“We are the stories we tell ourselves…even the lies.”
When I first read this book back in January 2023, I went in completely blind and was absolutely blown away by the astounding quality of the story hidden behind this dark and alluring cover. I loved it so much, in fact, that I decided to do a re-read now that book 2 is right around the corner. And let me tell you, it was somehow even better this second time around. No Heart for a Thief is truly one of the most refreshing, gripping, and emotionally engaging fantasy stories out there.
For the past 18 years, Kaylo has been living a reclusive lifestyle, desperately trying to escape his turbulent and traumatic past. But his peace is disturbed when he ends up saving a young girl, Tayen, from the enemy soldiers who recently killed her family. She recognizes him as the legendary Hero of Anilace, also known as Ennea’s Thief, and soon Kaylo has to come to grips with the fact that he can’t outrun his past any longer.
With the hopes of protecting from her own burning desire for revenge, Kaylo somewhat begrudgingly becomes her guardian and mentor, and starts sharing his life story with her. What follows is a beautifully crafted dual timeline story, switching between Kaylo’s past and Tayen’s present, which will keep you emotionally engaged the entire way through.
“You see, little shade, a story is a peculiar thing. Change a word -the emphasis of a word- and it can become something it was never meant to be. A hero can become a tyrant. A tyrant can become a great uniter. And a boy who makes a lot of stupid decisions can become a myth.”
Now, let me start this review off by saying that this is a dark and challenging story dealing with difficult themes of war, occupation, racism, colonialism, oppression, grief and loss. Yet at the same time, it’s also an utterly magical and engrossing fantasy story that will fill you with wonder. All of the heavy subjects are handled with so much care and they are woven into the story in such a beautifully organic way that I never felt like they became overbearing or too on-the-nose.
On top of that, I really loved that the scope of this story is a lot more personal and intimate than you might expect. Yes, there is a large-scale war/occupation going on, but unlike in a lot of other fantasy stories, we are not focusing on the large battlefields or the big political power players of this war. Instead, this story hones in on how the war and occupation personally affects our two protagonists, which results in an introspective, meditative, intimate, emotional, and ultimately heart wrenching story.
I personally immediately latched onto both Kaylo and Tayen, even though they are both definitely not without their flaws. And yet, that is exactly why I loved them so much. They are painfully human and their respective inner conflicts are incredibly well-written, which is why I found both of their harrowing journeys so moving and compelling to follow.
“He knew her anger like he knew himself. Her fear and rage were not seperate entities, just the loudest part of her trauma.”
Tayen is such a fierce and impulsive little spitfire at the start of the story, so it’s really no surprise that she immediately captured my heart. She never loses her brashness, but I really appreciated how we slowly but surely got to see some glimmers of growth as she started to take Kaylo’s guidance and advice to heart.
Kaylo himself took me a bit longer to warm up to, but as we dove deeper into his backstory, I quickly started to become attached to him as well and by the end I honestly couldn’t tell you who my favourite character here is.
I remember that I was initially a bit caught off-guard when we suddenly jumped into Kaylo’s coming-of-age backstory on my first read, but I did not have that problem on this second read at all. It is truly masterful how both timelines interweave and compliment each other, and I enjoyed every single second of watching this story unfold.
I particularly loved how Kaylo’s own moral and spiritual journey guides him in his mentorship of Tayen and I thought it was delightful to see their bond develop as they find solace in each other’s company. I mean, who doesn’t love a good grumpy mentor/eager mentee relationship and some heartwarming found family vibes?
“The worry. The preoccupied love. The endless frustration. Maybe this bordered close to fatherhood.”
I honestly wouldn’t have minded to spend more time in the present day, because I think I could have connected to these characters on an even deeper level if we hadn’t spent about 70% of this novel in Kaylo’s past. That said, I think Dulin is a very gifted storyteller and this is one of the most effective and impressive executions of a frame narrative that I have ever encountered.
Now, even though the character- and relationship development was the highlight of the book for me personally, there’s also much to praise about the outstanding world building. This world feels so rich and well-established, and it was fascinating to see the culture clash between inhabitants of Ennea and the invading Gousht Empire.
The power and importance of (oral) storytelling is a very big focus in this story, which is a theme that will obviously hit home for us readers who have a big passion for stories. The idea that history is (re-)written by the victors is also gracefully explored here, and it was extremely harrowing to see how the invaders would do anything to erase native history and culture.
“If stories were the lifeblood of our people, what would happen if they were lies?”
I found it especially intriguing to discover how that theme bleeds through into the spiritual and elemental based magic system. The way that magic and religion are inextricably tied together in this world is truly captivating and I loved seeing how this impacted our protagonists’ lives on a personal level, particularly for Kaylo. His internal conflict, stemming from his struggles with his magic and faith, was so incredibly well-written and added so much complexity and depth to his character.
It might take a while to fully wrap your head around the unfamiliar concepts regarding the magic system, but to me that only added to the mystical and entrancing quality of the story.
And speaking of entrancing, I would be remiss not to mention the incredibly beautiful and captivating prose. I loved how Dulin made this world and the characters come to life through his evocative descriptions and compelling dialogue. There are also some great (magical) action and training sequences that had me glued to the page, because they were written in such an enthralling way.
“In the hands of a ruthless person, skillful words could be more powerful than a hundred blades.”
For the most part, though, this story is low on the action and has a quiet, meditative and introspective quality to it that perfectly fits with the spiritual and moral journeys of our characters. There are a number of profound and philosophical lines that just demand to be highlighted and reread, because they are so poignant and impactful. I stated it before already, but Dulin truly is a masterful storyteller!
So, safe to say I am absolutely blown away by this ambitious and promising debut novel. This is the type of story that so perfectly demonstrates why the fantasy genre is such a powerful tool to explore difficult real world issues, while still delivering an exciting and engaging story that can fill you with wonder. And after this brutal ending, I am honestly desperate to see where this story and these characters go next.
I highly recommend No Heart for a Thief if you are looking for an intimate and emotionally-driven fantasy story with a framing narrative, strong found family vibes, intriguing magic and lore, thought-provoking themes, and a whole lot of emotional gut punches. Dulin is without a doubt an author to watch!