Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice is a fairly good book, but it’s distinctly lacking in sympathetic or likeable characters. As a result, it’s hard to picture what audience the novel will find, and many readers may not bother to look for the next in the series. There is no indication of how many books are planned, but there are enough loose ends in the plot to fuel several.
Berren is a thief, and has been for most of his life. Early on the orphanage sold him to the thief who is his master; he lives a particularly squalid version of Oliver Twist’s life, with his master, Hatchet, brutally controlling a gang of young boys through violence, starvation, and lack of choice. One day Berren goes to watch an execution of three thieves; blood thirsty like many young boys, he thinks this would be fine entertainment, as well as a chance to pick a few pockets. But Berren makes a mistake; he sees the purse of gold the thief-taker is given as a reward for capturing the (soon executed) thieves. Berren wants that purse and follows the thief-taker with intent to take it.
Things don’t go exactly as planned, and Berren soon finds himself more or less forced into apprenticeship with the thief-taker. By most people’s standards this is a better life than the one he’s been dragged from, but Berren isn’t sure he agrees. His master is mysterious, and Berren doesn’t understand much of the intrigue that underlies their work. But he knows this might be his best chance to be Someone Important. And at least he gets fed more regularly.
There’s quite a lot about this novel that isn’t all that original, but Deas infuses it with enough life that it doesn’t matter too much. There’s a decently interesting plot, and plenty of hints that there is more to find out about the thief-taker and his past. This novel comes to a satisfactory enough conclusion in that it addresses a number of the main issues raised in the plot; however, there isn’t a sense of completeness in that one very obvious thread is left hanging to carry into the next novel. In addition, several other issues are raised or hinted at, and it’s clear Deas hopes this series will span several books.
This is, nominally, a young adult novel. Although there is quite a bit of violence in the novel, Deas doesn’t dwell much on the gore. Similarly, sex comes up in a fairly blunt fashion, but he avoids too much explicitness. The novel feels real and honest in these regards, while still avoiding a level of detail that could overwhelm some young readers.
Berren is the viewpoint character, and as such it seems readers should be able to sympathise with him. Unfortunately, it was very hard to do this. Berren isn’t stupid, but nor does he seem all that bright. And he’s very ignorant about the world. He’s rather violent, dishonest, interested mainly in himself, and lacking even minimal manners. He didn’t seem to have a lot of personal charm and doesn’t show much ability to make friends. All of these things are fully understandable given the life he’s led, but they don’t make him likeable. He wasn’t someone I wanted to spend time with.
The thief-taker, Syannis, is the other primary character. He doesn’t fare much better. He’s something of a cliché, the harsh master who actually cares for his apprentice but doesn’t say so or show it explicitly. He also has a mysterious past which is hinted at for much of the book, and although some information is provided late in the book, there’s obviously much detail still to come. Again, it was hard to find him sympathetic. He’s intelligent, and more worldly than Berren, and generally better at putting on a good face. But we see him largely through Berren’s eyes, and Berren doesn’t understand him, which makes him somewhat opaque to the reader as well. And there’s no arguing that he’s violent, nasty, bitter, and often bad-tempered.
Minor characters also fail to come to life. To some extent this may be a result of Berren’s difficulty in building relationships, so that there’s a lack of understanding of everyone he meets. But Deas doesn’t give any of them much real spark, and I really didn’t care much about any of them.
The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice is that awkward thing, a novel that has no really major flaws but which simply didn’t catch my interest much. I think a lot of that was down to the unsympathetic characters. I suspect younger readers will find it hard to get interested in the novel without a more sympathetic character, and older readers will find that this combines with a lack of originality to make the novel fairly ordinary. This is a well enough written novel, and it wasn’t hard to finish it. It was, however, very hard to care much about it.