“Sometimes theft can be as simple and direct as a fist in an unsuspecting face, and sometimes it can be as complex as a military operation.”
My July TBR included some of the books who were annual champions in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO). “The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids”, Book #1 in “Amra Thetys”, is one such novel.
At less than two hundred pages, this was a little book that could, taking out other typical fantasy behemoth-sized contenders to snag the title in the inaugural SPFBO, year 2015. After reading it, I can see why it fared so well in the contest.
Taking place in a grim, bleak, and dangerous urban setting called Lucernis, in a populated northern continent of McClung’s imaginary world, the story of “The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids” unfolds.
The guts of the plot is rather straightforward, and may sound familiar. Thief is down on their luck, and does not have the most savoury of friends. Thief’s rakish, charming fellow miscreant friend and occasional business partner, is mixed up with bad people who owe him.
Charming reprobate friend asks thief to hold onto friend’s dog, because friend is going to meet with the bad people who owe him, and is not entirely optimistic that he will survive the meeting. Coincidentally, friend also wants thief to stash an artifact for him, that it likely not worth all the trouble it will undoubtedly bring the thief’s way. Against better judgement and because she’s got a soft spot for reprobate, thief agrees to keep both mutt and merchandise. Friend says if he does not return in a day or so, that he’s likely been murdered. Sure enough, this is exactly what happens.
Thief is intially pegged for the murder, but with the assistance and intervention of the victim’s brother, a powerful but cynical mage who is a regular ally of the thief, and some other interesting characters who are not necessarily very moral, upright, or upstanding citizens, thief manages to begin the search for the real killer, determined to avenge her slain charming reprobate friend.
It all starts with the characters for me, and McClung shines here. The thief, Amra, is definitely shaded in grey, but tough, determined, resourceful, snarky, and ultimately a loyal and dedicated friend. She exhibits a lot of integrity, and a refusal to give up, or give in, and bow down to superior forces. She’s at the bottom of society, but refuses to act completely like someone who is downtrodden. She’s caring and empathetic, willing to be vulnerable, and the reader will find herself rooting for her. What I also loved is that her inner beauty surpasses her outer beauty, and she feels very real and fleshed out.
Holgren is also an awesome character. His appearance is innocuous, but he is completely bad-ass, and with a ready quip, a handy spell, or gob-smacking display of power, he’s a great sidekick for Amra. He’s obviously very intelligent, and he believes in Amra. His trust inspires the reader to believe in her too.
The murder mystery element is very well done, with plenty of guts, gore, and thrilling fight sequences. There’s also plenty of wit and sarcasm, which is also fantastic, with plenty of out-loud chuckle inducing moments. Amid the frivolity interspersed with the stabby moments, mysterious and malevolent soft magic mingles in nicely with the action.
There are capricious and callous gods (love this element), haunted blades, bloodwitches, monsters,
daemonists, mages, and a surprisingly detailed backstory, religions, and worldbuilding for such a short book (overview, history, explanation of the various ages noted at the rear of the novel).
Themes of loss, friendship, betrayal, jealousy, greed, poverty, desperation, and yet hope can be found in the book. Lucernis is a place where the vast majority of the populace exist, rather than thrive. There is plenty of economic disparity, crime, and preying on the less-fortunate. People do what they can to survive, and Amra is no different. But she does not succumb to despair, nor completely give into her worst impulses.
This book was headed towards a solid four-star read for me, until the last 30 pages. Something in McClung’s smooth and accessible prose, and where he took some of the themes at that juncture of the book, completely raised the bar, touched my soul, and elevated this book to something very special.
“A tool that cannot be reliably taken in hand, fit for no useful purpose: Was it even a tool, in any rational sense of the word?…’A workman relies on his tool to do the job at hand. His skill, his hand, guides the tool. A tool that turns in his hand should be discarded.’…’But no responsible craftsman would leave a dangerous tool lying around for any fool to pick up. Even swords, meant only for killing, come with scabbards.'”
“The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids” is a dark, fast-paced, and yet very rich and complete-feeling story, that seems very self-contained, while leaving plenty of room for interesting sequels.
4.75 stars for this excellent book, no doubt worthy of the first SPFBO championship.