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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Den of Thieves - David Chandler

Far superior U.K. cover.
If zombies and vampires are the flavor du jour in urban fantasy, then thieves and assassins are their mirror image in high fantasy.  I suspect it all started with the massive success of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora in 2006.  Since then the genre has seen The Night Angel Trilogy, Shadow's Son/Lure, The Riyria Revelations, Farlander, Among Thieves, and Mistborn, to name a few off the top of my head.  Sure the thief/assassin sub genre owes fealty to the progenitors - Fritz Leiber, Steven Brust, and Robin Hobb - but I suspect today's out pouring has more to due with Lynch's success and publishers eagerness to fill a demand.  So of course it came as no surprise to me when Voyager announced The Ancient Blades Trilogy by David Chandler would be released over three months starting with A Den of Thieves.

In the Free City of Ness, Malden became a thief by necessity.  Under the thumb of Cutbill, lord of the underworld, he gets pulled into a plot to steal the coronet of the Burgrave on the promise of freedom.  Joined by his not-so hand picked crew of conspirators, Malden must execute his heist flawlessly or the whole city will pay the consequences.

I initially thought Den was Chandler's debut novel.  As it turns out he's written several published novels under the name David Wellington although this is his first under the HarperCollins umbrella.  While Chandler writes a good sentence and has a knack for description, the novel's depth and pacing are something I would normally expect from a debut author.  As my "blurb" indicates, the plot itself is relatively simple and there's not much going on outside of Malden's heist.  I'll never complain about a simple straight forward plot if it's well paced and filled with interesting characters.  Unfortunately, Den does not consistently meet those standards.

At 400 pages, the novel is about 100 pages too long for the plot it contains.  Lengthy descriptions and scenes that don't really provide any growth for the plot or the characters weigh down the early going making it difficult to get immersed.  I've always felt that heist novels revolve around planning and executing the heist laying the foundation for everything else around it.  Chandler neglects to build this foundation until two-thirds of the novel is gone.  That said, once Malden and his crew get into it the pace really picks up and Den captures the fun associated with a good caper.  

The characters themselves are a mixed bunch with most of them feeling flat with the except of Sir Croy, the dim-witted knight in possession of a magic demon killing blade and Bikker, a brother in arms to Croy turned mercenary.  Their history and layered motivations provided subtext that the others lacked.  Croy in particular lacking common sense and sense of self preservation provides a great foil for the bland bunch around him.  Given that the title of the trilogy is Ancient Blades I found it strange that Malden was such a prevalent character considering he never actually has a blade.  I suspect this will become clearer in future novels.

In one of the more fun parts of the novel, Chandler embraces elves and dwarves which are so overrated, they've become underrated.  So much of today's high fantasy totally rejects the notion of the elf and dwarf of Tolkein (and/or D&D).  In fact, they've become so rare (relatively speaking) that when I see them it's a little nostalgic.  Quite a few dwarves are running around smithing this and that, elves are hinted, and even an ogre is dropped in toward the end.  Equally nostalgic is his magic system - or lack of - which relies on components, pentagrams, incantations, and hand motions.

U.S. cover, really??
Clearly, Chandler isn't reinventing the wheel and that's a little charming.  The novel has its flaws, and I can't really recommend it, but I also can't totally denounce it.  I very much enjoyed the novel's second half and Chandler is a fine writer if not the best "plotter".  For someone looking for a fun read, with the patience to wade through the early parts, Den of Thieves is a nice fit.

Side notes:
  • The novel is a complete arc and stands entirely on its own.  For a book that's going to have a sequel (A Thief in the Night) on the market in less than a months time, there isn't really a plot element that Chandler left dangling (not necessarily a bad thing).
  • Awful awful U.S. Cover.  Much better in the U.K.

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