Originally published on Fantasy-Faction.com
My rating: 7/10
Tyen is a student of history at the influential Academy. When he falls foul of its politics and powers, he finds himself on the run, his fate now inextricably bound to a sentient book who calls herself Vella. Rielle is a socially oppressed young woman from a well-to-do family. When she inadvertently helps the authoritative priests to capture a ‘tainted’ (a person found using illegal magic), she begins a journey that will take her far from the life she has been raised to lead. Thief’s Magic is split equally between Tyen’s and Rielle’s perspectives. Although for the moment their stories remain separate, this grants the reader a comprehensive view of Canavan’s world.
It’s hard to fault Thief’s Magic on any of the obvious grounds. Its characters are appealing, pace generally good, its worldbuilding interwoven with the action. Canavan’s magic system is clever in its simplicity and sits at the heart of a cultural divide. She manages to achieve an enviable balance between magic and technology. Equally deft is her handling of religion, industry and empire, and the problems that result from their conflict.
The magic system isn’t flashy, which might not suit some tastes, but it is logical. In Tyen’s native Leratia, magic is widely used to power machines. Canavan neatly unites magic with technology to create an unusual society that requires both to function. We are told that magic exists all around us and that ‘Soot’ is the waste substance created whenever magic is depleted in an area. The machines expel Soot much as a factory chimney expels smoke.
Since the machines cannot function without it, Tyen’s city imposes strict rules on magic’s use. Magic becomes a hoarded, potentially finite substance, rather like a fossil fuel. There’s an intriguing theory surrounding its origin too: that magic is a by-product of human creativity. This theory is considered dangerously radical by the Academy, while in Rielle’s society, it’s held to be true.
These opposite beliefs greatly impact on Canavan’s protagonists and the rules of behaviour instilled in each by their respective cultures. Rielle – who has the potential to become a sorcerer herself – is especially affected by her society’s almost total ban on magic. Only the ruling priests are allowed to use magic without tainting themselves. Any other use is considered to be thieving from the Angels, mysterious deities whose laws are enforced by the priests.
The book’s title cleverly summarises both attitudes. In order to use magic, it must be stolen: in Tyen’s case, from his immediate vicinity. Rielle believes it must be taken from the Angels, a crime that will damn her in the afterlife. Whereas Tyen is an accomplished magic-user, Rielle’s ability causes her serious problems. It is central to her rebellion against family and culture, and provides her with an unwelcome reason to question the priests’ motives.
Speaking of rebellion, I initially found it hard to warm to either protagonist. Tyen’s perpetually guilty conscience irritated me during his early chapters. I tried to remind myself that it was pleasant to see a character with a solid sense of right and wrong, but Tyen came across as bit of a goody-goody, who was unrealistically forgiving. He became more appealing when events forced him to swallow some hard truths. In her defence, Rielle’s obedient nature is chiefly the result of oppression by a patriarchal society, which I suppose was the reason I didn’t readily identify with her. However, Canavan charts Rielle’s sexual awakening with poignancy and skill, resulting in a plausible development of character.
Rielle is not the only one to undergo a transformation. Tyen’s is less obvious and potentially less successful. He tends to be reactive rather than assertive, which isn’t a problem in itself, except that he doesn’t have an especially strong personality. However, his interaction with Vella – the book who was once a woman – more than makes up for it. Vella is the best thing about Thief’s Magic, which is strange considering she’s an object with no feelings. Her fascinating history and unusual relationship with Tyen kept me turning the pages.
So why 7/10?
I was unconvinced by characters Sezee and Vero, whose names I just had to look up for the purpose of this review. Clearly plot devices, they are ditched at the end of the book when their presence no longer serves a purpose. Their only real reason for entering the story is to provide the rather helpless Tyen with an opportunity to escape his pursuers. Both left me cold and I was glad to see the back of them.
Thief’s Magic is rigidly divided between protagonists who never meet. It feels as if you’re reading two separate books. This serves to make the ending anticlimactic and dilutes already unexciting scenes. Even if a book is part of a series, it ought to strive for a sense of integrity. I don’t mean to say it can’t end on a cliff-hanger, but a solid conclusion leaves a better impression than a few sentences signalling that the story isn’t over. The problem of abandoning Tyen and Rielle on the cusp of new lives is that it paints Thief’s Magic as an introduction, a prologue to the real story that is yet to come.
We have some slight, but unnecessary padding. The reader is treated to a lot of Tyen running away and Rielle making agonised journeys between her home and Izare’s before she decides to act. While these interim scenes provide opportunities for character development, the pace suffers as a result. I now also question whether the multiple-worlds idea is explored comprehensively enough, considering its vast implications and the concluding events of the book. I was under the initial impression that Rielle and Tyen lived in the same world, as Canavan gave no evidence to the contrary. (Feel free to advise me on this point).
And so to my chief reason: I wasn’t moved by this book. I found both Tyen’s and Rielle’s stories interesting. I liked the magic system and the role it played in the wider world. But…my heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t engaged on an emotional level. That’s annoying because Thief’s Magic is a solid book from an accomplished author, whose prose is light and peppered with eloquent phrasing. However, I can’t help comparing Sonea (protagonist from The Black Magician Trilogy) to Tyen and Rielle, and finding myself rather less concerned about the fates of the latter. Nevertheless, I do recommend Thief’s Magic and hope you’ll read it in order to decide for yourselves.
Many thanks to Orbit for this review copy.