Thief’s Covenant is the story of Widdershins, a young woman formerly known as Adrienne Satti, who grew up an orphan on the streets of Davillon, escaped poverty to join the city’s powerful aristocracy in a rags-to-riches story, and then shockingly found herself cast down to the bottom rungs of society again. Now she’s clawed her way back up to the life of a successful thief… and the ghosts of her earlier life, make that lives, come back to call on her..
Ari Marmell, the author of this entertaining YA fantasy novel, goes back and forth between the different stages of the young thief’s life, slowly revealing details until, by the end of the story, you finally have a more or less complete picture of not only Widdershins/Adrienne as a character, but also the balance of power in the city of Davillon.
Pyr made a smart call in putting an overview of the different stages of Adrienne’s life right on the cover of the novel, because the constant switches between Adrienne’s early life and her present activities would otherwise be quite confusing. Every other chapter is subtitled “Six years ago”, “Two years ago” and so on, giving a chronological account of Adrienne’s early life. The other set of alternating chapters, simply subtitled “Now”, describe the present day, in which Adrienne is known as Widdershins, a talented thief in Davillon’s underground crime syndicate. The former story line is Adrienne’s past, the latter one is the actual main plot of this particular novel, and as you’d expect they affect each other in a number of ways.
Widdershins is a lovely main character for a YA series: young, bright, witty, independent, competent and strong. Ari Marmell effectively builds up sympathy for her by showing the challenges of her early life and then leads the reader through the mystery of her current circumstances. Aside from her rags-to-riches-to-rags story, she’s also unique in that she’s the only worshipper of Olgun, a (very) minor deity who invisibly accompanies her everywhere and occasionally can make small changes to reality to help her out of a bind. There’s lots of wordless telepathic communication between Olgun and Widdershins, which is maybe a bit over-done early on in the novel (there are only so many ways you can express a telepathic grin or shrug before it starts to get a bit annoying) but also gives the fiercely independent Widdershins a welcome side-kick. I can imagine that, for a YA reader, Widdershins would be an amazing character, easy to identify with and fun to read about.
Ari Marmell’s prose is another big reason why Thief’s Covenant is a success. The descriptions and dialogues are frequently witty in an understated, subtle way. I didn’t laugh out loud, but I grinned several times at a phrase or expression. Even though it has a few moments that are quite dark and violent, for the most part it’s light fare that still doesn’t talk down to its target audience. It’s simply a fun, entertaining novel to read.
The main issue with the novel, at least for an adult reader who is familiar with the fantasy genre, is its recognizability. The French-themed “flintlock fantasy” world doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The internal conflicts in the thieves’ guild have been done before. The concept of gods feeding on belief is familiar too. Even the cast of side characters, from the sympathetic innkeeper/best friend to the kind older nobleman who takes the young Adrienne under his wing, feel like they wandered into this novel from other stories. Thief’s Covenant is an entertaining story with a fun protagonist, but it occasionally feels like something that’s been cobbled together from previously used ingredients.
Still, that’s an argument from an experienced fantasy reader, and it just so happens that this is a YA novel. For adult readers, it’s easy to poke holes in Thief’s Convenant. Sure, it’s not very original. Sure, it’s on the light side. Still, this is exactly the kind of novel I would have loved as a YA reader. Loved. It’s immeasurably better than some of the ghastly media tie-in fiction I ended up reading as a bridge between children’s books and fantasy for adults. This is the kind of book that would have had the 14 year old me badgering bookstore owners, trying to find out when the next Widdershins Adventure is due. (June 2012, by the way.)
So, sure, poke holes in it all you want, but also put yourself in the shoes of its target audience and tell me: wouldn’t you have had a blast with Thief’s Covenant? Hell, I’m well past this novel’s target age, and I still enjoyed it. Note to self: check out Ari Marmell’s non-YA novels ASAP.
Despite the problems I had with it, I had a blast with Marmell’s The Goblin Corps.
I really thought it was solid and think there’s a lot going for it. The humor didn’t always click for me, but it was fun.
Nice review Stefan, good analysis of the character. I’ve had my eye on this one for a while, it keeps climbing Mount Toberead.