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Review: No Heart for a Thief by James Lloyd Dulin

Nathan’s review of No Heart for a Thief by James Lloyd Dulin

This was a stunning debut from a new fantasy author. I absolutely tore through this book in about two days; I couldn’t put it down!

While reading, I could only think that this book was the perfect blending of Robin Hobb’s Fitz trilogies, Avatar: the Last Airbender, and the The Name of the Wind. Since I love each of these things individually, getting a good blend of them was a total joy to read.

Well, I guess I am using the word “joy” in a very metaphorical way here. This is not a happy book at all. The main characters in the book, Kaylo and Tayen, are both members of societies who were conquered and oppressed by an evil, colonizing empire. Early on (so this isn’t really a spoiler) we learn that both of them have lost pretty much everything at the hands of the empire. Both of their quests for vengeance and new meaning in this dark and war-ridden world fuel most of the narrative and character work throughout the book. Kaylo and Tayen, in their quest for survival, are often pushed to their moral limits. I really liked the choices that Dulin pushed onto his characters. Kaylo and Tayen don’t just get to stumble into easy solutions just because they are the main characters, and they will definitely do things that you as the reader may not agree with! Please check the content warnings for the book; the author has a list on his website.

The book is divided along two main timelines. The present timeline is told mostly through the POV of a young woman named Tayen who loses her entire family when the evil empire attacks her village. While on the run, she stumbles into a man named Kaylo, who takes her in. The other timeline is told exclusively through Kaylo’s first-person narration in which he tells Tayen his own tragic story that led him up to this point. The “past” timeline of Kaylo’s narrative makes up a bulk (I would say over 2/3) of the book, while the present line Taylen storyline takes up the rest. Both storylines are equally compelling, and I never felt like I was waiting to just get to one or the other. Dulin injects his book with such interesting people and plot that both storylines kept me entirely engaged throughout the book.

Dulin fills his world with peoples and nations without it every feeling overwhelming for the reader. Dulin’s use of worldbuilding is impressive (for any author, not just a debut one). Outside of a few key moments, Dulin avoids lengthy and awkward info dumps, instead allowing the world to unfurl for the reader naturally. However, at no time did I feel like I was confused or trying to play catch up. Dulin has found the perfect balance of introducing new concepts, peoples, terms, and magic systems. And if you ever are confused, there is a glossary in the back of the book (as I was reading on Kindle I didn’t realize this until I was finished, but I never felt like I was missing it).

There are two particularly great elements of Dulin’s world. The first is the magic system. I don’t want to get too far into it for spoiler reasons, but some people have the ability to commune with an individual elemental spirits (fire, water, earth, shadow, etc.) which leads to some really cool sequences in the book. Elemental magic is nothing new in the fantasy genre (and I think is having a bit of a renaissance based on what I have read recently), but Dulin makes elemental magic his own. I loved exploring the complexities of the elemental abilities, and there are some really cool developments late in the book that challenge what you think you know about certain parts of the magic! The other great element is the depth of culture each people, nation, etc. that Dulin writes. Throughout the book we meet people from different cultural backgrounds, and they each feel like real, living cultures. Dubin definitely avoids the whole “same people just in different colored clothes” problem that a lot of epic fantasy authors struggle with.

As much as I was engaged by the story, this book’s emphasis is definitely not the plot. When you boil it down, the plot itself is fairly straightforward. There is a large empire whose religious is based on the idea of manifest destiny and bringing “civilization” to their uncivilized neighbors, and Kaylo and Taylen are the victims of this oppressive ideology. I am over-simplifying a bit, but this really isn’t the book for readers looking for a plot heavy read. This is not a criticism of the book; Dulin is definitely more interested in theme and character, and this he does beautifully.

The character work is where Dulin’s skills as an author really shine through. I said this book had elements of Robin Hobb’s Fitz novels above; how Dulin is able to develop Kaylo throughout this book is just as good as how Fitz was developed in the “Assassins” trilogy. We spend a lot of time in Kaylo’s head as he narrates his own story, and through this narration we get a sense of every feeling, every decision. It is not a stretch to say that Kaylo is a broken person, and as the readers we are privy to every crack and fissure. I felt for and understood Kaylo in all of his complexities and internal contradictions. I cannot even tell you how many times I finish reading a book and 20 minutes later everything about it just completely vanishes. Kaylo is such a wonderfully layered character that even two days later (and in that time I have read two novellas and half a novel later) Kaylo has stuck with me. I find myself just contemplating Kaylo, his journey, and his choices. Individual characters rarely stay with me this long, but Kaylo has quickly risen to the top of the ranks of my “Favorite Fantasy Characters” pantheon.

Other characters in the book are also really well developed – this isn’t a one character show! Tayen, whose POV we spend about 30ish% of the book with is also wonderfully layered and complex character. While I was reading I enjoyed comparing the journeys that Kaylo and Tayen had in their lives – how had their similar backgrounds lead to similarities and differences in how they reacted to the world around them? Through his narration, we learn about how Kaylo was shattered by his past, and the long term trauma and scars he carries with him into the “present day” storyline. Tayen, as an adolescent, still has time to grow into the person she will be in adulthood. I cheered when Tayen was able to avoid one of the “traps” Kaylo fell into in his own past, and mourned when she made the same mistakes that Kaylo did. Seeing both of these characters undergo their journeys simultaneously, in which one of their personalities is not yet “set”, was a fascinating character journey for me.

The other character I want to shout out really quickly is Kaylo’s mentor figure, Jonac. Pretty much anything I say specifically without spoilers, but I will just note that Jonac did everything to satisfy my love of the “wise mentor” trope in fantasy while also being a completely original character (and subverting many of the sage mentor tropes in the process). I cannot wait to see what Dulin does with all of the characters (the ones that survive at least…) into the next book.

There were a couple of things that didn’t work perfectly for me as I was reading the book, but they are minor and not too numerous. First, because so much of Kaylo’s confrontation with his past and his magical abilities exist in a dream-like plane of existence, for much of the book there is a rhythm that feels a tad repetitive. Kaylo goes to sleep or is knocked out, he has a dream, he wakes up, he gets attacked the soldiers from the evil empire, he flees, and then repeat. Luckily, Dulin’s character work is so strong that I was never bored. The only other thing that I would have liked more of is the development of the soldiers of the evil empire. While I don’t think we need to “all sides matter” all fantasy stories, I did start to feel that that the enemies started to feel like “red-shirts”. This just slightly diminished the impact of the tough choices the protagonists must make because the enemies are so one-note evil conquerors and colonizers.

While I wanted to point out some of the (very minors) flaws in the book, these are things that I think will easily be solved in future volumes of this planned trilogy. The ending of this first book already started fixing the second issue (there are some actually great named and developed antagonists by the end), and I think now that we are through the growing pains of a new trilogy that the plot will continue to develop in some really diverse and exciting ways.

Concluding Thoughts: A stunning fantasy debut with deep and complex characters, and an exciting twist on elemental magic. I was wowed by this book and am eagerly awaiting the sequel.

 

Thank you for reading my review of No Heart for a Thief!

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