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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thieftaker - D.B. Jackson

Prior to reading D.B. Jackson's (aka: David B. Coe) most recent novel, my only exposure to the idea of a thieftaker, or a private individual hired to capture criminals, was Julian Sandar from Robert Jordan's iconic Wheel of Time. Interestingly, my only experience with pre-Revolution America in genre fiction also came by way of Robert Jordan in his Fallon Blood series written under the pseudonym Reagan O'Neal. Jackson's Thieftaker lifts both limitations, deftly blending historical fiction and urban fantasy to create a who-dun-it dressed up with tricorn hats and blood magic.

Set in 1765 in Boston, Massachusetts, during The Stamp Act riots, Thieftaker follows the exploits of Ethan Kaille, Jackson's protagonist and only point of view character. Making his living finding stolen goods, Ethan is also a speller, capable of turning organic material into magical energy. When he's asked to recover a necklace worn by the murdered daughter of a prominent royalist, he finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to upset the delicate balance between Britain and her colonies.

As that summation suggest, Ethan is the narrative impetus, and the vehicle that Jackson uses to snare the reader. His history, power, and moral center held my interest despite a standard crime fiction plot structure that won't overwhelm anyone with its inventiveness. In particular, it's Ethan's back story and how conjurers interact in a world that reviles their existence which gives Thieftaker its unique flavor.
There were perhaps thirty other active conjurers in Boston. No doubt there were far more than that who had conjurers' blood in their veins, but many of his kind did all they could to avoid notice. People were still burned and hanged as witches throughout New England; fear of discovery ran deep among conjurers, and those who didn't have access to power tended to shun those who did.
It's a flavor that tickled my taste buds to the degree that I finished the novel in a single sitting. Jackson does a tremendous job at closing chapters in a way that satisfies, but also demands turning the page to the next. It's a skill I most closely associate with George R.R. Martin's work, and while Jackson's novel has little in common with Martin's, there is some similarity in the inability to put it down.

If there's any disappointment on my end it stems from two sources. The first is a fairly contrived ending that follows the patterns set down over scores of crime thrillers (i.e. - "Well hero, since you can't possibly escape my clutches, let me reveal my entire plan to you!") . Even then it's well executed, leaving my only other complaint to be Jackson's lack of exploration into the ethics of the Revolution.

Given the time period, and the frequent appearance of historical characters on either side of the debate, I felt Jackson gave Ethan a free pass, allowing him to wrestle with his tenuous position between the two factions, and occasionally reflecting on his own personal views, without ever reflecting on the credibility of either argument. That's not say the issue is ignored, just that Ethan is never forced to act on his beliefs as they relate to politics. It leads me to believe that future novels in the series will more firmly enmesh themselves in America's move toward independence. Or at least I sincerely hope they do.

These negatives are more a reflection of my own expectations and shouldn't necessarily be read as a criticism of the novel, which, while not exceptional in any particular way, is done with such deftness that the sum is greater than the parts. The writing is strong, but not so much that it will call attention to itself, nor is the plot so densely woven that it constantly surprises the reader. Rather D.B. Jackson has struck several different notes and struck them all well, combining just the right amount of historical veracity and magical alteration. I highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction, crime thrillers, urban fantasy, and anyone else looking for a great way to spend a weekend. Thieftaker is just a fantastically fun novel.

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At June 29, 2012 at 6:48 AM , Blogger Jordan said...

Thanks for the review--sounds like one to pick up. Also, can you list a few fantasies that you'd recommend--besides GRRM, Abercrombie, Lynch, or Sanderson (already read all of them)? Fantasy is becoming a difficult genre to read for me. Need some new settings and stories. Thieftaker sounds like one of those.

At June 29, 2012 at 6:59 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Hey Jordan,

Check out my "If you liked" posts from the tags on the right side of the blog. I actually recommend a few things in there, specifically for fans of GRRM and Lynch.

But, generally speaking Peter V. Brett's Demon Cycle, David Anthony Durham's Acacia Trilogy, and Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin series would be three places to start.

At June 29, 2012 at 10:01 AM , Blogger Justin B. said...

I just posted a fairly interesting interview with the author this morning on my own blog ( Anyways, I completely agree with your final assessment of the book being a "very fun novel." Its certainly one of the more exciting fantasy books I've read, after reading so many that can best be described as ponderous.

Anyways, this was a very well-written review that has ample amounts of both praise and criticism.

At July 2, 2012 at 11:39 AM , Blogger RobB said...

Very fair and appreciative review, Justin. Not every book we read needs to be (or should be) the second coming and something like this one which seemed a comfort read for you is EXACTLY what our reading sensibilities needs.

Have you read his epic fantasy under the David B. Coe by line? I've seen good things about those, too.

At July 3, 2012 at 9:28 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Julian was a thiefcatcher, never a thieftaker.


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