a sniff. “Dude, you’re acting weird, what’s up?”

My first impulse was to say that Ethan wasn’t that powerful, but then I thought a little more about the pyrotechnics he managed by pulling the life force from a handful of grass. He was able to do quite a bit more with blood, his own or that spilled by others. But the dog, just standing there with his head cocked across the street, was not mentioned to be bleeding. Just standing there, minding his own business. So – my question here is twofold. If he could draw off the life of a dog across the street, why could he not draw on the life forces of the men attacking him, or Sephira Pryce as she manipulated them – is it an all-or-nothing thing, where there’s no way to do it without killing that from which the life is drawn? Second question: if he was pretty powerful with leaves, and more powerful with blood, you’d think he’d be unstoppable using life. You’d think he’d want to spend his beloved sort-of-pet’s life usefully. So what does he do? “Blindness, conjured from the life of this dog”. Blindness. Not “Reduced to a charcoal briquet”; not “Every bone in body broken”, not “Deader than the deadest dead thing” … Blindness. Is this a temporary or permanent blindness? Who knows? (Actually someone who finished the book might.)

“Every conjuring had to draw upon its source, be it one of the elements – fire, water, earth, or air – for the simplest spells, or something drawn from a creature or plant for living spells.” See, this makes no sense. “Something”? What? There seems to be no consistency. Ethan can use grass or a leaf to fuel a spell. I didn’t notice and can’t now find what happens to the leaves when he uses them. He uses them up, that I get, but – do they crumple into dust? Shrivel up? Anything? The dog just keels over when he drains him (bastard). Blood disappears. There’s no logic to it that I can see. There are bacteria in the air and on surfaces; there are micro-organisms everywhere. Dust mites. Why can’t they be used? I know, I know – in 1765 they don’t know anything about things they can’t see, but why aren’t they being used without the conjurer realizing, perhaps assuming that there’s a latent amount of energy in air or water or whatever that can be used … why am I wasting time on this?

But then, to put the cherry on top of the nonsensicality of the magical “system”: I was morbidly curious, wanted to see what benefit killing the dog gained the little twerp, and I’d already returned the book – it was gone from my library. So I went to Google Books. And apparently about fifty pages on he is attacked yet again, vomits from pain … and then conjures a spell from “my sick”.

Really?

REALLY?

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