Tag Archives: The Magic Thief

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Magic Thief’

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?

Image: bellaonbooks.wordpress.com

Image: bellaonbooks.wordpress.com

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 Image: sarah-prineas.com Artist: Antonio Javier Caparo

An illustration typical of the book, showing Nevery’s diary, Conn, Nevery and Benet on a backdrop of the map of Wellmet
Image: sarah-prineas.com
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) Image: fr.levoleurdemagie.wikia.com

A locus magicalicus… don’t touch it!
(Artist: Antonio Javier Caparo)
Image: fr.levoleurdemagie.wikia.com

A Golden Age?

Here’s a question. Do you think children’s books these days are better than they used to be?

Image: allsorts.typepad.com

Image: allsorts.typepad.com

Recently, I was looking through one of my bookshelves, just browsing – as you do – through some reading memories. I came upon a book I owned as an eleven-year-old, and I remembered loving it passionately, thinking of it for a long time as one of my favourite books. It’s an Irish book – Irish author, Irish publisher – and uses Irish mythology as the basis for its plot. It reimagines the story of the fairy woman Niamh Cinn-Óir (Niamh of the Golden Hair), and her human husband Oisín, whom she takes away to Tír Na n-Óg, the Land of Youth. It has beautiful illustrations, and an amazingly designed cover, and the sight of it brought back a lot of good memories. Best of all, the author of the book is still writing – he has published a prodigious amount of stories for children over the course of the last twenty or thirty years, most recently a fantastically imagined series about witchcraft and alchemy which I really enjoy – and so I grabbed it up and immediately started re-reading it, perhaps in an attempt to relive some of my childhood love for it.

Except – well. It wasn’t as good, not nearly as good, as I remembered.

Niamh and Oisin on horseback. This is not an illustration from the book in question - just in case! Image: celticanamcara.blogspot.com

Niamh and Oisin on horseback. This is not an illustration from the book in question – just in case!
Image: celticanamcara.blogspot.com

I do realise that many years have passed and lots of water has flowed under the bridge of my youth, and all that – but I’m the sort of person for whom that sort of thing doesn’t matter. I love children’s books, and I’d like to think I always will, even when my eyesight’s failing so badly that I need to get the Large Print editions of my favourite stories. I loved this story as a little girl, and I could see why – it had all the things I adored at the time, and which I’m still partial to now. Mythology, love, adventure, horses, monsters, and a brave little boy who faces his fears. So why didn’t I love it any more?

It was because of how the book was written, I think.

Reading this book reminded me of the stereotypical ‘bad’ essay: ‘And then this happened, and then that happened, and then, and then, and then…’ – it was, pretty much, a list of things happening, without any tension or subplots or dynamism. There was no characterisation – the brave little boy was brave at the beginning of the story, and he was brave at the end. Niamh and Oisín were unchanging throughout. Oisín, at one point, takes his leave of Niamh and she fears she’ll never see him again, but there is no emotion in their goodbye. I wasn’t expecting a lingering kissing scene, or anything of that ilk, but something would have been good. Children’s books are emotional, and one of the most significant things in a child’s life is learning about what it means to say goodbye – so this emotionless, businesslike farewell was puzzling to me. There is an encounter with a terrifying monster near the end of the book – or, at least, a monster who would be terrifying, if the author had allowed any sort of tension to creep into the story. The whole thing is told like a medieval chronicle. It’s essentially a list of things, a shopping list of children’s fantasy literature essentials all piled into one book.

I’m not trying to say that the person who wrote this book is not talented – his list of writing accomplishments is mighty, and I admire him very much for what he has brought to children’s literature – but what I mean is, perhaps the requirements for a good, gripping children’s book have changed radically since the days in which this one was published. What made a magical children’s story then seems to have morphed into a different beast, these days.

I’m reading a children’s book at the moment, Sarah Prineas’ ‘The Magic Thief.’ I adore her use of dialogue, her creation of interesting and three-dimensional characters, and the ways in which things like letters between the players in the story are interspersed with the narrative to create all the things I love in a book – intrigue, suspense, and interest.

Image: bellaonbooks.wordpress.com

Image: bellaonbooks.wordpress.com

I am not yet finished the book, but I’m hopeful that these things will be maintained throughout, and that I’ll be left breathless with admiration and thirsty for more by the end of the story. Importantly, I feel that ‘The Magic Thief’ is the sort of book I’ll come back to in five, ten, twenty years’ time and still enjoy, much the same way as I still enjoy the books of Alan Garner, which I first read when I was eight years old. Those stories have the same power over my mind now as they did when I was a mere slip of a girl. However, a lot of the books I loved as a kid have slipped beneath the murk of memory, at this stage. I have a feeling a lot of them were written like this story of Niamh and her Oisín – paint-by-numbers type tales which don’t weave the same sort of spell over a reader once childhood is over.

‘The Magic Thief’ is a good book, not just a good children’s book. I have also been lucky enough to read another good children’s book in recent weeks, which I’ll be reviewing next Saturday. Rich, and detailed, and complex, and interesting, these books couldn’t be more different from my childhood favourite. I hesitate to say that the simplicity inherent in the story of Niamh and Oisín was common to all books of that time, because of course one cannot draw a conclusion like that based on a single example – and, of course, there are good children’s books from generations back which are now deserved classics. But still, I wonder whether children’s books have become better over the past twenty years or so, in terms of the reading challenge they offer to children and the richness and skill of their storytelling. Perhaps it’s that readers have become more demanding, and perhaps it’s also true that there has been an explosion of interest in children’s books, and in publishing for young people, and – as in every walk of life – competition can raise standards.

If so, it’s a great time to be a reader.