The Thief’s Gamble: Unpolished potential

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Juliet McKenna Tale of Einarinn The Thief's GambleThe Thief’s Gamble by Juliet McKenna

The Thief’s Gamble is a difficult book to review. The difficulty arises primarily from the same thing that my lukewarm 3-star rating does: the uneven, jam-packed narrative and the periodic confusion that it caused. The narrative is really three-fold: (1) the main story, as seen through the eyes of Livak, a tough, lucky female thief who stumbles into a quest for artifacts that may somehow be linked to a lost race and new kind of magic; (2) near-simultaneous events occurring elsewhere, told from a third-person viewpoint but focusing on an irritating, pompous minor wizard, Casuel; and (3) excerpts from treatises in the fantasy world that are supposed to provide key information to understanding things that will soon happen. The problem, in a nutshell, was that there were just too many things — a pantheon/religious system that is only explained piecemeal; systems of magic explained sometimes in too much or too little detail for comprehension; scenes where you can’t tell how many wizards are talking in a room or exactly which villain is which in a combat; etc.

To the McKenna’s credit, Livak is an engaging protagonist, and her narrative (often filled with clever details of thieving) is usually fun to read. Just when things tend to get moving, though, the next chapter begins with a dense passage from a treatise or, worse, whatever Casuel is doing — and the frustrating thing (having read it through now) is that he really is only a bit player in the story! Why so much of the story focuses on him (an unlikeable character) is a mystery to me, as is using “stuff the chicken” repeatedly as a synonym for sex and having the wizard Livak accompanies declare his homosexuality (apparently for no other reason than to make it a “modern” fantasy) when to keep him straight might have actually done more for inter-character tensions and connections. (And the name for the main villain is “The Iceman”…)

One bright note is that Juliet McKenna’s writing does seem to improve in both substance and style as The Thief’s Gamble progresses (although the final battle scene is still a mess). I don’t know whether the next books in the series benefit from tighter, cleaner plotting and description, but on the strength of The Thief’s Gamble, I’d recommend Robin Hobb‘s Liveship Traders series if you’re looking for a strong, vibrant female protagonist (and fascinating story). A library loan or used book buy at best.


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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

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One comment

  1. I’m a big fan of McKenna’s novels though I agree with some points of your review.
    It’s true that it’s packed with information. On the other hand, McKenna builds from the first volume a very rich universe and though it may be too much at times, it is rewarding in the long term as the reader progresses in her four series set in this world. But, honestly, I think it’s not worse than many first volumes in fantasy series that try to have some scope.
    I also agree with you that The Thief’s Gamble is awkward in places, but it’s one of her first published novels and it certainly improves over the series.
    Nonetheless, to me it has some real high points, one of which is that the heroes of this story would be the background characters of many others and it makes for a refreshing change that the characters aren’t the usual prince in exile or whichever orphan with mysterious destiny.
    Where I would also respectfully disagree with you is that The Liveship Traders has completely different themes (and also its own faults… The sea serpents subplot, oh dear…) and intents. Comparing Livak to Althea seems to me a bit awkward as they are completely different characters, with different situations and different goals.
    My opinion is that The Thief’s Gamble is a stepping stone, yes awkward at times, but bringing us towards her other three series which I think to be some real underrated gems in epic and heroic fantasy.
    You can read my own full review here: http://www.themiddleshelf.org/reviews/juliet-mckenna-tales-of-einarinn

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