I actually read ‘The Magic Thief’ a little while ago, but I’m currently enjoying its sequel so the story-world is on my mind and fresh in my memory. Here, have a look. Isn’t it pretty?
One of the many things I loved about this book (because I’m a tactile creature) is the way it feels. It’s a wonderful shape, slightly more square than an ‘average’ paperback – not that you can tell from the image above – and wonderfully thick. It’s also stuffed full of illustrations, coded messages, letters and diary entries, which sit alongside the text and are as much as part of the story as the words themselves. It’s a beautiful object.
The story introduces us to Connwaer (referred to as Conn), a pick-pocket who lives by his wits in the streets of the city of Wellmet. The city is divided in half – one side is referred to as the Twilight, where Conn lives, and is slightly more down-at-heel than the other side, the Sunrise – and a wide river runs through it, upon which are several small islets. A map is helpfully included at the beginning, which I always love. As far as I understood, the city being referred to as ‘the Twilight’ and ‘the Sunrise’ didn’t have anything to do with their relative levels of darkness and light – they were just names. I did find that a bit confusing, as in I expected the Twilight to be constantly dark and the Sunrise to be constantly bright, but that’s probably just me being silly and over-literal.
In any case, one evening Conn decides to pick the pocket of a deceptively frail-looking old man, and gets far more than he’d bargained for. This old man is Nevery Flinglas, a hugely powerful wizard who has returned (unofficially) from exile in order to figure out why Wellmet’s reserves of magic have been dwindling, and how to fix it. Wellmet runs on magic, and everything – from its power to its economy – relies upon it. So, when Conn picks Nevery’s pocket, he ends up stealing his locus magicalicus, or the stone he uses to focus his magic (also called a ‘locus stone’.) It is akin to a wizard’s soul, perhaps – the core of his power, the most sacred part of his being, and his most treasured possession. More importantly, touching Nevery’s locus magicalicus should have killed Conn.
But it doesn’t.
Intrigued, Nevery takes the boy in, and decides to train him as an apprentice in an attempt to get to the bottom of his mysterious survival. They return to Nevery’s house, Heartsease, which remains in a state of disrepair since his forced departure twenty years before; it has a huge hole blown right through its centre after a botched magical experiment, and has never been repaired. Conn – for the first time in his life warm, and fed, and a focus of interest – decides to stay with Nevery and his manservant Benet, and gradually it becomes clear that he is far more than a ‘mere’ thief. Despite being illiterate and unschooled, he manages to understand, on a very deep level, the spells that Nevery teaches him, and he only needs to hear the words of a spell once before they are imprinted upon his memory. Clearly, Conn is more than he appears to be.
Nevery enrolls him in the Academicos, a school for wizards (and no – it’s nothing like Harry Potter. I was surprised to see so many reviews on Goodreads slam this book for being a ‘Harry Potter ripoff’, simply because it features magic and magical students. Not every book which features magic is a ripoff of Potter. Magic, magical schools and students of magic existed in literature before Potter, and – with any luck – will continue to exist in our post-Potter world. The Academicos is its own thing, and it is not a second-rate version of Hogwarts. Rant over.) Conn isn’t accepted there, to say the least, not only because of his origins but because he doesn’t have his own locus magicalicus. You’re not a real wizard without your own locus stone, it seems, and so he sets off on a quest to find it.
This, of course, won’t be easy.
And, as well as that, there’s the question of Wellmet’s disappearing magic to worry about. Where is it going? What’s happening to it? And – vitally – what will happen to Wellmet when all the magic vanishes?
An illustration typical of the book, showing Nevery’s diary, Conn, Nevery and Benet on a backdrop of the map of Wellmet
Artist: Antonio Javier Caparo
Conn is sure that the received wisdom regarding magic is wrong, and he develops his own ideas about how magic works, and a possible explanation as to what’s happening to it. Of course, because he’s not a hairy-bearded wizard with seventy years’ experience, nobody listens to what he has to say. Despite his obvious talent, Nevery keeps telling him to knuckle down with his apprenticeship and leave the thinking to him, and with his fellow students (and their masters) trying to nobble him at every turn, Conn does the only thing he can: try to solve the mystery on his own.
I really enjoyed this book. I loved Conn, and I enjoyed his relationship with Nevery. I really liked the character of Benet, who – as well as being handy with his fists in a crisis, is also an accomplished knitter and baker – and I liked Rowan, Conn’s only friend in the Academicos. I admired Prineas’ world-building in this book and how things are lightly, but sufficiently, sketched. I thought the writing was good, if very slightly guilty of ‘telling, not showing’ at times, and I was intrigued by Wellmet, its governance and structure, and the nature of magic itself.
In short, highly recommended!
A locus magicalicus… don’t touch it!
(Artist: Antonio Javier Caparo)